By John Rapley
There have been African Popes, there have been Asian (from the Mideast) Popes, there have been European Popes and there have been so many Italian popes that for a time, one could have been forgiven for thinking some Mafia clan had cornered the papacy.
But for the first time, the Roman Catholic Church has a Pope from the Americas. In electing Argentina's Jorge Mario Bergoglio head of the church, its cardinals apparently tilted their hats to the future.
As the ranks of Catholics thin in the developed countries, they surge in the developing world - especially in Asia and Africa. Many observers had thus tipped the Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson as a possible Pope. However, he apparently took himself out of contention by seeming a little too eager for the job (something against church protocol).
Yet, the selection of Bergoglio is a major nod to the developing world - and, more broadly, to change. To begin with, he broke with a long-standing tradition by selecting a papal name, Francis, which has never been used. He thereby signalled a fresh start in Rome.
Moreover, by naming himself after the revered Saint Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of the poor, the new Pope seemed to suggest he intended to be a people's Pope like never before. He can also be expected to carry a zeal for engaging in the world as the first Pope from the Jesuit order - an order well known in Jamaica for its work among the oppressed.
As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio had turned down the palace for a simple flat, and eschewed the limousine to bus around town. While other cardinals arrived in Rome surrounded by large retinues, he brought just a couple of family and friends. And he told the Argentine faithful that if he was selected Pope, rather than come to Rome to celebrate with him, they should stay home and give the plane fare to the poor.
Conservative on issues of personal morality, like abortion, contraception and gay marriage, but a progressive on matters of social justice and economics, he is in many ways the archetype of a developing-world Catholic. Yet, as the son of Italian immigrants, he also represents a bridge between old and new worlds. Known as a capable administrator, he may have been selected to impose some order on an unruly Roman administration.
It is striking that after a decade of scandals, governance crises, and further erosion in Catholicism's Western heartland, the Vatican can still turn all eyes on itself whenever it goes into conclave. During Benedict's truncated papacy, the sex-abuse scandals, particularly in the United States, caused an already secularising West to turn ever further from the church. Church attendance is dropping in virtually all Western societies. And the 'VatiLeaks' scandal won many observers over to the most cynical views of the church as corrupt, outdated and remote.
Then, quite strikingly, all that cynicism seemed to evaporate for a few days as everyone watched the Vatican chimney for its white smoke. It is as if much of the world still wants to believe that the church will renew itself. The Bloomberg business service fronted its editorial page with a call to the new Pope to stress the centrality of humans in economic relations - as if it were saying, "If you don't do it, who will?"
There may be an element of that. The Roman Catholic Church is just about the only institution with the global reach, not to mention the powers of a state, to make a meaningful impact on world affairs. And in recent decades, it has repeatedly articulated a strong message on behalf of the poor. Pope Francis will continue this tradition. Though no radical - he rejected the blend of Marxism and Catholicism known as liberation theology - he opposes free-market economics for paying insufficient attention to social development.
Already 76, it is unlikely he will have a long tenure. But then, short papacies can be transformative, as was that of John XXIII. The Church of Rome may just have entered a new age.
John Rapley, a political economist at the University of Cambridge, is currently on a visiting professorship at Queen's University in Canada. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.