Pope Francis’s Remarkable Rise

 Pope Francis arrives for his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

Pope Francis arrives for his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino) (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

March 13, 2015

In the two years since he was announced as Pope Benedict XVI’s successor to lead the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis has earned widespread admiration and remarkable cultural cachet.

He was named TIME magazine’s person of the year in 2013, and a Pew Research Center survey released earlier this month found that his popularity is only continuing to grow: According to Pew, nine-in-ten U.S. Catholics say their view of Francis is favorable, and the pontiff even earns high marks from people who identify as agnostics and atheists.

Francis’s popularity is made all the more striking by the fact that at the time of his election two years ago on Friday, he inherited a church beset by controversy — including a sprawling clergy sex abuse crisis, allegations of money laundering and corruption at the Vatican Bank, and Vatileaks (the release of internal documents revealing cronyism, power struggles and claims of blackmail within the Holy See).

But Francis — formerly Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, Argentina — wasn’t always so well-known.

In fact, when white smoke from the Sistine Chapel first signaled Benedict’s successor had been chosen, and Francis emerged from behind the red curtain two years ago, he was a mystery man to many of those in attendance.

“Everybody had to look him up,” Barbie Latza Nadeau of Newsweek told FRONTLINE. “People were Googling from the square: Who is he? Where’s he from?”

Go inside the moment when the world first met Pope Francis in the below excerpt from Secrets of the Vatican, FRONTLINE’s 2014 documentary on the scandals that rocked Benedict’s papacy and the challenges facing Francis:

Since that moment, Francis has faced an uphill battle when it comes to reforming a deeply entrenched Vatican bureaucracy and cracking down on clergy sex abuse.

Here’s a roundup of our related coverage:

And as always, you can stream Secrets of the Vatican in full, for free, right here.

Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist, FRONTLINE



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