New pope a humble, yet ardent preacher

On March 13, the work of the cardinals in the conclave to elect a successor to Pope Benedict XVI ended with the unexpected choice of the Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope Francis, the 265th successor of St. Peter. He is a pope of firsts: The first to take the name Francis, the first from Argentina, the first from South America, the first from the Southern Hemisphere, the first from the Western Hemisphere, the first to be elected from the Society of Jesus and the first non-European since 731.  

Pope Francis comes to the papacy under some of the most unusual circumstances in modern Church history owing to the resignation of Pope Benedict on Feb. 28, the first renunciation of the papacy in 600 years. In addition, the new pontiff takes upon his shoulders the pastoral care of 1.3 billion Catholics and the entire world at a time when both are facing crises and challenges.  

That the College of Cardinals should choose the 76-year-old archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, on the fifth ballot of the second day of the conclave speaks to the extraordinary gifts of the humble, ascetic pontiff and the way the cardinals expect him to lead the Church. 

A true porteño

young Pope Francis
Argentine Pope Francis is seen in his youth in this undated handout photo. CNS

Jorge Mario Bergoglio was born Dec. 17, 1936, in the working class Flores neighborhood of Buenos Aires. The members of his family were considered true 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. In the case of the Bergoglios, they were of Italian origin, immigrants from Turin. His father was Mario Bergoglio, a railway worker, and his mother, Regina Sivori, was a housewife who oversaw the early education of the family’s five children.  

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, 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 he entered the Jesuit novitiate at Villa Devoto, Argentina, in 1958. This began the traditionally long period of formation in the Jesuits. He studied in Chile and in various schools in Argentina, including the Colegio Máximo de San José Centro Loyola, San Miguel, Buenos Aires, where he completed a degree in philosophy. He later earned a licentiate in philosophy and a doctorate in theology that he finished in 1986 in Germany. Ordained to the priesthood on Dec. 13, 1969, Bergoglio was by then already teaching a wide list of subjects, including the humanities, philosophy, literature, psychology and theology in different colleges in Argentina. Father Bergoglio took his final vows on April 22, 1973, and was elected Jesuit provincial of Argentina that same year.  

Father Bergoglio’s years 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. The movement was studied by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and was critiqued sharply in several documents in the 1980s.  

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. 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), mostly women and children who were taken and never seen again. Perhaps as many as 6,000 more people died among the military and the supporters of the regime, slain by the militants and guerillas.  

The terrible events of the Dirty War impacted the life of Father Bergoglio. He had the task of trying to keep his priests safe and 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 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 2010, then Cardinal Bergoglio testified he worked behind-the-scenes to prevent their murder and to secure their release.  

In 2000, acknowledging the failings of some Church leaders in the Dirty War, Bergoglio, by then archbishop of Buenos Aires, called on the Church in Argentina to offer penance for the failings of the past. 

Unsurprisingly, the allegations resurfaced after the papal election. When asked March 15 about the accusations, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi, denounced them, 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.”

‘Father Jorge’

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. 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 Jesuits in Córdoba.  

He devoted some of his energies to writing and published several books during this period, including Meditaciones para religiosos, 1982 (“Meditations for Religious”); Reflexiones sobre la vida apostólica, 1986 (“Reflections on the Apostolic Life”); and Reflexiones de esperanza, 1992 (“Reflections of Hope”). 

To his surprise, he was informed on May 20, 1992, that he been appointed by Pope John Paul II as an auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires and the titular bishop of Auca. Pope John Paul had made the choice chiefly at the behest of Cardinal Antonio Quarracino, archbishop of Buenos Aires, who had been impressed by Bergoglio’s intelligence and his reputation as a spiritual director. Father Bergoglio was ordained a bishop on June 27, 1992.  

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 appointed him to the College of Cardinals on Feb. 21, 2001.  

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. One of his first decisions was not to order new vestments — as was expected for a new archbishop. Instead, he asked that Cardinal Quarracino’s old vestments be altered to fit him. This was followed by his decision not to live in the archbishop’s residence but instead in a simple apartment next to the cathedral on the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires. He fixed his own meals.  

Cardinal Bergoglio soon astonished the capital when he began taking the bus and the subway to travel around the city and to get to the archdiocesan chancery every day. As archbishop, he told people who met him to call him “Father Jorge.” This continued after he was named a cardinal.  

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. He found the time to share a mate, Argentina’s national drink, with working people, and he remained firmly loyal to the San Lorenzo soccer club.  

His vision for his relationship with the archdiocese is rooted in the traditional theological image of a bishop being wedded to his diocese. This was reflected clearly in his frequent use of the word esposa (“wife”) when he referred to the Buenos Aires archdiocese. 

A prophetic voice

feet washing
Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner (L) greets Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio at the Basilica of Lujan, Dec. 22, 2008. CNS

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 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. In the midst of the turmoil, he gave a homily on the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes, reminding the 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 the prelate to be the “head of the opposition,” an unsuccessful effort to suggest Cardinal Bergoglio had political motivations. As every major political figure of every stripe in the country sought to be associated with the cardinal, it was a characterization generally dismissed as absurd posturing. 

Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio celebrates Mass held in memory of Blessed Pope John Paul II on April 4, 2005. Newscom

Kirchner chose not to run for re-election in 2007, paving the way for his wife Cristina Fernández de Kirchner to become president. A dedicated leftist, she has overseen 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, declaring famously in a public letter, “Let us not be naive: this is not just a simple political fight, it is the destructive pretension against the plan of God.”  

Cardinal Bergoglio was a powerful supporter of Pope Benedict’s stress on the New Evangelization, seeing it as a function of the entire Church because secularism, materialism and relativism are threats to the entire human family. His approach has been both pastoral and passionate. He prefers to speak out within the context of his homilies and pastoral letters. His preaching has been described as fiery, and his homilies make for intense reading.  

Based on the experience of the Church in Argentina, Catholics can expect Pope Francis to be humble and pastoral but also ardent in his 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.  

Matthew Bunson is OSV senior correspondent.