Argentina's pope a modest man focused on the poor
BUENOS AIRES — The first Latin American pope, Argentina's Jorge Bergoglio, is a theological conservative with a strong social conscience, and a modest man who declined the archbishop's luxurious residence to live in a simple apartment and travel by bus.
He was the runner-up in the 2005 conclave that elected German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to become Pope Benedict. He was not an obvious candidate, but moderate cardinals looking for an alternative to the then Vatican doctrinal chief backed him.
His election came as a shock to Catholics because, at 76, he was considered far above the ideal age to replace a pope who broke tradition and resigned because of his advanced years. He had hardly been mentioned among the “papabili” (possible popes).
The decision to take the papal name Francis, the first pope to name himself after the legendary St. Francis of Assisi, was also surprising because it evokes a life of simplicity and humility far removed from the splendor of the Vatican.
Described by his biographer as a balancing force, Bergoglio has the ways of a monk, is media shy and deeply concerned about the social inequalities rife in his homeland and elsewhere in Latin America.
“He is absolutely capable of undertaking the necessary renovation without any leaps into the unknown. He would be a balancing force,” said Francesca Ambrogetti, who co-authored a biography of Bergoglio after carrying out a series of interviews with him over three years.
“He shares the view that the Church should have a missionary role, that gets out to meet people, that is active ... a Church that does not so much regulate the faith as promote and facilitate it,” she added.
“His lifestyle is sober and austere. That's the way he lives. He travels on the underground, the bus, when he goes to Rome he flies economy class.”
The former cardinal, the first Jesuit to become pope, was born into a middle-class family of seven, his father an Italian immigrant railway worker and his mother a housewife.
He is a solemn man, deeply attached to centuries-old Roman Catholic traditions as he showed by asking the crowd cheering his election to say the Our Father and Hail Mary prayers.
Bergoglio is a member of well-known Argentine soccer club San Lorenzo.
“He was always a very pleasant and accessible person,” said Roberto Crubellier, 65, a church employee in a downtown Buenos Aires church where Bergoglio used to go and pray.
“He used to walk from the cathedral (about 10 blocks) and he stayed, praying silently in the last rows of pews, as though he was just an ordinary guy.”
In his rare public appearances, Bergoglio spares no harsh words for politicians and Argentine society, and has had a tricky relationship with President Cristina Fernandez and her late husband and predecessor, Nestor Kirchner.
Bergoglio became a priest at 32, nearly a decade after losing a lung due to respiratory illness and quitting his chemistry studies.
Despite his late start, he was leading the local Jesuit community within four years, holding the post of provincial of the Argentine Jesuits from 1973 to 1979.
He was appointed auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires in 1992 and archbishop in 1998.