VATICAN CITY – On the streets in Buenos Aires, the stories about the cardinal who would become the first pope from the Americas often include a very ordinary backdrop: The city bus during rush hour.
Tales are traded about chatting with Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio as he squeezed in with others for the commute to work. They sometimes talk about church affairs. Other times it could be about what he planned to cook for dinner in the simple downtown apartment he chose over an opulent church estate. Or perhaps it was a mention of his affection for the tango, which he said he loved as a youth despite having one lung removed following an infection.
On the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica just after a rain shower Wednesday – wearing unadorned white robes – the new Pope Francis also 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 76-year-old Bergoglio 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.”
Pope Francis – the first from Latin America and the first from the Jesuit order – bowed to the crowds in St. Peter’s Square and asked for their blessing in a hint of the humble style he cultivated while trying to modernize Argentina’s conservative Catholic church and move past a messy legacy of alleged complicity during the rule of the military junta from 1976-83.
“Brothers and sisters, good evening,” he said before making a reference to his roots in Latin America, which accounts for about 40 percent of the world’s Roman Catholics.
Groups of supporters waved the white-and-blue Argentine flags in St. Peter’s Square as Francis made his first public appearance as pope. Bergoglio reportedly had envoys urge Argentinians not to fly to Rome to celebrate his papacy, but instead donate money to the poor.
In taking the name Francis, he drew connections to the 13th-century St. Francis of Assisi, who saw his calling as trying to rebuild the simple spirit of the church and devote his life to missionary journeys. It also evokes references to Francis Xavier, one of the 16th-century founders of the Jesuit order that is known for its scholarship and outreach.
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.
By returning to Bergoglio, the conclave confounded speculation that it would turn to a younger candidate more attuned to younger elements in the church and with possibly more stamina for the rigors of the modern papacy with nearly nonstop obligations and frequent global travel.
Pope Francis appears in good health, but his age and possible limitations from his single lung raise questions about whether he can face the demands of the position.
Unlike many of the other papal contenders, meanwhile, 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.
His church also had no say when the Argentine Supreme Court expanded access to legal abortions in rape cases, and when Bergoglio argued that gay adoptions discriminate against children. Fernandez compared his tone to “medieval times and the Inquisition.”
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, and his personal style has been the antithesis of Vatican splendor.
“It’s a very curious thing: When bishops meet, he always wants to sit in the back rows. This sense of humility is very well seen in Rome,” said the biographer Rubin.
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 twice invoked his right under Argentine law to refuse to appear in open court. When he eventually did testify in 2010, his answers were evasive, human rights attorney Myriam Bregman said.
At least two cases directly involved Bergoglio, who ran Argentina’s Jesuit order during the dictatorship.
One examined the torture of two of his Jesuit priests — Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics — who were kidnapped in 1976 from the slums where they advocated liberation theology, which is the belief that Jesus Christ’s teachings justify fights against social injustices.
Yorio accused Bergoglio of effectively handing them over to the death squads by declining to tell the regime that he endorsed their work. Jalics refused to discuss it after moving into seclusion in a German monastery.
Both men were freed after Bergoglio took extraordinary, behind-the-scenes action to save them — including persuading dictator Jorge Videla’s family priest to call in sick so that he could say Mass in the junta leader’s home, where he privately appealed for mercy. His intervention likely saved their lives, but Bergoglio never shared the details until Rubin interviewed him for the 2010 biography.
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.
But rights attorney Bregman said Bergoglio’s own statements proved church officials knew from early on that the junta was torturing and killing its citizens, and yet publicly endorsed the dictators.
“The dictatorship could not have operated this way without this key support,” she said.
Bergoglio also was accused of turning his back on a family that lost five relatives to state terror, including a young woman who was five months’ pregnant before she was kidnapped and killed in 1977. The De la Cuadra family appealed to the leader of the Jesuits in Rome, who urged Bergoglio to help them; Bergoglio then assigned a monsignor to the case. Months passed before the monsignor came back with a written note from a colonel: The woman had given birth in captivity to a girl who was given to a family “too important” for the adoption to be reversed.
Despite this written evidence in a case he was personally involved with, Bergoglio testified in 2010 that he didn’t know about any stolen babies until well after the dictatorship was over.
“Bergoglio has a very cowardly attitude when it comes to something so terrible as the theft of babies. He says he didn’t know anything about it until 1985,” said the baby’s aunt, Estela de la Cuadra, whose mother Alicia co-founded the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo in 1977 in hopes of identifying these babies. “He doesn’t face this reality and it doesn’t bother him. The question is how to save his name, save himself. But he can’t keep these allegations from reaching the public. The people know how he is.”
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, when the economy was collapsing, and won respect for blaming unrestrained capitalism for impoverishing millions of Argentines.
Later, there was little love lost between Bergoglio and Argentina’s government. Relations became so frigid that the president stopped attending his annual “Te Deum” address, when church leaders traditionally tell political leaders what’s wrong with society.
“Is Bergoglio a progressive, a liberation theologist even? No. He’s no Third World priest,” said Rubin. “Does he criticize the International Monetary Fund, and neoliberalism? Yes. Does he spend a great deal of time in the slums? Yes.”
Warren reported from Buenos Aires, Argentina.