After Bergoglio’s selection as pope, Kirchner issued a statement saying she hoped his move to Rome as Pope Francis — a name she said she thought came from St. Francis of Assisi, who gave up earthly wealth — would bring the “option of the poor” closer to the “hierarchy” of the church.
Tension over social issues
But perhaps not surprisingly, the most-bitter tussles between Bergoglio and the government revolved around social issues. In 2010, Argentina became the first country in Latin America to approve a marriage law that gave same-sex couples the same rights as heterosexual ones. The church opposed the government head-on, and tensions flared.
Bergoglio, considered the most prominent opponent of the government’s effort to approve the law, also was criticized for warning that the law amounted to an “intention to destroy God’s plan.”
“Today the media are building this image of him as the humble pope,” said Andrea D’Atri, founder of Bread and Roses, a human rights group, who is critical of Bertoglio’s opposition to gay rights. “In Argentina, his naming as pope has been received with the warmest enthusiasm by the rightist opposition.”
The church, too, was not averse to the bare-knuckles politics of the kind that’s common in Argentina. When a regional Peronist governor and Kirchner ally was seeking to alter locals laws to extend his term in office in 2007, Cardinal Bergoglio, according to leaked U.S. cables, added his voice to the opposition. He backed a coalition that included Catholic Church leaders, seeking to block what appeared to be a Peronist grab for power in the northern province of Misiones.
On Thursday in Argentina, Bergoglio was also being remembered for his work with the poor, central to the Jesuits’ work in Latin America.
The Argentine press recounted how he washed the feet of a dozen AIDS patients in 2001, and how he sharply criticized priests who had refused to baptize the newborns of unmarried mothers. Photographs of Bergoglio riding the subway were also published in Thursday’s newspapers.
Those who knew Bergoglio remember a kind and sometimes precocious boy. Amalia Damonte, 77, said her home was barely 100 feet from where Jose Maria Bergoglio, the new pope’s father, was raising four children. She remembers playing with Jorge Mario and how he at one point declared his love for her.
“He left me a letter with a photograph at my house that said this house you see here will be ours when we get married,” she rcalled. Her parents, who found the letter, weren’t pleased and she told Jorge Mario.
He retorted: “If you can’t marry me then I’ll become a priest,” she said.
At the Our Lady of Mercy, a school where the new pope had his first communion, Rosa Blanco, 90, still remembers Bergoglio and the neighborhood in which he grew up, Flores.
He was “calm, fun, like all boys,” and had been a good friend of her brother.
Another woman who knew him, Elsa Scigliano, 70, said she recalled when the future pope caused a minor uproar. “He played in the street,” she said. “One time, playing football, he broke a window of a neighbor’s house. He went to say he was sorry. He always apologized.”
At Our Lady of Mercy, a Sister Teresa del Carmen Rovira, who oversees preschool education, like others there on Thursday spoke of the important dates of Bergoglio’s early life. She noted that he took First Communion on Oct. 8, 1944. And she said that the teachers and administrators there were always excited when he returned.
“He always came, asked what we wanted, made us feel better, so we would take the happiness of God to the people,” said Sister Teresa.
She recalled how before he traveled to Rome recently, he had said that he would go and return in time to celebrate Holy Week.
“Well,” Sister Teresa said, “I guess now he’ll do it in Rome.”
But if Bergoglio’s critics contend that if he was quick to rally against progressive social moments and populist leftist leaders, he was less inclined to rebuke the right-wing junta that fell after the 1983 war with Britain over the Falkland Islands.
People quoted in Verbitsky’s book assert that during the Dirty War, Bergoglio, then a Jesuit leader, pressured two clerics in his order to cease their leftist teachings in a Buenos Aires slum. The book says that a decision to lift the order’s protection of the two men — Orlando Yorio and Franz Jalics — allowed the military to detain them at the Navy Mechanics School prison, the Army’s most notorious, for five months of deprivation.
“I have no reason to believe he did anything to free us, in fact just the opposite,” Verbitzky quoted Yorio as saying of Bergoglio.
Yorio died in Uruguay in 2000. Jalics, now 85 and living in seclusion with a religious order in Germany, was on retreat Thursday and could not be reached for comment.
But supporters of Bergoglio contend that the new pope did his best during a dangerous time in Argentina and risked his own life to aid those in danger.
“He disagreed with two Jesuits that had been taken because they wanted to take the way of violence and arms,” said Mario Aguilar, a Chilean theologian at Britain’s University of St. Andrews. “ He said that we are not going to be guerrillas or revolutionaries, because we are priests. He could not have done otherwise. The idea that he was complacent is a misunderstanding he was under immense pressure under the military junta and the church.”
Faiola reported from Rome. Juan Forero in Charleston, W.Va., Michael Birnbaum in Berlin and Eliza Mackintosh in London contributed to this report.