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A new pope: papal historian Dr Rebecca Rist explains – University of Reading

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A new pope: papal historian Dr Rebecca Rist explains

Release Date 12 March 2013

Dr Rebecca Rist, Senior Lecturer in History, is a specialist in the History of the Papacy. She has appeared in the media, including on Sky News talking about the Pope's resignation, the process of voting in and installing a new Pope and the front runners in the election.   

Here she explains the events and offers a historical context to the very unusual situation...

The first non-European pope for 1,000 years

Dr Rist, University of Reading, said: "The new pope is Jorge Mario Bergoglio, aged 76 and a Jesuit. The fact that Bergoglio is an Argentinian and the former archbishop of Buenos Aires is not unexpected, since Catholicism is traditionally so strong in South America.

"The choice of the name Francis I is very informative. This is a new name for a pope - we have not had a Francis before - and may signal that Bergoglio wants very much to emphasise poverty and reform, particularly since St Francis of Assisi was such a famous preacher, evangeliser and role model in the thirteenth century. There is also St Francis Xavier, the famous Jesuit saint.

"The choice of a Jesuit as pope is also important. The Jesuits were crucial in the sixteenth century in spreading Catholicism throughout the New World. Perhaps given his background Pope Francis will show an equal zeal for evangelism in today's developing world and may place particular emphasis on issues of global poverty.

"Given Pope Francis is closely aligned to his predecessor Benedict XVI on theological lines, Catholics will not expect to see any major changes in terms of the Church's views on life issues. These are extraordinary times - we've had the first Papal resignation for centuries and now the first non-European pope for more than a millennium."

History and significance of bringing the Conclave forward

On 11 February Benedict XVI offered his resignation and stepped down as pope on 28 February. He was keen to ensure there is a new pope by Easter (31 March). Conclave, the meeting bringing the 116 cardinals together to elect a new pope, began on Tuesday 12 March.

Benedict XVI was not directly involved in his successor's selection and is keen to distance himself from any idea of holding power behind the papal throne. Yet he has had indirect influence over his successor because he appointed 67 of the 116 cardinals that have decided to elect Cardinal Bergoglio as the new pope.

Installation of the new pope

Now the new pope has been elected a special mass will be celebrated in the Vatican at which a papal inauguration ceremony will be held. In the medieval period there was also a papal coronation ceremony with the pope being crowned with a papal tiara. The first pope to be crowned in this way was Pope Nicholas II (1058-1061) but since the inauguration of Pope John Paul I this has been dropped.

The modern papal inauguration takes place during the mass, usually in the piazza outside Saint Peter's Basilica and includes the formal bestowal of the pallium, a special woollen scarf which is placed around the shoulders of the pope as a symbol of his universal jurisdiction over the Church. The new pope is also given a special ring called the Ring of the Fisherman which signifies that he is the direct successor of St Peter who was both fisherman and disciple.

Certain senior cardinals who represent the whole College of Cardinals then pay homage to the new pope. After the mass and the ceremony of inauguration the new pope will be met by heads of state and various delegations from all over the world inside St Peter's Basilica and in the following days he will visit the other major basilicas and churches around Rome.


Benedict XVI has retired to an apartment within Vatican City, where he can continue a life of study and prayer away from the gaze of the media. There has been speculation as to whether once a new pope has been elected the fact that Benedict will nevertheless remain in Rome as ‘Pope Emeritus' might cause divided loyalties within the Vatican. Historically there have been times of crisis within the Church when opposing camps within the papal curia have set up a rival to the elected pope known as an ‘anti-pope'. For example, during the twelfth century there were no fewer than four anti-popes during the pontificate of Alexander IIII (1159-1181). However, on this occasion it seems that Benedict's retirement from office might actually to make things easier for his successor. One of the reasons for his decision to retire rather than die in office may be that he wants to avoid the situation of his predecessor John Paul II who suffered from Alzheimer's during his last years in office and therefore could not keep effective control over Vatican politics. Benedict may well have thought that he did not want his successor to have to clear up too much chaos from the previous reign as he had to do with John Paul II.

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