Pope of the Americas

Francis, the first Pontiff from the New World, has a lot of old problems to deal with

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Luca Bruno / AP

Pope Francis bows to the crowd from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican on March 13, 2013.

But the fact that he held his own in balloting in 2005 against the formidable Ratzinger indicates that Bergoglio has always had the respect of the Cardinals. And though he has not worked in Rome, he has had enough dealings with the secretive and sclerotic Curia to be able to work with it. In that way, he is both an outsider and an insider.

His background is one of accomplishment and humility amid adversity and controversy. His father was a railway worker from Torino who moved to Buenos Aires, where the future Pope was born in 1936. Bergoglio lost a lung to an infection as a teenager, and as he headed toward college, he chose the priesthood over a career in chemistry. He weathered the difficult and dangerous 1970s, when Argentina was ruled by the military, by keeping close to religious life and philosophy and away from the activism that got many fellow clerics into fatal trouble—a quietism that did not sit well with other priests once the junta was gone. Nevertheless, he moved up in the hierarchy of the church, becoming Archbishop of Buenos Aires in 1998. Three years later, John Paul II made him a Cardinal.

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The personality of any Pope and his biography will be paramount in judging what to expect from his rule. Yet there is also much to learn about how the new Pope will administer his kingdom from what transpired in the Sistine Chapel among the Cardinal electors charged with discerning God’s will for the leadership of the church. As the absolute ruler of the Roman Catholic Church, Francis can do as he pleases. But the politics of the conclave that elected him provides a few clues about how he will move forward in his papacy.

Two large, if amorphous, factions appeared to be circling each other in the run-up to the election. One was composed of adherents of the Curia, keen to preserve the power and privileges of their offices—some of which have been around for centuries. The other faction included those who have had to contend with the church’s real-world crises—Cardinals from the U.S. and their allies who have been chastened, for example, by more than a decade of the abuse scandal. The Curia—in spirit Italian, if not entirely in fact—appeared to be pressing the candidacy of Cardinal Odilo Scherer of Brazil, whose New World origins would make an exciting, historic splash. The non-Curia faction seemed, paradoxically, to be promoting Cardinal Angelo Scola of Milan, who while not a Curia favorite, is Italian and knows how to maneuver through local politics. Bergoglio, who has Curia credentials but who also has had to deal with the powers that be of the secular world, may have ended up as the perfect compromise candidate.

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Like Scola, he has links to a somewhat controversial Italian movement called Comunione e Liberazione, which pursues activism though conservative religious engagement with the secular world. Like Scherer, who has had to work with leftist secular governments in Brazil, he has had years of experience butting heads with less-than-friendly civilian rulers. Though Roman Catholicism remains Argentina’s official religion and abortion remains illegal, Bergoglio, as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, has clashed with President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who helped legalize gay marriage in 2010. She once joked that it was a shame that women couldn’t be Pope because she would run against him for the position. Meanwhile, his homilies indicate that he is opposed to her changing the country’s constitution to seek a third term in office.

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Bergoglio will not stray from the conservative doctrines of the rest of the Vatican. But unlike some of the other often opaquely eloquent Cardinals, he brings a prosaic and experiential perspective to administering the church. “We have to avoid the spiritual sickness of a self-referential church,” Bergoglio told La Stampa, talking about evangelism. “It’s true that when you get out into the street, as happens to every man and woman, there can be accidents. However, if the church remains closed in on itself, self-referential, it gets old … I have no doubts about preferring the former.” His lifestyle is spartan compared with that of other princes of the church. He does not live in a Cardinal’s palace, and in Buenos Aires, he takes the bus to work. On March 13, as crowds gathered in the Argentine capital to celebrate, one young priest in the crowd said, “He’s the Vicar of Christ, but I used to see him riding with us on the subway.”

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