VATICAN CITY – The man who will move into the 10-room papal residence inside the vaulted gates of the Holy See lives in a simple, austere apartment across from the Cathedral of Buenos Aires. In a city with a taste for luxury and status, he frequently prepares his own meals and abandoned the limousine of his high office to hop on “el micro” – Argentine slang for the bus.
A staunch conservative and devout Jesuit in Latin America’s most socially progressive nation, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, is an almost Solomonesque choice by the princes of the church.
The 76-year-old hails from a country and a continent where the once powerful voice of the church is increasingly falling flat, losing ground – as it is in Europe – to a tide of more permissive and pragmatic faiths and to fast-rising secularism. He gives voice to a church whose center of global gravity is increasingly shifting south.
But the first Latin American pope also represents a cultural bridge between two worlds – the son of Italian immigrants in a country regarded by some as the New World colony Italy never had. For many Italians, his heritage makes him the next best thing to the return of an Italian pope.
Bergoglio remains a fierce critic of socially progressive trends, including gay marriage, representing a continuity of Benedict XVI’s conservative doctrine. Though questioned for some of his actions during Argentina’s Dirty War, he may also be a target hard for progressives to hit. In recent decades, he has emerged as a champion of social justice and the poor who has spoken out against the evils of globalization and slammed the “demonic effects of the imperialism of money.”
His papal name honors St. Francis of Assisi, the son of wealthy merchants who abandoned all for a life of poverty in the path of Jesus Christ.
At the same time, in the age of 24-hour news cycles and the cult of celebrity excess, he is described by some as so retro as to be something oddly new. He represents a flashback to an old-school view of Catholic leaders as humble, soft-spoken clerics who walked among their flock and led by example – though he has also used the Internet as a tool to reach lapsed Catholics.
“He knows how to take a municipal bus,” said the Rev. Robert Pelton, the director of Latin American/North American Church Concerns at the University of Notre Dame. “When he became a local ordinary of Buenos Aires, he moved from a large, impressive home to a modest dwelling. He has a sense of social justice, but he can be seen as quite conservative doctrinally.”
“He’s a simple person,” Pelton added. “The fact is that he has a straightforwardness and simplicity that is quite unusual in public figures of our time.”
It remains unclear whether even Latin Americans will respond with newfound energy to Bergoglio’s ascension to the throne of St. Peter. Among many of its neighbors, Argentina is seen as a nation apart – a country that fancies itself more European than Latin American, with many likely to see the rise of an Italian Argentine as largely unrepresentative of the region as a whole.
“Argentina is so secular today, a more Eurocentric Latin country,” said Joseph M. Palacios, a specialist in religion and society in Latin America at Georgetown University. “They are Catholic by culture but not by practice. Geopolitically it makes sense in terms of bridging Europe to Latin America or the Third World, but Argentines don’t see themselves as being Third World.”
In his global introduction from the balcony of St. Peter’s, he addressed the crowd in Italian, one of three languages he speaks fluently. He presented himself as soft- and plainspoken, humble, even quaint, directing his comments seemingly to the citizens of his new city, Rome, more than to the 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide.
“And now let us begin this journey, the bishop and people, this journey of the Church of Rome, which presides in charity over all the churches, a journey of brotherhood in love, of mutual trust,” he said.
Born in Buenos Aires on Dec. 17, 1936, Bergoglio was raised in a struggling middle-class home of a railroad worker and a homemaker. Ordained a priest in 1969, his ascent toward higher office occurred during a time when the Catholic Church in Argentina stood accused of, at best, failing to speak out against – and, at worst, being complicit in – the harsh right-wing dictatorships of the Dirty War, under which an estimated 30,000 dissidents disappeared between 1976 and 1983.
A book by the noted Argentine journalist Horacio Verbitsky, “The Silence,” claims that Bergoglio, then a Jesuit leader, lifted church protection from two leftist priests of his order, effectively allowing them to be jailed for refusing to end their politically charged ministry in the Buenos Aires slums. Bergoglio’s supporters have cited a lack of evidence, countering that he endeavored to aid dissidents in danger during a dark period in Argentine history.
“What this says about him is that there is a big distance between what he says and what he does,” Verbitsky said in a telephone interview from Buenos Aires. “He portrays himself as popular, almost revolutionary, a man who goes into the ghettos. But when the military came to power, he did not protect his own.”
Bergoglio was mostly absent from the short lists for pope this time and has been largely regarded as a Vatican outsider. That is seen as positive by reformers who are looking for a cleanup of the Roman Curia, the Vatican City administration now battered by allegations of corruption and misconduct.
In 2010, he rallied against a measure that made Argentina the first Latin American country to legalize same-sex marriage. He also argued that a decision by the government to allow same-sex couples to adopt would deprive children of “the human growth that God wanted them to have by a father and a mother.”
His vociferous protests led President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner to criticize him sharply, saying, “It’s worrisome to hear phrases such as ‘war of God’ and ‘projects of the devil,’ which are things that send us back to medieval times and the Inquisition.”
In a 2012 interview with the Italian newspaper La Stampa, Bergoglio spoke of his desire to broaden the church’s reach and increase its involvement in the world, and he alluded to the infighting that plagued the Vatican during Benedict’s tenure.
“We need to avoid the spiritual sickness of a church that is wrapped up in its own world,” Bergoglio told the Italian newspaper. “If the church stays wrapped up in itself, it will age.”