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Pope Francis, an Argentine, to Guide the Catholic Church

March 14, 2013

The new Pope is Latin American—an Argentine Jesuit, to be exact. The decision took the world by surprise and left even the new Pope himself, who had left most of his things at the Residence for Priests in Rome, dumbfounded. Predictions mostly pointed at figures from Brazil, Ghana, the United States, European Countries and, yes, even Argentina. But as it turns out, no one was expecting to hear Jorge Bergoglio, now known as Pope Francis, announced as Pope Benedict XVI’s successor. This makes the Argentine Pope the first from Latin America and the first Jesuit chosen for the highest position in the Catholic Church.

Rising to Power

Pope Francis was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on December 17, 1936, to an Italian immigrant couple. He originally received a technical degree in chemistry at a secondary school before becoming a Jesuit and studying at the Jesuit Seminary of Villa Devoto. He also studied liberal arts in Santiago, Chile, and gained a degree in philosophy at the Catholic University of Buenos Aires in 1960. He taught literature and psychology at a high school in Santa Fe province and later at a Jesuit high school in Buenos Aires. In 1967, he began to seriously purse a path in the church and was ordained a priest in 1969.

After his career as a priest, leader of the Argentine Jesuit community and rector of the Philosophical and Theological Faculty of San Miguel, he was ordained Bishop of Auca in 1992 and took up his position as one of the four auxiliary Bishops of Buenos Aires. After years of work in the Catholic University, counseling priests and hearing confessions, he was named coadjutor archbishop of Buenos Aires in 1997, only to be named the new archbishop in 1998. He acted as adjunct realtor general of the 10th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in 2001 and president of the Bishops’ Conference of Argentina from 2005 to 2011. He was also proclaimed Cardinal by Pope John Paul II. At a peak in his career in 2005, he was reportedly the runner-up in the elections for Pope which ended in the election of Joseph Ratzinger, or former Pope Benedict XVI.

A Theological Conservative and Social Moderate with a Controversy in his Past

Bergoglio is known for his deep spirituality, gift for pastoral leadership, commitment to social causes especially poverty alleviation, and for his strong negotiating skills and willingness to speak out—even against the most powerful. These are qualities that were probably taken into account by the cardinals who elected him. The challenges that Pope Francis will face both within the Vatican and elsewhere are deeply complex and serious.

In the book The Silence, Horacio Verbitsky (a journalist with close ties to President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner) documents parts of the military dictatorship from 1976 to 1983. In a testimony by María Elena Funes, a detainee at EMSA, one of the largest detention centers during the dictatorship, he was linked to the capture and imprisonment of two young priests, suggesting a possible cozy relationship with the military. But these claims are generally denounced as false with his role instead being a leader who assisted dissidents.

Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, S.J., is elected Pope Francis. Photo: Catholic Church (England and Wales). Homepage photo courtesy of Flickr user "enggul"
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Argentine Nobel Peace Prize winner, Adolfo Pérez Esquivel and former presidential candidate and ex-member of the National Commission on Disappearance of Persons (CONADEP) Graciela Fernández Meijide affirm that Bergoglio did not have sinister relations with the military during the dictatorship. Bergoglio himself, in his book The Jesuit, responds to the criticism, denying his responsibility for the circumstances that led to the priests’ capture. With more details, former judge, secretary of human rights and ombudswoman of the City of Buenos Aires, Alicia Olivera, affirms that Bergoglio supported her when she was removed from her position as judge by the military dictatorship. Olivera further remarks that he tried to help the young priests’ situation. This controversy will probably bring some troubles to Pope Francis, but as Robert Cox, former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald, exiled in 1979, opines, while Bergoglio has not done enough to publicly explain the incident, he did as much as he could behind the scenes.

During his time as the leader of Argentina’s Catholic Church Bergoglio has tried to keep a relatively low profile in politics. When the Cardinal did choose to speak out, however, he held nothing back. He is an outspoken critic of gay marriage, describing Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s equal marriage rights initiative in 2010 as not just a “political fight,” but also an “attempt to destroy God’s plan.” He is also staunchly against abortion and adoption rights for gay couples. On the other hand, Bergoglio showed more tolerance for the use of contraceptives, recognizing that they represent a good way to avoid unwanted pregnancies, although he opposes their free distribution in Argentina. Furthermore, he is known for supporting single mothers whose children were born out of wedlock—not a common cause for a Catholic clergy member.

His outspokenness often put him at odds with both Nestor and Cristina Kirchner. Although the current president and her late husband are members of the Peronist Party and Bergoglio generally adheres to peronist ideals (especially in the protection of the working class and political and social equality for all classes), social issues and other political matters have driven them apart.

At the same time, Bergoglio is acutely aware of social issues in Argentina and Latin America, especially the plight of the poor—a common theme in Latin American churches particularly since the Second Vatican Council 1960s. During the economic crisis in 2001, he criticized the government for acting without thinking of the people. He pointed out that the government’s role is to act in the best interest of its citizens, with the participation of the people—something absent during the previous decade. Bergoglio is also praised for his efforts to engage with individuals outside the church. He was, for example, extremely active in taking care of victims and comforting the families of the 194 individuals killed in the Cromagnon club fire in 2005, even visiting the hospitals and holding special masses in their honor.

Following Jesuit tradition, he is also known as a particularly modest spiritual leader, opting for a simple apartment instead of the infinitely more luxurious housing provided in Buenos Aires, taking the bus and choosing to engage in social outreach to “promote and facilitate” the Christian faith, rather than “regulate it.” He frequented slums on the outskirts of Buenos Aires city and was known for living among the people he taught. Even his name of choice, Francis, is in honor of a twelth-century saint who rejected a wealthy life to live among the poor. Such an attitude may even spill over into his role as the Pope: during his first address, he refered to himself as the Bishop of Rome, not Pope. He also took time on his first morning to visit Rome’s Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore and speak with priests.

A New Direction for the Church?

The rise of Pope Francis seems to promise a welcome change in the Catholic faith. It is, of course, particularly significant for Latin America, as he is the first non-European Pope in 1,300 years. Latin America is home to some 40 percent of Catholics, the most of any region in the world.

At home, the Argentine Pope’s rise will surely have an impact. Argentina is by no means the most religious country in Latin America. Although the vast majority define themselves as Christians, few are churchgoers. With only a 25 percent attendance, it places behind Mexico, Peru, Brazil and Venezuela. But with the Pope being Argentine, churches are likely to fill up with newly inspired members. The abortion conversation was already, for the most part, off the table; now it is pretty much over.

The question now is just what will be the first Latin American Pope’s impact on the continent and the image of the continent abroad? Pope Francis is expected to focus more on social issues, with the hope being that the focus can finally turn away from sexual abuse scandals and political infighting. Despite controversies, Pope Francis is definitely a sign of a new, promising direction for the Catholic Church. As a sensible and austere Latin American with a social focus and a history of governing a complex bureaucracy in a difficult environment, Francis seems to be well equipped to lead the way to a renewed Catholic Church.

Tags: Vatican, Pope Francis, Jorge Bergoglio

To speak with an expert on this topic, please contact the communications office at: communications@as-coa.org or (212) 277-8384.
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