Argentina's Jorge Bergoglio, elected Pope Francis I (C) waves from the window of St Peter's Basilica's balcony after being elected the 266th pope of the Roman Catholic Church on March 13, 2013 at the Vatican. AFP PHOTO / VINCENZO PINTOVINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images
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VATICAN CITY — In unadorned white robes, the first pope from the Americas sets a tone of simplicity and pastoral humility in a church desperate to move past the tarnished era of abuse scandals and internal Vatican upheavals.
The choice of Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio — who took the name Francis — reflected a series of history-making decisions by fellow cardinals who seemed determined to offer a message of renewal to a church under pressures on many fronts.
The 76-year-old archbishop of Buenos Aires — 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 austere style he cultivated while modernizing Argentina’s conservative Catholic church.
In taking the name Francis, he drew connections to the 13th century’s St. Francis of Assisi, who saw his calling as trying to rebuild the church in a time of turmoil. It also evokes images of 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, is known as a humble man who denied himself the luxuries that previous Buenos Aires cardinals enjoyed. He came close to becoming pope last time, reportedly gaining the second-highest vote total in several rounds of voting before he bowed out of the running in the conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI.
Groups of supporters waved Argentine flags in St. Peter’s Square as Francis, wearing simple white robes, made his first public appearance as pope.
“Ladies and gentlemen, 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.
Bergoglio often rode the bus to work, cooked his own meals and regularly visited the slums that ring Argentina’s capital. He considers social outreach, rather than doctrinal battles, to be the essential business of the church.
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’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 murderous 1976-83 dictatorship. He also worked to recover the church’s traditional political influence in society, but his outspoken criticism of President Cristina Kirchner 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.
“In our ecclesiastical region, there are priests who don’t baptize the children of single mothers because they weren’t conceived in the sanctity of marriage,” Bergoglio told his priests. “These are today’s hypocrites. Those who clericalize the church. 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!”
This sort of pastoral work, aimed at capturing more souls and building the flock, is an essential skill for any religious leader in the modern era, said Bergoglio’s authorized biographer, Sergio Rubin.
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,” Rubin said before the 2013 conclave to choose Benedict’s successor.
Bergoglio’s influence seemed to stop at the presidential palace door after Nestor Kirchner and then his wife, Cristina Fernandez, took over Argentina’s government.
His church 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.”
This kind of demonization is unfair, says Rubin, who obtained an extremely rare interview with Bergoglio for his biography, “The Jesuit.”
“Is Bergoglio a progressive — a liberation theologist even? No. He’s no third-world priest. Does he criticize the International Monetary Fund and neoliberalism? Yes. Does he spend a great deal of time in the slums? Yes,” Rubin said.
Bergoglio has stood out for his austerity. 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, heated by a small stove on frigid weekends. For years, he took public transportation around the city, and cooked his own meals.
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 Rubin.
That attitude was burnished as human rights activists tried to force him to answer uncomfortable questions about what church officials knew and did about the dictatorship’s abuses after the 1976 coup.
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,” Rubin said.