Pope Francis I is the first non-European Catholic Church leader for over 1,200 years.
The last non-European Pope before Francis I was Gregory III.
Pope Saint Gregory III led the Catholic Church from 11 February 731 to 28 November 741, when he died.
He was the last Pope to be born outside Europe until the election of Pope Francis I on 13 March 2013.
Gregory, the son of a Syrian named John, was elected pope by popular acclamation on 11 February 731, but was not formally consecrated as Bishop of Rome until 18 March, after having received the approval of the Byzantine exarch in Ravenna.
Pope Gregory III was the last pope to seek the exarch’s ratification of a papal election.
Pope Francis I, like most of his countrymen, is of Italian descent, so he bridges the Italian-dominated Church administration with Latin America, which accounts for 40% of all the world’s Catholics. Culturally always part of Western Europe, Argentina is also rather secular, with over 11% of people “indifferent towards religion”, compared to figures of under 2% in predominantly non-European Peru, Paraguay and Colombia.
Several of the early popes were Syrian, and just as the centre of Christianity in its early years shifted from the Middle East to Europe, so now it is moving across the seas. The twilight of Middle Eastern Christianity is the great tragedy of our times, Syria also being the birthplace of Christian music, among other things. But the decline of European Catholicism is also sad, because what makes Catholicism so beautiful, aesthetically, it is Italian-ness, which during that country’s long cultural dominance of Europe inspired such art and devotion.