Humble Jesuit who shunned limousine for bus

Pope Francis waves to the crowd from the central balcony of St Peter's Basilica at the Vatican. Picture: AP
Pope Francis waves to the crowd from the central balcony of St Peter's Basilica at the Vatican. Picture: AP
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IT was widely reported that he had come second to Benedict XVI eight years earlier. Last night, amid the chill in St Peter’s Square, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio replaced him.

Even so, when his name was announced last night, there was still a surprise factor. He is the first South American and the first Jesuit to become Bishop of Rome.

It was said that this may be the election when the Italians brought the Papacy home. If they did not quite do that, they did manage one of Italian descent. Jorge Bergoglio was born on December 17 1936 in Buenos Aires, one of five children of an Italian railway worker.

Initially, he planned to become a chemist but, in 1958, chose instead to enter the Society of Jesus. He spent much of his early career teaching literature, psychology and philosophy, and early on he was seen as a rising star. From 1973 to 1979 he served as the Jesuit provincial in Argentina, then in 1980 became the rector of the seminary from which he had graduated.

They were turbulent times, with a military junta ruling Argentina and many priests, especially his fellow Jesuits, flocking towards the liberation theology movement, which sought to apply Christian values to unjust economic, political and social conditions.

However, Fr Bergoglio was not among them, and told his priest that they should remain spiritual priests in parishes, rather than getting involved in political activism.

His conservative credentials were cemented as he became close to Comunione e Liberazione movement, which also won support from John Paul II, and emerged in the late 1960s as a reaction against the revolutionary movements across university campuses.

His actions during that time have also come under scrutiny. His allies claim he secretly hid and helped people escape from the brutal dictatorship in the country, opting not to openly challenge the regime for pragmatic reasons. But critics say he failed to help others who were murdered and, in one case, ignored a woman whose baby was stolen by the regime. His actions are sure to be resurrected now he is Pope.

That history may place him in the “Conservative” camp. Like his two predecessors, he is unwavering on matters of sexual morality and is likely to continue to oppose same-sex marriage and contraception in the same way.

But political labels often fall short of describing the reality of such Church leaders.

His authorised biographer Sergio Rubin: “Is Bergoglio a progressive - a liberation theologist even? No. He’s no third-world priest. Does he criticise the International Monetary Fund, and neoliberalism? Yes. Does he spend a great deal of time in the slums? Yes.”

In recent times, that has seen him noting that the level of inequality across the world “cries out to Heaven”.

He has also won a reputation for his personal humility. Despite his speedy ascent up the church ladder, he continued to live in a simple apartment rather than an archbishop’s palace, who gave up the trappings of office, such as a chauffered limousine in favour of the bus, and cooked his own meals.

He has also warned about the dangers of the Church turning in on itself and ignoring the world around it. He considers social outreach, rather than doctrinal battles, to be the essential business of the church. Nor has he been shy in attacking the failures within his church, having accused his 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,” he told Argentina’s priests last year.

He spoke out after it emerged that some priests were not baptizing the children of single mothers.

“These are today’s hypocrites,” he said. Those who clericalise the Church. Those who separate the people of God from salvation.”

But his influence seemed to stop when it came to the State and he could not prevent Argentina legalising gay marriage. And his church had no say when the Argentine Supreme Court expanded access to legal abortions in rape cases, and when he argued that gay adoptions discriminate against children, Fernandez compared his tone to “medieval times and the Inquisition.”

Under his leadership, Argentina’s bishops issued a collective apology in October 2012 for the church’s failures to protect its flock about the country’s 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. 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 criticised the leftist guerrillas; he doesn’t forget that side,” Mr Rubin said.

The bishops also said “we exhort those who have information about the location of stolen babies, or who know where bodies were secretly buried, that they realize they are morally obligated to inform the pertinent authorities.”

That statement came far too late for some activists, who accused the cardinal of being more concerned about the church’s image than about aiding human rights investigations.

Some have questioned whether he has the “fire in his belly” – especially at the age of 76 – to take on such a vast role. As was suggested by his disarming appearance on the balcony of St Peter’s Basillica last night, he is no actor on the stage, like John Paul II. Friends instead say he is most comfortable taking a very low profile.

“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,” Mr Rubin said before the conclave began.

In 2005, that appears to have ensured cardinals opted against him, and for Joseph Ratzinger instead. It appears this time round, that the cardinals had got to know him a little better. The fact that a man of first world heritage and third world experience is now at the helm of the Church will also have counted in his favour – as someone who may able to unite a fractured church.