(RNS) With the words “Habemus papam” — we have a pope — Roman Catholics had a new leader, and the wider world had a new ministry to watch.
The direction the new pope takes his flock is of great importance for committed Catholics, but the papacy is also closely watched by other faiths. The pope wields vast influence as the world’s most powerful moral leader and the public face of Christianity.
Pope Francis of Buenos Aires, formerly Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, emerged from the conclave as the first pope from outside Europe in modern times, the first Jesuit, the first from Latin America, and the first named Francis, in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, who dedicated his life to helping the poor.
Leaders of other faiths appeared to embrace the selection cautiously, not unlike some Catholics themselves, offering prayers and congratulations, but also using the opportunity to lay out their own hopes for the new pontiff.
The Orthodox Union lauded Francis for his solidarity with the Argentine Jewish community and expressed hope that the pope “will be an active force in the battle against those who would use religion as a justification for violence and intolerance.”
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said he looks “forward to working with him to continue to foster Catholic-Jewish relations as we have with his predecessors. There is much in his record that reassures us about the future.”
New Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, who will be formally installed just two days after Francis’ official installation on March 19, said he will keep his Catholic counterpart in prayer as the two men take up the most visible Christian leadership roles.
“Pope Francis is well known as a compassionate pastor of real stature who has served the poor in Latin America, and whose simplicity and holiness of life is remarkable,” said Welby, whose position is often considered the unofficial leader of the world’s Protestants.
“He is an evangelist, sharing the love of Christ which he himself knows. His choice of the name Francis suggests that he wants to call us all back to the transformation that St Francis knew and brought to the whole of Europe, fired by contemplation and closeness to God.”
Pawan Deshpande, a member of the Hindu American Foundation Executive Council, congratulated the Catholic Church, but expressed a desire for change from the tenure of the pope emeritus, Benedict XVI. Some Hindus consider the former pope’s reign as a lost opportunity for dialogue.
“As a pluralistic faith, Hindus respect the papacy for its importance to Catholics, and hope that the Church now begins a new era of mutually respecting Dharma religions and other pluralist traditions as divinely inspired paths as well,” Deshpande said in a statement Wednesday (March 13).
The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a leading Muslim civil rights group in Washington, offered its support to the new pontiff, after somewhat difficult relations between the Muslim world and the Vatican during Benedict’s tenure.
“We congratulate Pope Francis on his election by the College of Cardinals and offer the Muslim community’s support and cooperation in every positive effort he will undertake for peace, justice and the betterment of humanity,” executive director Nihad Awad said in a news release.
(Alia E. Dastagir writes for USA Today. Kevin Eckstrom of Religion News Service contributed to this report.)