VATICAN CITY — The man who will move into the 10-room papal residence inside the vaulted gates of the Holy See lives in a simple, austere apartment across from the Cathedral of Buenos Aires. In a city with a taste for luxury and status, he frequently prepares his own meals and abandoned the limousine of his high office to hop on “el micro” — Argentine slang for the bus.
A staunch conservative and devout Jesuit in Latin America’s most socially progressive nation, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, is an almost Solomonesque choice by the princes of the church.
The 76-year-old hails from a country and a continent where the once powerful voice of the church is increasingly falling flat, losing ground — as it is in Europe — to a tide of more permissive and pragmatic faiths and to fast-rising secularism. He gives voice to a church whose center of global gravity is increasingly shifting south.
But the first Latin American pope also represents a cultural bridge between two worlds — the son of Italian immigrants in a country regarded by some as the New World colony Italy never had. For many Italians, his heritage makes him the next best thing to the return of an Italian pope.
Bergoglio remains a fierce critic of socially progressive trends, including gay marriage, representing a continuity of Benedict XVI’s conservative doctrine. Though questioned for some of his actions during Argentina’s Dirty War, he may also be a target hard for progressives to hit. In recent decades, he has emerged as a champion of social justice and the poor who has spoken out against the evils of globalization and slammed the “demonic effects of the imperialism of money.”
His papal name honors St. Francis of Assisi, the son of wealthy merchants who abandoned all for a life of poverty in the path of Jesus Christ.
At the same time, in the age of 24-hour news cycles and the cult of celebrity excess, he is described by some as so retro as to be something oddly new. He represents a flashback to an old-school view of the Catholic leaders as humble, soft-spoken clerics who walked among their flock and led by example — though he has also used the Internet as a tool to reach lapsed Catholics.
“He knows how to take a municipal bus,” said the Rev. Robert Pelton, the director of Latin American/North American Church Concerns at the University of Notre Dame. “When he became a local ordinary of Buenos Aires, he moved from a large, impressive home to a modest dwelling. He has a sense of social justice, but he can be seen as quite conservative doctrinally.”
“He’s a simple person,” Pelton added. “The fact is that he has a straightforwardness and simplicity that is quite unusual in public figures of our time.”
It remains unclear whether even Latin Americans will respond with newfound energy to Bergoglio’s ascension to the throne of St. Peter. Among many of its neighbors, Argentina is seen as a nation apart — a country that fancies itself more European than Latin American, with many likely to see the rise of an Italian Argentine as largely unrepresentative of the region as a whole.
“Argentina is so secular today, a more Eurocentric Latin country,” said Joseph M. Palacios, a specialist in religion and society in Latin America at Georgetown University. “They are Catholic by culture but not by practice. Geopolitically it makes sense in terms of bridging Europe to Latin America or the Third World, but Argentines don’t see themselves as being Third World.”
In his global introduction from the balcony of St. Peter’s, he addressed the crowd in Italian, one of three languages he speaks fluently. He presented himself as soft- and plainspoken, humble, even quaint, directing his comments seemingly to the citizens of his new city, Rome, more than to the 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide.
“And now let us begin this journey, the bishop and people, this journey of the Church of Rome, which presides in charity over all the churches, a journey of brotherhood in love, of mutual trust,” he said. “Let us always pray for one another. Let us pray for the whole world that there might be a great sense of brotherhood. My hope is that this journey of the church that we begin today, together with help of my Cardinal Vicar, be fruitful for the evangelization of this beautiful city.”
Born in Buenos Aires on Dec. 17, 1936, Bergoglio was raised in a struggling middle-class home of a railroad worker and a homemaker. He was ordained a priest in 1969, and his ascent toward higher office occurred during a time when the Catholic Church in Argentina stood accused of, at best, failing to speak out against — and, at worst, being complicit in — the harsh right-wing dictatorships of the Dirty War, under which an estimated 30,000 dissidents disappeared between 1976 and 1983.