VATICAN CITY – On the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica just after a rain shower Wednesday – wearing unadorned white robes – the new Pope Francis appeared to strike the same tone of simplicity and pastoral humility for a church desperate to move past the tarnished era of abuse scandals and internal Vatican upheavals.
While the new pontiff is not without some political baggage – including questions over his role during a military dictatorship in Argentina in the 1970s – the selection of the Jorge Mario Bergoglio, 76, reflected a series of history-making decisions by fellow cardinals who seemed determined to offer a suggestion of renewal to a church under pressures on many fronts.
“He is a real voice for the voiceless and vulnerable,” said Kim Daniels, director of Catholic Voices USA, a pro-church group. “That is the message.”
Francis, the son of middle-class Italian immigrants, came close to becoming pope during the last conclave in 2005. He reportedly gained the second-highest vote total in several rounds of voting before he bowed out of the running before selection of Vatican insider Joseph Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict XVI.
Unlike many of the other papal contenders, Bergoglio never held a top post inside the Vatican administration, or curia. This outsider status could pose obstacles in attempts to reform the Vatican, which has been hit with embarrassing disclosures from leaked documents alleging financial cover-ups and internal feuds.
But the conclave appeared more swayed by Bergoglio’s reputation for compassion on issues such as poverty and the effects of globalization, and his fealty to traditional church teachings such as opposition to birth control.
His overriding image, though, is built around his leaning toward austerity. The motto chosen for his archdiocese is “Miserando Atque Eligendo,” or “Lowly but Chosen.”
Even after he became Argentina’s top church official in 2001, he never lived in the ornate church mansion where Pope John Paul II stayed when visiting the country, preferring a simple bed in a downtown building, warmed by a small stove on frigid weekends when the building turned off the heat. For years, he took public transportation around the city, and cooked his own meals.
He accused fellow church leaders of hypocrisy and forgetting that Jesus Christ bathed lepers and ate with prostitutes. “Jesus teaches us another way: Go out. Go out and share your testimony. Go out and interact with your brothers. Go out and share. Go out and ask. Become the Word in body as well as spirit,” Bergoglio told Argentina’s priests last year.
Bergoglio almost never granted media interviews, limiting himself to speeches from the pulpit, and was reluctant to contradict his critics, even when he knew their allegations against him were false, said Bergoglio’s authorized biographer, Sergio Rubin.
Bergoglio’s legacy as cardinal includes his efforts to repair the reputation of a church that lost many followers by failing to openly challenge Argentina’s dictatorship.
He also worked to recover the church’s traditional political influence in society, but his outspoken criticism of President Cristina Fernandez couldn’t stop her from imposing socially liberal measures that are anathema to the church, from gay marriage and adoption to free contraceptives for all.
Yet Bergoglio has been tough on hard-line conservative views among his own clerics, including those who refused to baptize the children of unmarried women.
“These are today’s hypocrites; those who clericalize the church,” he told his priests. “Those who separate the people of God from salvation. And this poor girl who, rather than returning the child to sender, had the courage to carry it into the world, must wander from parish to parish so that it’s baptized!”
Bergoglio himself felt most comfortable taking a very low profile.
His preference to remain in the wings, however, has been challenged by rights activists seeking answers about church actions during the dictatorship after the 1976 coup, often known as Argentina’s “Dirty War.”
Many Argentines remain angry over the church’s acknowledged failure to openly confront a regime that was kidnapping and killing thousands of people as it sought to eliminate “subversive elements” in society. It’s one reason why more than two-thirds of Argentines describe themselves as Catholic, but fewer than 10 percent regularly attend Mass.
Under Bergoglio’s leadership, Argentina’s bishops issued a collective apology in October 2012 for the church’s failures to protect its flock. But the statement blamed the era’s violence in roughly equal measure on both the junta and its enemies.
“Bergoglio has been very critical of human rights violations during the dictatorship, but he has always also criticized the leftist guerrillas. He doesn’t forget that side,” said the biographer Rubin.
The statements came far too late for some activists, who accused Bergoglio of being more concerned about the church’s image than about aiding the many human rights investigations into the junta era.
Bergoglio told Rubin that he regularly hid people on church property during the dictatorship, and once gave his identity papers to a man with similar features, enabling him to escape across the border.
But all this was done in secret, at a time when church leaders publicly endorsed the junta and called on Catholics to restore their “love for country” despite the terror in the streets.
Initially trained as a chemist, Bergoglio taught literature, psychology, philosophy and theology before taking over as Buenos Aires archbishop in 1998. He became cardinal in 2001.