by Gabriela LeBaron and Tim Shenk
Committee on U.S.-Latin American Relations (CUSLAR)
Who is Pope Francis? The large number of publications trying to answer this question suggests a great global curiosity about the 266th leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.
Known in Argentina as the “bishop of the slums,” Jorge Mario Bergoglio became the first Latin American Pope in 2013 at age 76.
Bergoglio grew up in Buenos Aires, one of the wealthiest and fastest growing cities in the world at that time. His grandparents, who were coffee merchants, migrated to Argentina from Italy during the Argentine economic boom in the early 1900s. It is likely they were fleeing the Benito Mussolini dictatorship, as Bergoglio’s grandmother, Rosa, was a fierce activist and a regular speaker against Mussolini. Rosa was little Jorge’s caretaker and his single greatest influence.
An intense spiritual experience caused young Bergoglio to leave the study of medicine and train to be a Jesuit priest. Jesuits belong to a Catholic order known for humility, service and a commitment to working with and among the poor.
Bergoglio was ordained as a priest in 1969 as the sweeping reforms of the Second Vatican Council were taking effect. Liberation theology, developed by priests, nuns and lay leaders combatting inequality and repression of the region’s poor, was taking hold in the Latin American church. Bergoglio became known as a proponent of methodical reforms. For this he was accused of being a conservative by radicals and a radical by conservatives. Whatever his ideological position, his actions showed a deep commitment to the dignity of the most destitute and marginalized of society.
During the Argentine Dirty War of the 1970s, when the military dictatorship tortured and disappeared thousands who dared speak out, Bergoglio worked quietly.
Because anyone who worked in the slums was already suspect, and overt opposition would cast suspicion on his community and all Jesuits, Bergoglio’s actions were calculated. Among his most daring actions were hiding leftist groups on church property under the guise of hosting spiritual retreats. He also personally escorted those in hiding to safe places where they connected with others who would help them flee the country.
In recent years he has taken much criticism for not doing enough to protect two young priests, Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics, who spent six months in prison in 1976 undergoing torture for their “subversive activities” in the Bajo Flores slum of Buenos Aires. Some allege that Bergoglio, then provincial superior, withdrew his protection of the priests, which opened the door for military kidnapping. Bergoglio has since sworn that he did everything in his power, including meeting with dictator Jorge Rafael Videla, to free Yorio and Jalics. He was finally able to secure passports and visas for the two to leave Argentina.
Bergoglio was named bishop in 1992, Archbishop in 1998 and Cardinal in 2001. He was seriously considered for Pope in 2005, but German theologian Joseph Ratzinger, who took the name Benedict XVI, was selected instead.
Many have incorrectly attempted to suggest that Benedict and Francis were at odds, that Benedict was a conservative committed to antiquated doctrine and Francis is a radical concerned with social justice.
Italian journalist Marco Politi paints a different picture in his 2015 book, Pope Francis Among the Wolves. He argues that Benedict was severely limited by the corrupt and entrenched officers below him at the Vatican. Seeing no way forward for reforming a Catholic church repeatedly rocked by embezzlement and pedophilia scandals, he became the first Pope to abdicate the post in over 700 years.
According to Politi, “by resigning, he triggered the automatic resignation, as stipulated by canon law, of the other principal office holders of the church’s central government. De facto, his decision to abdicate amounted to a sort of coup d’etat, a virtual ‘reboot’ of the Vatican.”
When Francis was elected by the conclave of Cardinals in March 2013, he had much more maneuverability to reflect the will of its global body to “clean house” and restore authority, respectability and an open, modern flavor to the Catholic faith.
While some see Pope Francis’s pastoral style and humility as populist imagery and rhetoric, those close to him say the name Francis fits him well. He has always trusted the insight of the poor in struggling for their basic rights and dignity.
In being the first Pope to take the namesake of Francis of Assisi, he signaled that he meant to follow through on his desire for “a church of the poor, for the poor.” Viva il Papa Francesco.