Profile: Pope Francis

An austere Jesuit intellectual who modernised what had been one of the most conservative churches in Latin America.
Last Modified: 13 Mar 2013 22:29

Argentine Jorge Mario Bergoglio, elected the new pope on March 13, has chosen the papal name Francis, becoming the first pontiff from the Americas and the first from outside Europe in more than a millennium.

Bergoglio, an austere Jesuit intellectual who modernised what had been one of the most conservative Roman Catholic churches in Latin America, has spent nearly his entire career at home in Argentina, overseeing many churches and priests.

The 76-year-old reportedly got the second-most votes after Joseph Ratzinger in the 2005 papal election, and he has long specialised in the kind of pastoral work that some say is an essential skill for the next pope.

Initially trained as a chemist, Bergoglio taught literature, psychology, philosophy and theology before taking over as Buenos Aires archbishop in 1998.

"In just six years, he went from being a priest in a small convent in a province, to being archbishop of Buenos Aires and future Cardinal Primate of Argentina. His career has been meteoric." Bergoglio's authorised biographer, Sergio Rubin, said.

Bergoglio became cardinal in 2001, when the economy was collapsing, and won respect for blaming unrestrained capitalism for impoverishing millions of Argentines.

Political influence

Bergoglio is known for his efforts to repair the reputation of a church that lost many followers by failing to openly challenge Argentina's murderous 1976-1983 dictatorship.

He also worked to recover the church's traditional political influence in society.

But his influence seemed to stop at the presidential palace door after Nestor Kirchner and then his wife, Cristina Fernandez, took over the Argentina's government.

His outspoken criticism could not prevent Argentina from becoming the Latin American country to legalise gay marriage, or stop Fernandez from promoting free contraception and artificial insemination.

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".

Like other Jesuit intellectuals, Bergoglio has focused on social outreach.

Powerful speech

Catholics are still buzzing over his speech last year accusing fellow church officials of hypocrisy for forgetting that Jesus Christ bathed lepers and ate with prostitutes.

"In our ecclesiastical region there are priests who don't baptise the children of single mothers because they weren't conceived in the sanctity of marriage," Bergoglio told his priests.

"These are today's hypocrites. ... 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 baptised," he has said.

Bergoglio compared this concept of Catholicism, "this Church of 'come inside so we make decisions and announcements between ourselves and those who don't come in, don't belong'", to the Pharisees of Christ's time: people who congratulate themselves while condemning others.

As Argentina's top church official, he has never lived in the ornate church mansion, preferring a simple bed in a downtown room heated by a small stove on frigid weekends.

For years, he took public transportation around the city, and cooked his own meals.

Bergoglio has slowed a bit with age and is feeling the effects of having a lung removed due to infection when he was a teenager - two strikes against him at a time when many Vatican watchers say the next pope should be relatively young and strong.


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