A little of this and a dash of that, combined with prayer and reflection, seems to be the recipe the 115 cardinals followed in choosing Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires as the 266th pontiff of the Catholic church. Both an insider and an outsider, he is the first pontiff from Latin America and the first Jesuit.
The Society of Jesus, as the Jesuits are called, is a teaching and missionary order, long associated with independence from secular authority and a passion for social justice. The new Pope is known for shunning the trappings of high religious office, preferring to travel by bus or subway and to live a humble life. He sent that message Wednesday by wearing a simple white robe for his first appearance as Pope Francis. His name harks back to the legacy of St. Francis of Assisi, the monk who devoted his life to the sick and the poor and who founded the Franciscan order.
Known as a conciliator and a man with a strong pastoral vocation – unlike Pope Benedict XVI, who was an acclaimed theologian and academic – Pope Francis faces huge issues: healing divisions in the church; stanching the exodus of parishioners and the dwindling number of vocations among priests; reforming the Curia, the clumsy and scandal-ridden Vatican bureaucracy; and imposing transparency and accountability in the Vatican bank. All of these reforms stumbled during his predecessor’s tenure. Said to have come second in the voting to elect former pope Benedict XVI in 2005, Pope Francis has enjoyed low-key but robust support among the College of Cardinals. Also, unlike Benedict, who had lived and worked in the Vatican for most of his career, Pope Francis has lived outside of Rome as a priest and archbishop in his native Argentina.
Although an advocate for the poor, he is a conservative on abortion, contraception and same-sex marriage, like his two predecessors. He was deeply opposed to the legalization of gay marriage in 2010 in Argentina, declaring it a “destructive attack on God’s plan.” He also spoke out against adoption by same-sex couples, insisting it would deprive children “of the human growth that God wanted them given by a father and a mother.” And yet he strongly believes in loving the sinner, even while deploring the sin. He has publicly baptized the babies of single mothers and visited an AIDS hospice where he washed and kissed the feet of a dozen patients.
Pope Francis also represents continuity because he was made a cardinal in 2001 under the very popular pope John Paul II, another social conservative with a charismatic appeal who fought for democracy and embraced the downtrodden. Yet, at 76, Pope Francis is only two years younger than Benedict XVI was when he ascended to the chair of St. Peter in 2005. Whether he has the physical and mental stamina to confront the challenges facing the church is a question that well may be asked in the coming weeks. Now that a precedent has been set for a pope to retire rather than die in office, who knows how long Pope Francis may reign?
His life is not without controversy, especially during the military dictatorship that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983. He was implicated in the detention of two young priests, a charge that he has flatly denied. Harder to defuse are the accusations that he didn’t do enough to support and protect church workers from brutal reprisals and crackdowns on anybody opposing the regime. Others argue that instead of overt action, he worked diligently behind the scenes in that demonic era when as many as 30,000 people may have been killed or “disappeared.”
Born in Buenos Aires on Dec. 17, 1936, he is one of several children of working-class Italian immigrants. As a teenager he suffered from a serious chest infection and had a lung removed. He set his youthful aspirations on a career in chemistry, earning a master’s degree at the University of Buenos Aires before finding his vocation and entering the Jesuit seminary of Villa Devoto. After earning a degree in philosophy from the Catholic University of Buenos Aires in 1960, he taught literature and psychology to high-school students for several years before returning to his own theological studies. He was ordained on Dec. 13, 1969.
He rose through the Jesuit ranks and was elected superior of the Jesuit province of Argentina in 1973, and appointed one of three auxillary bishops of Buenos Aires in 1992. Despite his senior position, he maintained a low profile, devoting himself to pastoral work with priests. In 1998, he was installed as the archbishop of Buenos Aires. As archbishop and as cardinal, he excelled as both an administrator and as a pastor, and travelled to synods in other parts of the world, including Canada, impressing participants with his spirituality.