When the newly elected Pope Francis stepped out onto the central balcony of St Peter’s Basilica for the first time on March 13, 2013, it was the culmination of two weeks of surprises.
Fourteen days earlier, his predecessor Benedict XVI shocked the world by becoming the first pope to resign in almost 600 years, shattering the status quo of pontiffs remaining in their role until death.
While he cited his advancing age as the motivation, many speculated that the financial and sexual abuse scandals sending tremors through the Roman Catholic Church may have prompted Benedict’s departure.
From his very first appearance, Francis set the tone for a different kind of papacy.
Shunning the lavish regalia of his predecessors, he emerged to greet the tens of thousands gathered in St Peter’s Square in a simple white cassock with a silver cross he had used for decades hanging from his neck.
Little-known outside of Latin America, the Argentinian was the first head of the Catholic church from the region, as well as the first from the Jesuit order, in the church’s almost 2,000-year history.
In his maiden speech as the 266th pope, Francis quipped that the cardinals who elected him had “come almost to the ends of the earth” to find him and, in a gesture of humility, invited those assembled to pray for him before he offered a blessing.
Almost seven years later, Francis enjoys a reputation as one of the most popular popes in living memory. He has amassed 18.2 million Twitter followers and, in 2019, became the subject of the acclaimed film The Two Popes, which received three Oscar nominations.
His austere lifestyle – choosing to live in a small suite in the Vatican hotel rather than the lavish papal apartments and carrying his own battered briefcase – has endeared him to many, inside and outside the church, and continues to influence his interpretation of his role, analysts say.
Referring to the cardinals who elected Francis, papal biographer Austen Ivereigh told Al Jazeera: “I think they felt he had the qualities of someone who could reform the Vatican and who could also help to reinvigorate the church at a time when, particularly in Europe, it had become rather tired and out of touch and seen as disconnected from ordinary people’s concerns.
“He’s made the papacy much more human, much more accessible, much less remote”.
One of the ways in which Francis has done this, Ivereigh said, is by welcoming those previously ostracised by the church back into the fold.
Perhaps his most famous remark to date came at a 2013 news conference when he responded to a question about homosexuality by saying: “Who am I to judge?,” apparently upending the church’s long-standing admonishment of same-sex relationships.
Francis later clarified that his comments simply meant everyone was deserving of God’s love and mercy.
“He comes with a much more pastoral approach, which means trying to minister to people’s needs in real life and standing alongside them in difficult situations, rather than handing down rules from on high as to how they should behave,” Paul Vallely, author of Pope Francis – Untying the Knots, told Al Jazeera.
Within the church, Francis has also brought change to synods – gatherings of bishops from around the world to discuss a particular issue. Analysts say that transforming the meetings from an austere formality into a platform for energetic debate may go on to be seen as Francis’s greatest achievement.
This willingness to engage has extended to Francis’s diplomatic efforts, which has seen the Holy See intercede to promote peace in South Sudan and Colombia and assist in negotiating the landmark re-establishment of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States.
Francis has also made an effort to foster ties with other religions – travelling to the United Arab Emirates in February 2019 to preside over an historic first mass on the Arabian Peninsula – and address hot-button global issues including migration and climate change.
“He’s spoken out a lot about economic injustices and the way that the poor are kept down in the world and the way that the planet is exploited and that the poor bear the main cost of the ecological crisis,” Vallely said.
“Those are things previous popes had paid lip service to but they hadn’t emphasised them in the same way”.
Ivereigh added that Francis’s open approach is an “important corrective” to a church “too often seen as a moralistic and distant institution”.
Despite his openness, however, Francis has staunchly adhered to traditional church positions on contentious issues such as the perceived sinfulness of abortion and the continuing ban on female priests.
Church in crisis
A change in approach was sorely needed after revelations of money laundering at the highly secretive Vatican Bank and allegations of church officials covering up sex abuse began coming to light in the early 2000s, severely damaging the church’s standing.
Francis has tackled the former by closing suspicious accounts and opening the bank up to mandatory external audit, but has faced criticism for a sluggish response to the latter in the early years of his papacy.
“He seemed to be dragging his feet, or else it didn’t seem to be very high up on his list of priorities,” Vallely said.
In 2014, Francis launched the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, which included survivors of clerical sex abuse, but he has failed to implement many of the commission’s recommendations, prompting some survivors to sever ties with the commission.
However, more emphasis has been placed on addressing the issue in recent years, with the first Vatican summit on child sex abuse being held in February 2019 and a landmark move to abolish pontifical secrecy for sex abuse investigations in December that year, removing confidentiality privileges in such cases.
Francis has also been criticised for some of his reforms by traditionalists, while reformists say he has not enacted change quickly enough.
Analysts say the key to understanding Francis and his philosophy lies in his actions during and after the military dictatorship in his native Argentina.
Born on December 17, 1936, in the capital, Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio – as Francis was known before becoming pope – was the eldest of five children.
His parents – accountant Mario Jose Bergoglio and Regina Maria Sivori, a housewife – were Italian immigrants who fled their homeland during the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini.
As a young man, Bergoglio underwent surgery to remove part of one lung and trained as a chemical technician, working briefly in the food-processing industry before beginning his religious training.
In 1958, he joined the Society of Jesus, becoming a Jesuit novice, and left Buenos Aires for a period of study in neighbouring Chile.
On his return to Argentina, Bergoglio taught literature and psychology while pursuing a degree in philosophy. He was ordained as a priest in 1969 and took his final vows in the Jesuit order in 1973.
The Dirty War
That same year, Bergoglio became head of the Jesuits in Argentina at just 37 years old.
His tenure coincided with the military dictatorship of Jorge Rafael Videla, who seized power in a coup in 1976 and presided over a brutal six-year period of state repression known as the Dirty War during which tens of thousands of perceived political dissidents were tortured, killed and disappeared.
The church’s role in this period remains contentious. While several priests resisted the dictatorship and sometimes lost their lives in the process, many more were complicit.
Bergoglio has been criticised for not vocally opposing the dictatorship and for his role in an incident that led to two Jesuit priests being abducted and tortured.
Orlando Yorio and Franz Jalics were working in poor areas of Buenos Aires when they were kidnapped by naval police in May 1976. They were held and tortured for five months before they were found, drugged but alive, in a field.
Bergoglio has been accused of effectively handing the priests over to the authorities by failing to endorse their social work, a charge the Vatican denies.
Bergoglio said he had worked behind the scenes to secure their release and later told a biographer that he had hidden several people from the authorities and helped them escape the country. As pope, he ordered the Vatican to open its files on the dictatorship to victims and their families.
“You can see that guilt being expunged in the way he works as Pope,” Vallely said.
“He constantly says ‘I am a sinner, I have to show mercy to people in the way that God has shown mercy to me'”.
As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, a role he assumed in 1997, Bergoglio gained support and notoriety for criticising the government’s fiscal policies during a period of economic instability known as the Argentine Great Depression.
He frequently butted heads with the administrations of Nestor Kirchner and Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner over social issues including the legalisation of same-sex marriage, free contraception and artificial insemination, though Fernandez de Kirchner later reconciled with Bergoglio after he became pope.
“He’s seen in Argentina often through the lens of the political divisions,” said Ivereigh.
“Among some Argentinians on the Left, he’s seen as too closely-linked to the military dictatorship of the 1970s – even though he wasn’t – but that’s how he was seen.
“On the Argentine right wing, he’s seen as too close to the left-wing workers movements and they fear that he’s a bit of a Marxist.”
While ministering in the poor areas of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio was nicknamed the “Bishop of the Slums” and he continued to rail against poverty and income inequality as pope.
Despite becoming an international figure, Francis’s love of his homeland is evident. A lifelong fan of Buenos Aires’ San Lorenzo de Almagro football club, Francis has a large collection of club memorabilia, now on display in the Vatican Museum. He is said to also enjoy tango dancing.