Praise and Criticism for an Advocate of the Poor

By Emily Schmall; Larry Rohter | International Herald Tribune, March 15, 2013 | Go to article overview

Praise and Criticism for an Advocate of the Poor


Emily Schmall; Larry Rohter, International Herald Tribune


The new pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who will be called Francis, is the first from the Jesuit order and the first pope from Latin America, but he is also a theological conservative.

Like most of those in Argentina, he is a soccer fan, his favorite team being the underdog San Lorenzo squad. Known for his outreach to the country's poor, he gave up a palace for a small apartment, rode public transportation instead of a chauffeur-driven car and cooked his own meals.

The new pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, 76, who will be called Francis, is in some ways a history-making pontiff, the first from the Jesuit order and the first pope from Latin America.

But Cardinal Bergoglio is also a conventional choice, a theological conservative of Italian ancestry who vigorously backs Vatican positions on abortion, gay marriage, the ordination of women and other major issues -- leading to heated clashes with the left- leaning Argentine president.

He was less energetic, however, when it came to standing up to the Argentine military dictatorship during the 1970s as the country was consumed by a conflict between right and left that became known as the Dirty War. He has been accused of knowing about abuses and failing to do enough to stop them while as many as 30,000 people were disappeared, tortured or killed by the dictatorship.

Despite the criticism, many in Argentina praise Cardinal Bergoglio -- who likes the more humble title of Father Jorge -- as a passionate defender of the poor and disenfranchised.

In 2001 he surprised the staff of Muniz Hospital in Buenos Aires, asking for a jar of water, which he used to wash the feet of 12 patients hospitalized with complications from the virus that causes AIDS. He then kissed their feet, telling reporters that "society forgets the sick and the poor." More recently, in September 2012, he scolded priests in Buenos Aires who refused to baptize the children of unwed mothers. "No to hypocrisy," he said of the priests at the time. "They are the ones who separate the people of God from salvation."

Though he is averse to liberation theology, which he views as hopelessly tainted with Marxist ideology, Cardinal Bergoglio has emphasized outreach to the impoverished, and as cardinal of Buenos Aires he has overseen increased social services and evangelization in the slums.

"I am encouraged by this choice, viewing it as a pledge for a church of simplicity and of ecological ideals," said Leonardo Boff, a founder of liberation theology. What is more, Mr. Boff said, Cardinal Bergoglio comes from the developing world, "outside the walls of Rome."

Jorge Mario Bergoglio was born in Buenos Aires on Dec. 17, 1936, to Mario Bergoglio, an immigrant from northern Italy, and Regina Bergoglio, a homemaker. He came relatively late to the priesthood, enrolling in a seminary at the age of 21, after studying chemistry. He has had health concerns since his youth, having had a lung removed because of an infection.

By all accounts, he was a brilliant student who relished the study not just of theology but also of secular subjects like psychology and literature. He was ordained a priest a few days short of turning 33, and from that point on, his ascent within the church was rapid: By 1973, he had been named the Jesuit provincial for Argentina, the church official in charge of supervising the order's activities in the country.

He remained in that post through 1979, and his performance during the Dirty War has been the subject of controversy. In 2005, shortly before the Vatican conclave that elevated Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to the papacy, Cardinal Bergoglio was formally accused by an Argentine lawyer in a lawsuit of being complicit in the military's kidnapping of two Jesuit priests whose anti-government views he considered dangerously unorthodox.

The priests, whom he had dismissed from the order a week before they disappeared, were discovered months later on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, drugged and partially undressed. …

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