“Reflections on the Election of the First Pope in Modern History from the Global South” by Wesley Granberg-Michaelson

Unexpected Destinations

Wesley Granberg-Michaelson served for 17 years as General Secretary of the Reformed Church in America and continues to play an active role in ecumenical organizations. He is author of Unexpected Destinations: An Evangelical Pilgrimage to World  Christianity and the new book From Times Square to Timbuktu: The Post-Christian West Meets the Non-Western Church (forthcoming from Eerdmans this summer).

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When 115 Cardinals emerged from the Sistine Chapel last week, their unexpected choice of Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio demonstrated their recognition of the unfolding, dramatic pilgrimage of world Christianity.

The demographic center of Christian faith has moved decisively to the global South. Over the past century, this astonishing shift in the presence of the globe’s Christian population represents the most dramatic geographical change that has taken place in 2000 years of the church’s history.

Trends in the Catholic Church, to which about 1 out of 2 Christians in the world belong, have generally followed this global pattern:

  • In 1900, about 2 million of the world’s Catholic faithful lived in Africa; by 2010, this number had grown to 177 million.
  • 11 million Catholics were found in Asia in 1900; by 2010 there were 137 million Asian Catholics.
  • Through colonial expansion, 59 million Catholics populated Latin America and the Caribbean in 1900; by 2010, that number had grown to 483 million, fully 40% of the world’s Catholics.
  • In 1900, two-thirds of the world’s Catholic believers were in Europe and North America; today, two-thirds are in Latin America, Africa, and Asia.

Yet this dramatic shift of world Christianity’s population to the global South, for both Catholics and Protestants, has not been accompanied by any commensurate relocations of its centers of administrative power, influence, and authority.  These remain embedded in regions where Christianity’s influence has been consistently diminishing.  In addition to the Vatican in Rome, ecumenical organizations like the World Council of Churches remain tethered to Geneva, and the World Evangelical Alliance is headquartered in New York. The World Communion of Reformed Churches has recently announced its move out of Geneva, the fifth most expensive city in the world for expatriates. But it’s not moving to Korea, Ghana, or South Africa, despite their thriving populations of Reformed Christians. It’s going to Hanover, Germany.

From Times Square to Timbuktu
From Times Square to Timbuktu

Even so, this single act — namely, the election of a Pope from the global South — by the College of Cardinals has created a dramatic, symbolic, and yet powerful change in this present dissonant reality.

For the first time in modern history, the face of half the world’s Christians now reflects a region other than Europe. It’s a sign that the Catholic Church is trying to look towards its future, and that of all world Christianity.

Further, there is now good reason to hope that Pope Francis can begin to redress the present imbalance of geographic power within the Vatican itself. Changing the overall composition of the College of Cardinals to reflect more genuinely the present and future demographic realities of their Church will take decades. But now, by placing ultimate authority in a pope from the global South rather than the European North, this dynamic of power can begin to be altered.

Additionally, the election of Pope Francis already has provided a powerful affirmation for Catholics from those regions who feel that they have always been on the margins of the Church’s structures of authority and power. With Europeans sitting in the papal throne since the year 741,  and with European Cardinals today comprising over half of the College of Cardinals, it’s no wonder that the rising numbers of Catholics in Asia, Latin America, and Africa feel marginalized from power. They are. But when the words “Habemus Papam” (“We have a Pope!”) were announced, and an archbishop from Argentina, who had never worked in the Vatican, emerged, a surge of unexpected joy swept across the church, and particularly among the two-thirds of Catholics living in the global South.

Even more importantly, the first words and signs of Pope Francis have demonstrated that he understands and cares strongly about the concerns of Catholics in the global South. His emphasis on the poor and on social justice, echoed in his homily at his installation Mass when he cited Matthew 25 and called for the protection of the most marginalized, resonates with the daily concerns of many of the faithful in these regions. Likewise, his simplicity, his evocation of St. Francis, and his call for creation’s care, while welcomed globally, echo the longings of those whose lives are not defined by the world’s most prosperous societies. And hundreds of millions now identify with the place where he lived, cooked, and commuted as an Archbishop.

I’m a Protestant, so my observations are those of an outsider — a sincere ecumenical friend. But as structures of authority, influence, and power throughout the entire church struggle to respond appropriately to world Christianity’s rapid shift to the global South, the Catholic Church has made a rare, unexpected, and hopeful choice in the election of Pope Francis. For the first time in more than a millennium, a non-European, drawn from among those who are shaping the future face of the church, has been chosen to lead the world’s Catholics, now 1.2 billion strong. This is not an empty gesture. It is a prophetic spiritual gift to the whole Christian community, and beyond. It is also, I believe, not the result of normal church “politics as usual,” but a work of the Spirit.

Click to order Wesley Granberg-Michaelson’s Unexpected Destinations or to preorder From Times Square to Timbuktu: The Post-Christian West Meets the Non-Western Church.