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New Pope's Selection Of 'Francis' Name Surprises Some


More now on the direction of the Catholic Church under the new Pope Francis. I'm joined here in the studio by theology professor Chad Pecknold of the Catholic University of America. Thanks for coming in.

CHAD PECKNOLD: Thanks for having me, Melissa.

BLOCK: You know, when we were listening to this announcement and the name Pope Francis came forth, you said wow. You read a lot into just that choice. He is Pope Francis I. Talk a bit more about the symbolism of that.

PECKNOLD: It's extraordinary. I didn't expect the next pope to be a Pope Francis, especially if it was going to be a Franciscan Pope, because there's so much humility attached with the Franciscan Order to choose the master of the order.

BLOCK: He is not a Franciscan, I should clarify.

PECKNOLD: And to have a Jesuit choose the name is so perfect and fitting because the Jesuit can stress precisely the charism(ph) of Francis as the people's pope, I think, a pope who cares about the poor, who wants to have solidarity with the people of the world. And you saw that in the way he opened up and asked for the prayers of the people and he spent a good 20 or 30 seconds in silence waiting for the prayers of the people.

And that receptivity to the world, I think, is going to be an important mark of his papacy.

BLOCK: Sylvia Poggioli was just talking about the themes of social justice that this choice may speak to, and I was struck by something that then-Cardinal Bergoglio had said, that in Latin America, he said, we live in the most unequal part of the world. The unjust distribution of goods, he says, creates a situation of social sin. Where do you think he takes that within the church?

PECKNOLD: Well, it's interesting. I think he's perfectly poised to connect the project of the new evangelization with issues of economic justice in Catholic social teaching. I think, in a way, his papacy might hearken back to Leo XIII's teachings in Rerum Novarum, in which the rights of the worker were considered against capitalist abuses.

And I think we see this enormous abyss between the rich and the poor, not only in this country, but all around the world. And this is going to be a pope who puts enormous social pressure on the world to consider economic injustice and to address those problems.

BLOCK: Worth noting that Pope Francis is 76 years old. He's among the older cardinals at the conclave and you might have thought that given what happened with Pope Benedict and his retirement because of the toll of age that the cardinals might have chosen someone younger. They didn't. What does that say?

PECKNOLD: I think it says that they want a wise pope, a pope who is not only seasoned in his work as a cardinal but who has taken up the mind of the church through his long years of service. They also don't want a pope who is going to serve for 20 or 30 years. I think a long papacy sometimes is not great for the church and I think Pope Benedict stressed that in his renunciation of the office. And I think we'll see in Pope Francis a papacy which is very engaged and very interesting but it won't be a long papacy.

BLOCK: And when you think about the most important challenges that the Catholic Church is facing right now with the selection of a Pope from Argentina, where do you see him shaping those challenges going forward?

PECKNOLD: Well, I think it's interesting that we do have the first pope of the Americas and especially one from the global south, where the church is growing by leaps and bounds. And I think the selection of Pope Francis is, I think, leading the church at the cutting edge of the next generation. Where is the church moving? And it is moving throughout the global south in ways that we have not predicted.

And it's surprising to us. I think there'll be a time in the near future when Catholics from the global south are evangelizing us Catholics from the global north.

BLOCK: Thanks so much for coming in.

PECKNOLD: My pleasure.

BLOCK: Chad Pecknold is assistant professor of Theology at the Catholic University of America. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.