Pope Francis

Born: Dec. 17, 1936

Birthplace: Buenos Aires, Argentina

Original name: Jorge Mario Bergoglio

Elected pope: March 13, 2013

Pope Francis represents many "firsts" for the papacy: He is the first pope from the Americas; the first member of the Jesuit order to be elected pope; and the first pope to choose Francis — a reference to famously ascetic and spiritually gifted St. Francis of Assisi — as his papal name [source: Donadio]. Before his election to pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio was the archbishop of Buenos Aires, where he earned a reputation as a champion of the poor and spoke out against the liberal social policies of the Argentine government, including the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2010 [source: McElroy]. However, Francis has publically tried to shift the focus of Catholic ministry away from polarizing social issues like abortion and homosexuality to refocus on serving the marginalized and poor. He speaks Spanish, Italian and German fluently.

Major Life Events

  • 1958 – Entered the seminary as a novitiate in the Jesuit order; had one lung removed due to a respiratory illness a year earlier
  • 1963 – Received a degree in philosophy; already earned a master's degree in chemistry
  • 1964 – 1966 – Taught literature and psychology at Jesuit schools in Argentina
  • 1969 – Was ordained a priest
  • 1976 – 1983 – Served as a provincial leader, parish priest and school rector during Argentina's "Dirty War"
  • 1998 – Installed as the archbishop of Buenos Aires
  • 2001 – Elevated to the title of cardinal
  • 2005 – Received the second-most votes in the papal conclave following the death of John Paul II
  • 2010 – Publically clashed with Argentine President Cristina Kirchner over same-sex marriage
  • 2013 – Elected the 266th pope following the surprise resignation of Benedict XVI

The Passing of a Pontiff

When a pope dies, the nontheological authority of the papacy passes temporarily to the cardinal camerlengo, or chamberlain, who is the Vatican's secretary of state. The camerlengo has many responsibilities when the pope dies. First, he confirms the pope's death by calling the pope's real name three times without response. Some sources say he also gently taps him on the head three times with a silver hammer. (Recent deaths of popes also have been confirmed with doctors.) He then authorizes the pope's death certificate, and closes and locks the pope's private apartment in the Apostolic Palace of the Vatican. The camerlengo also organizes and presides over the election of the next pope.

At the time of death, the camerlengo removes the Ring of the Fisherman, which the pope receives from the camerlengo upon his election. Popes have worn the Ring of the Fisherman for more than 800 years. The gold ring includes an image of St. Peter in a boat, fishing, encircled by the name of the current pope. The ring and the pope's seals are destroyed during the camerlengo's first meeting with the cardinals following the pope's death.

The pope's body lies in repose for nine consecutive days, during which time the cardinals of the Catholic Church celebrate the funeral rites. No one is allowed to photograph or film the pope while he is on his sickbed or after his death. The cardinal camerlengo may permit post-mortem photographs for documentary purposes only after the pope is attired in his pontifical vestments.

Before burial, the pope's body is placed inside a cypress coffin that is encased in two others made of elm and lead. The pope is typically buried in the tombs below St. Peter's Basilica, where St. Peter is buried.

During the time between the pope's death and the election of a new pope, the world focuses on the tiny sovereignty of Vatican City. In the next section, we will examine the complex process by which a pope is elected.