On March 13, the work of the cardinals in the conclave to elect a successor to Pope Benedict XVI ended with the entirely unexpected choice of the Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope Francis. Over the last months, Catholics have continued to be astonished by the pontiff’s humble acts of service, brief but intensely pastoral homilies and his stress on God’s love and mercy.
To appreciate the direction the pope is taking the Church as the 265th successor of St. Peter, it is helpful to be reminded of where he started and the experiences that helped shape the man chosen by the College of Cardinals to lead global Catholicism.
A Child of Flores
Jorge Mario Bergoglio was born Dec. 17, 1936, in the working class Flores neighborhood of Buenos Aires, Argentina. The members of his family were considered Porteños, the name used for the inhabitants of Buenos Aires who are largely second- or third-generation descendants from immigrants, with ties to the Old World. Being of Italian origin, they were also termed Tanos, the local word for Italian immigrants. In the case of the Bergoglios, they were immigrants from Turin, in the Piedmont region of Italy. His father was Mario Bergoglio, a railway worker, and his mother Regina Sivori, a housewife who oversaw the early education of the family’s five children.
|Pope Francis kisses a disabled man after spotting him in the crowd in St. Peter’s Square. CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano
Bergoglio initially wanted to pursue a career in chemistry, but his academic hopes were slowed owing to an infection that led to the removal of a portion of his right lung. He eventually graduated in chemistry from the University of Buenos Aires and is said to have expressed hopes of being married. As a young man he was fond of the tango, Argentina’s beloved traditional dance, and he has never lost his love for the San Lorenzo de Almagro soccer club of Buenos Aires.
Ultimately, Bergoglio discerned that Christ was calling him to the priesthood and the Society of Jesus. His process of discernment was shaped by an experience of God’s loving mercy on Sept. 21, 1953, on the feast of St. Matthew. He entered the Jesuit novitiate at Villa Devoto, Argentina, in 1958 and, after a long period of formation, he was ordained to the priesthood on Dec. 13, 1969. Father Bergoglio took his final vows on April 22, 1973, and was elected provincial of Argentina that same year.
Father Bergoglio’s time as provincial from 1973 to 1979 came at a challenging time for the Church. Many priests and religious in Latin America were being drawn to the theological movement of liberation theology, and very early on Father Bergoglio saw it as an aberration of the Church’s authentic concern for the poor and the call to authentic justice rooted in the Gospel and nurturing an encounter with Jesus Christ.
Father Bergoglio was confronted with the task of trying to encourage the priests of his province to defend and care for the poor, but in ways that were faithful to the teachings of the Church and grounded fully in authentic charity. His effort made him unpopular with some of his confreres, but his approach was especially important because many priests were ardent supporters of liberation theology and were becoming more and more involved in the bloody political unrest of the times.
The Dirty War
From 1976 until 1983, with the fall of the military dictatorship that had ruled for decades, Argentina was plagued by the so-called Guerra Sucia (“Dirty War”), an era of brutal oppression and violence during which the regime killed between 13,000 and 30,000 citizens. The chief targets of the campaign were left-leaning writers, politicians, trade-unionists and guerillas opposed to the dictatorship. Many thousands of those arrested became part of the “disappeared ones” (the Desaparecidos), enemies of the regime who were taken and never seen again. Democracy was finally established in Argentina in 1983, only after the regime’s failed war against Great Britain over the Falkland Islands the year before.
The terrible events of the Dirty War impacted the life of Father Bergoglio. He had to walk a fine and dangerous line with the government. Some of his priests became targets of the dictatorship because of their associations with the guerillas and also their open opposition to the government. He urged the priests of the province not to give in to the temptation to take up arms and surrender their lives to violence and hatred.
Years later, after Bergoglio had been named the archbishop of Buenos Aires he was accused by some leftist human rights groups of not doing enough to resist the regime, and accusations even were made that he colluded with the dictators. They point to the case of the 1976 kidnapping and torture of two Jesuit priests, Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics, in which Bergoglio supposedly turned a blind eye. In truth, the Jesuit provincial went to extraordinary lengths behind the scenes to prevent their murder, and the two were subsequently released. It was later learned that Bergoglio regularly hid people on Church property to prevent their arrest and once gave his own identity papers to a man who looked liked him so that he could escape the country.
In 2000, Bergoglio, by then the archbishop of Buenos Aires, acknowledged the failings of some Church leaders in the Dirty War and called on the Church in Argentina to offer public penance for the failings of the past.
Unsurprisingly, the allegations surfaced again with the election of Pope Francis. When asked about the old accusations, the Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, denounced them forcefully, saying, “The campaign against Bergoglio is well-known and dates back to many years ago. It has been made by a publication that carries out sometimes slanderous and defamatory campaigns. The anticlerical cast of this campaign and of other accusations against Bergoglio is well-known and obvious.”
Completing his difficult tenure as provincial, Father Bergoglio settled back into teaching and a quiet life in academia. In 1980, he was named rector of the seminary in San Miguel, where he had studied. In 1986, he went to Germany to complete his doctorate, and on his return to Argentina continued to teach and serve as a spiritual director and confessor for the Society of Jesus in Córdoba. He also was well known in the order for his expertise in Ignatian Spirituality, the school of spirituality developed by St. Ignatius Loyola.
The typical path for a Jesuit of Father Bergoglio’s training and such expertise would have been to continue teaching and serving, but to his surprise, he was informed on May 20, 1992, that he been appointed by then-Blessed John Paul II as an auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires and the titular bishop of Auca. Father Bergoglio was ordained a bishop on June 27, 1992.
The episcopal motto that Bishop-elect Bergoglio chose when he was first ordained a bishop was miserando atque eligendo meaning “with mercy and choosing.” It was taken from Homily 21 of the Venerable Bede, on Christ’s call of St. Matthew: “He saw the tax collector and, because he saw him through the eyes of mercy and chose him, he said to him: ‘Follow me.’ This following meant imitating the pattern of his life — not just walking after him. St. John tells us: ‘Whoever says he abides in Christ ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.’ ” It was tied closely to his experience of God’s mercy in 1953 on the feast of St. Matthew.
While considered the auxiliary bishop with the lowest profile among his episcopal colleagues, Bishop Bergoglio was named on June 3, 1997, to be the Coadjutor Archbishop of Buenos Aires. Cardinal Quarracino died the next year, and Archbishop Bergoglio acceded to the see on Feb. 28, 1998. Pope John Paul II appointed him to the College of Cardinals Feb. 21, 2001, with the titular church in Rome of St. Robert Bellarmine. Upon learning that he had been named a Cardinal, Bishop Bergoglio issued a letter asking the faithful of Buenos Aires not to go to Rome for the consistory but instead to use the money to feed the poor.
From the start of his time as archbishop, Bergoglio made it clear that his lifelong commitment to the poor and his emphasis on humility and pastoral service were not going to end with his new office. He decided not to live in the traditional archbishop’s residence but instead in a simple apartment next to the cathedral on the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires. He prepared his own meals and famously took the bus and the subway to travel around the city.
In 2001, Cardinal Bergoglio paid a visit to AIDS patients and washed and kissed their feet. He regularly visited terminal cancer patients, baptized the children of the parishes in the city and spent a great deal of time in the city missions, soup kitchens and poorest parts of Buenos Aires.
As a bishop, of course, he was the father to his priests and an administrator. He demanded that his priests share in his own love for the poor and the defenseless, but he asked nothing of them that he was not willing to do himself. He called on his priests, as well every Catholic, to go out into the streets and homes and to speak in the public squares of the city to invite Catholics back to the Church and to promote Catholic culture.
Cardinal Bergoglio was likewise much praised as a fatherly and supportive presence to his presbyterate. Every priest reportedly received his private cell phone number with permission to call when they needed his help or guidance, and he set aside an hour every morning for them to call his apartment on a landline. When any of his priests were in personal crisis he was there, and when they were dying, he made it a point to sit next to their deathbeds for hours at a time, reading to them and praying with them.
A Prophetic Voice
Matching his humility in service is what Cardinal Bergoglio often called apostolic courage. In that sense, he was a prophetic voice as archbishop and was unafraid to stand firm in defending the rights and dignity of the human person, speaking out against secularism and materialism, and proclaiming the authentic teachings of the Church in Argentina and Latin America. Two incidents were revealing. The first came in the wake of Argentina’s severe financial and economic crisis in 2001-02. President Néstor Kirchner, who was elected in 2003, enacted various economic policies to restore the economy. Cardinal Bergoglio was not hesitant in speaking out that the policies could have a dire impact on the most vulnerable in Argentine society. As was his habit, he used the pulpit to make himself heard. In the midst of the turmoil, he gave a homily on the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes, reminding Argentinians of the Way of Jesus that teaches, “to trample upon the dignity of a woman, a man, a child, the elderly, is a grave sin that cries to heaven.” Unhappy with the criticism, Kirchner declared Bergoglio to be the “head of the opposition,” an unsuccessful effort to suggest that Bergoglio had political motivations.
Kirchner chose not run for re-election in 2007, paving the way for his wife Cristina Fernández de Kirchner to become president. She launched an aggressive secularizing agenda, including the proposal to decriminalize abortion. In 2010, Argentina became the first country in Latin America to allow same-sex marriage nationwide. Cardinal Bergoglio spoke out directly against the legislation and the secularism, materialism and relativism threatening the whole of Latin America.
He preferred to speak out usually within the context of his homilies and pastoral letters, and his preaching was described as fiery, and his homilies made for intense reading. On Palm Sunday 2008, he told a packed Cathedral in Buenos Aires: “Today the place for Christ is the street; the place for the Christian is the street. The Lord wants us like Him: with an open heart, roaming the streets of Buenos Aires. He wants us walking the streets of Buenos Aires and carrying His message!”
Based on the experience of the Church in Argentina, Catholics can expect Pope Francis to be humble and pastoral but also ardent in his preaching and teaching. He will push for the Vatican to be truly at the service of the Petrine ministry so that the supreme pontiff can better serve the Church. And he will continue to use gestures to make key points about ecclesiastical pride and vanity. It is simplicity with a purpose: to clear away everything else so that the Church can proclaim Jesus Christ to the world. TP
Matthew Bunson is editor of Our Sunday Visitor’s Catholic Almanac and Our Sunday Visitor’s The Catholic Answer magazine. He is also the author or co-author of more than 40 books and is on the faculty of The Catholic Distance University.