AS CARDINAL Jorge Mario Bergoglio prepares to take over a Catholic Church rocked by sex-abuse scandals and allegations of corruption, the sharp knives of Argentina’s politics will have prepared him well.
Now known as Francis, and the first non-European pope in over 1,200 years, he frequently clashed with president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, criticising her government’s record in tackling poverty and leading protests against her proposal to legalise same-sex marriages.
The 76-year-old Jesuit also had to defend himself from charges that he was complicit with the nation’s 1976-1983 military dictatorship, whose leaders were put on trial by Fernandez and her late husband and predecessor, Nestor Kirchner.
“You have to choose a pope that accepts challenges, and he managed to resist gratuitous attacks for 10 years,” said Sergio Bergman, a Buenos Aires rabbi who has worked with the new pope for two decades. “I think it factored into his selection.”
Tensions with Bergoglio stem from what Fernandez and Kirchner considered the Church’s unfair criticism of their rebuilding of Argentina’s economy after its 2001 collapse. Kirchner in 2005 broke an almost two-century tradition whereby Argentinian presidents commemorate the first independence revolution against Spain at a special Mass held at the Buenos Aires Cathedral. He held a celebration in a western province.
At the following year’s Mass, Bergoglio criticised “exhibitionism and loud announcements”, which Kirchner’s Peronist government took as a veiled jab at its policies.
Bergoglio’s biggest fight with Fernandez came in 2010, when he led protests against a government proposal to make Argentina the first Latin American country to recognise same-sex marriage. Bergoglio said Fernandez’s plan wasn’t “just a political question, but intended to destroy God’s plan”.
“Politically, the Argentine government always viewed him with mistrust,” said Rosendo Fraga, a political analyst in Buenos Aires. “In the government’s offices there was a sigh of relief when he recently left as head of the episcopate,” the body of bishops from Argentina.
Relations also are strained as a result of Bergoglio’s alleged connection with the 1976 kidnapping of two activist priests under his supervision.
One of the priests, Orlando Yorio, accused Bergoglio of handing them over to the armed forces following a dispute over their work in a Buenos Aires slum, according to a 2005 book by Horacio Verbitsky, a Fernandez ally. Yorio died prior to publication of the book, called The Silence, which explores the Church’s ties to the generals.
In the same book, Bergoglio rejected the charges that he was complicit, and in an interview with the author said that his meeting with two members of the ruling junta, Emilio Massera and Jorge Videla, was to seek the priests’ release.
Bergoglio projects an image of humility in line with the teachings of his Jesuit order and one of the Church’s most-revered saints, the 13th-century priest Francis of Assisi. His episcopal motto is “miserando atque eligendo”, Latin for “lowly, yet chosen”, according to the Buenos Aires archdiocese.
He still rides public transport in the Argentinian capital and is a fan of Buenos Aires’s San Lorenzo soccer club. Shortly after being made archbishop more than a decade ago, he washed the feet of 12 Aids patients. Instead of ordering new ceremonial garments when he was ordained a cardinal in 2001, he made alterations to his predecessor’s wardrobe, Buenos Aires’s La Nacion newspaper reported.
Gabriela Michetti, an opposition lawmaker who confesses to Bergoglio, described him as a very spiritual man who wakes up daily at 5am to pray alone for three hours.
“He has an enormous difficulty assuming a high profile,” said Michetti. “That will be a challenge for him.”
Like all the cardinals who were considered in the papal election, Bergoglio’s theology is relatively conservative, said Chester Gillis, a professor of theology at Georgetown University, a Jesuit school in Washington. “But his stance on social justice is really progressive and he has been a champion of social justice in Latin America,” he said.
Bergoglio said in 2009 that human rights aren’t abused only by terrorists and during times of political repression, but whenever extreme poverty exists. A few days later, Fernandez retorted: “There’s two classes of people: Those who make declarations about poverty and those of us who take action every day to combat it.”
In a speech outside Buenos Aires on Wednesday night, Fernandez urged the new pope to deliver a message to the “world’s powers, those that have weapons and financial power, so they can turn their attention to their own societies” and seek peace through dialogue. The statement echoed Argentina’s feud with the UK over sovereignty over the Falkland Islands.
Bergoglio didn’t have to step outside of Buenos Aires’s neo-classical cathedral to confront some of the passionate opinions that will dog him as he tries to maintain a role for the Vatican’s teachings in the modern world. Dozens of red-flag-waving activists from a pro-government group stormed the cathedral’s marble-floored nave this week, and held it for hours to protest against subsidies for private education being offered by the city government, which is run by a Fernandez opponent.
“You have to have character, you have to have courage, you have to have patience and at the same time be moderate,” said Bergman, who is also city councilman for a party opposed to Fernandez. “He has all that and showed it.”