The Washington Post

Sorry, Jorge Mario Bergoglio is not the first non-European pope

This April 4, 2005, file photo shows Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, celebrating a Mass in honor of Pope John Paul II at the Buenos Aires Cathedral in Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Natacha Pisarenko/Associated Press)

Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who was just elected pope, is from Argentina. He is the first pope from the Americas, a symbolically important step that suggests that the church wants to focus more on its largest regional following, which is in Latin America.

But he is not, as many are reporting, the first non-European pope. He is the just the first non-European pope in a very, very long time.

Update: As some are pointing out, "non-European" can have two different meanings, one based in ethnicity and the other nationality. While Bergoglio is an Argentine citizen, his parents were born in Italy and he is ethnically Italian. Many citizens of Argentina, as in the U.S., are descendants of immigrants, and a majority are of European descent. So he not "non-European" in the way that a Filipino of Congolese pope might be, but rather in the way that an Irish-American cardinal is "non-European."

Previous non-European popes have included, for example, the very first one: Saint Peter, who was born in Bethsaida, which is thought to have been in modern-day Israel (possibly in the Golan Heights). It's a reminder that, although we think of the Catholic church as a European institution, the religion itself was founded in the heart of the Middle East. A number of other popes are from once-Roman-controlled regions of North Africa, a reminder that the Mediterranean was not always such a civilizational divide, although Christianity persisted in the region for centuries after the Roman empire's fall.

By my count, which is probably incomplete, he is the 11th non-European pope in the church's history, and the first in 1,272 years.

Here's a (again, probably incomplete) list of the non-European popes I was able to find in a cursory overview, with each pope's place of birth and the period of his reign:

1) Saint Peter: Bethsaida, modern-day Israel(33 – 64 A.D.)
2) Pope Saint Evaristus: Bethlehem, modern-day West Bank (97 – 105)
3) Pope Saint Anicetus: Emesa (today known as Homs), Syria (155 – 166)
4) Pope Saint Victor I: Leptis Magna, modern-day Libya (189 – 199)
5) Pope Saint Miltiades: Somewhere in North Africa (311 – 314)
6) Pope Theodore I: Jerusalem, modern-day Israel and West Bank (642 – 649)
7) Pope John V: Antioch, then Syria but today part of Turkey (685 – 686)
8) Pope Sisinnius: Syria (708)
9) Pope Constantine: Syria (708 – 715)
10) Pope Gregory III: Syria (731 – 741)

And now number 11! Pope Francis I: Buenos Aires, Argentina (2013 – ?)

The Freddie Gray case

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Campaign 2016 Email Updates

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Get Zika news by email

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!
Show Comments

Sign up for email updates from the "Confronting the Caliphate" series.

You have signed up for the "Confronting the Caliphate" series.

Thank you for signing up
You'll receive e-mail when new stories are published in this series.
Most Read



Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Close video player
Now Playing

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.