May 21, 2013
A theological conservative focused on the poor
Controversial Argentine pontiff known for simplicity and humility
by Alejandro Lifschitz
BUENOS AIRES — The first American pope, Argentina’s Jorge Bergoglio, is a theological conservative with a strong social conscience, and a modest man who declined the archbishop’s luxurious residence to live in a simple apartment and travel by bus. He was also the runner-up in the 2005 conclave that elected German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to become Pope Benedict.
His election came as a shock to Catholics because, at 76, he was considered far above the ideal age to replace a pope who broke tradition and resigned because of his advanced years. The decision to take the papal name Francis, the first pope to name himself after the legendary St Francis of Assisi, was also surprising because it evokes a life of simplicity and humility far removed from the splendour of the Vatican.
Described by his biographer as a balancing force, Bergoglio has the ways of a monk, is media shy and deeply concerned about the social inequalities rife in his homeland and elsewhere in Latin America.
“He is absolutely capable of undertaking the necessary renovation without any leaps into the unknown. He would be a balancing force,” said Francesca Ambrogetti, who co-authored a biography of Bergoglio after carrying out a series of interviews with him over three years.
“He shares the view that the Church should have a missionary role, that gets out to meet people, that is active... a Church that does not so much regulate the faith as promote and facilitate it,” she added.
“His lifestyle is sober and austere. That’s the way he lives. He travels on the underground, the bus, when he goes to Rome he flies economy class.”
The former cardinal, the first Jesuit to become pope, was born into a middle-class family of seven, his father an Italian immigrant railway worker and his mother a housewife.
He is a solemn man, deeply attached to centuries-old Roman Catholic traditions as he showed by asking the crowd cheering his election to say the Our Father and Hail Mary prayers.
In his rare public appearances, Bergoglio spares no harsh words for politicians and Argentine society, and has had a tricky relationship with President Cristina Fernández and her late husband and predecessor, Néstor Kirchner.
Bergoglio became a priest at 32, nearly a decade after losing a lung due to respiratory illness and quitting his chemistry studies. Despite his late start, he was leading the local Jesuit community within four years, holding the post of provincial of the Argentine Jesuits from 1973 to 1979. He was appointed auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires in 1992 and archbishop in 1998.
Bergoglio’s career coincided with the bloody 1976-1983 military dictatorship, during which up to 30,000 suspected leftists were kidnapped and killed — which prompted sharp questions about his role.
The most well-known episode relates to the abduction of two Jesuits whom the military government secretly jailed for their work in poor neighbourhoods.
According to The Silence, a book written by journalist Horacio Verbitsky, Bergoglio withdrew his order’s protection of the two men after they refused to quit visiting the slums, which ultimately paved the way for their capture. Verbitsky’s book is based on statements by Orlando Yorio, one of the kidnapped Jesuits, before he died of natural causes in 2000. Both of the abducted clergymen suffered five months of imprisonment.
“History condemns him. It shows him to be opposed to all innovation in the Church and above all, during the dictatorship, it shows he was very cozy with the military,” Fortunato Mallimacci, the former dean of social sciences at the Universidad de Buenos Aires, once said.
His actions during this period strained his relations with many brother Jesuits around the world, who tend to be more politically liberal.
Those who defend Bergoglio say there is no proof behind these claims and, on the contrary, he helped many dissidents escape during the military junta’s rule. He was elected president of the Argentine Synod from 2005 to 2011.
In the Vatican, far removed from the dictatorship’s grim legacy, this quiet priest is expected to maintain the Church’s strong conservative stand on issues of sexual morality but add the strong social conscience he has shown in Argentina.
In 2010, he challenged the Argentine government when it backed a gay marriage bill. “Let’s not be naive. This isn’t a simple political fight, it’s an attempt to destroy God’s plan,” he wrote days before the bill was approved by Congress. “He seems to be a good compromise. He’s a mix of different things,” said Italian theologian Massimo Faggioli.
Stories of his humility abound. When he was appointed a cardinal in 2001, Bergoglio persuaded hundreds of Argentines not to fly to Rome to celebrate with him but rather to donate to the poor the money they had raised for their airline tickets.
Bergoglio has been close to the conservative Italian religious movement Communion and Liberation, which had the backing of Popes John Paul and Benedict as a way to revitalize faith among young people.
Milan Cardinal Angelo Scola, who was believed to have the most support going into the conclave, is also close to the movement, but has taken some distance from it as it got mired in political scandals in Italy.
“In Italy, Communion and Liberation is very politicized. For many, it was a tool for a career in politics,” said Faggioli, who teaches at the University of St Thomas in Minneapolis.
“Outside Italy, it’s different. They are a Church group that can be more conservative than liberals would like. But they’re not mixed up with politics,” he said.
“I don’t expect him to change on doctrine, but he is a more pastoral person.” he said. “It seems this pope will be more aware of what real life is all about.”
In contrast to Benedict, Faggioli said, Francis should find more open ears among Catholics when he speaks, even if the positions he takes are not always popular.