While the US prepares to welcome Pope Francis, his new world origins, drive for Vatican reform, and calls for social justice and action against climate change have enthused – and shaken – Catholics around the world. The Argentine pontiff arrives for his first trip to America at a time of declining Catholic congregations and with a society that has become more liberal than the church on many social issues.

The Catholic share of the US population has been declining at a slow rate in recent decades, but a Pew study released this year raised fears that the pace of the drop has accelerated since 2007. According to the survey, it had fallen to 20.8 per cent in 2014, from 23.9 per cent seven years earlier underlining the challenge facing Pope Francis. Read more

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When Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio decided he would be called Francis in his new life as Pope, he knew people would understand that his choice was charged with symbolism.

As some of the cardinals present at the conclave have confirmed, the new pontiff’s choice is in honour of St Francis of Assisi, who lived and preached in Italy between the end of the 12th and beginning of the 13th century. Francis was the son of a wealthy merchant who abandoned his well-off lifestyle to live in poverty. The monastic order he set up, the “Lesser Friars” (who became known as Franciscans after his death), has absolute poverty as a rule. This applies both individually and to the monastic communities.

St Francis is one of the most venerated figures in the Catholic world thanks to his mysticism and rectitude. Yet no pope had ever dared to pick his name. This is in sharp contrast to the number of times Gregory (16), Leo (13) and Pius (12) have been chosen. Read more

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Stunned, then overjoyed (Getty)

By Guy Dinmore and Giulia Segreti

The first pope from the Americas, the first from the Jesuit order, the first to name himself Francis … the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio signals a break with the past on many fronts for a Roman Catholic Church in desperate need of renewal. Yet he is also regarded as a theological conservative in the mold of his predecessor, Benedict XVI, and at the relatively advanced age of 76 he will have to overcome fears that he too will be a transitional pope.

Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican’s normally unflappable spokesman and a fellow Jesuit, was just as stunned at the choice as the crowd gathered in St Peter’s Square. “Personally I am shocked that I have a Jesuit pope,” he told reporters, noting that Jesuits usually eschew positions of authority. He added: “He had the courage to pick a name that has never been chosen. It expresses simplicity and evangelical testimony.”

Rebecca Rist, an expert in papal history at Reading University, said the choice of Francis – echoing both the 13th-century St Francis of Assisi and Francis Xavier, one of the first followers of the Jesuits – signalled that the new pope would emphasise poverty and reform. Furthermore, by choosing a name never used before he was indicating “something new – that he would not emulate a predecessor”. Read more

The 115 cardinals tasked with choosing the next Pope have begun their ‘conclave’ in Rome – but the black smoke that emerged from their burnt ballot papers tonight means no result yet.

It’s a good time to revisit this FT interactive on the global reach of the Roman Catholic church (click on the image to go there): Read more

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By Julia Zhu in London

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In a word, yes. The news that Pope Benedict XVI is stepping down at the end of February has taken many people by surprise, but the Code of Canon Law (the Catholic Church’s collection of rules and procedures) does allow for papal resignation:

“If it happens that the Roman Pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity that the resignation is made freely and properly manifested but not that it is accepted by anyone.” (From Book II, Part II, Section I, Cann. 330 – 367)

Pope John Paul II explicitly referenced this right in 1996, when he set out his new rules for papal election:

3. I further establish that the College of Cardinals may make no dispositions whatsoever concerning the rights of the Apostolic See and of the Roman Church… even though it be to resolve disputes or to prosecute actions perpetrated against these same rights after the death or valid resignation of the Pope.

Precedents: We asked Professor David d’Avray, an expert on religious history at University College London, to tell us about precedents for papal resignation. He picked out two particularly interesting examples: Celestine V in 1294 and Gregory XII in 1415 (who we think was the last pope to resign until today’s announcement). Read more