VATICAN CITY — On the streets in Buenos Aires, the stories about the cardinal who has become the first pope from the Americas often include a very ordinary backdrop: The city bus during rush hour.
Tales are traded about chatting with Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio as he squeezed in with others for the commute to work. They sometimes talked about church affairs. Other times it could be about what he planned to cook for dinner in the simple downtown apartment he chose over an opulent church estate.
Or perhaps it was a mention of his affection for the tango, which he said he loved as a youth despite having one lung removed following an infection.
On the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica just after a rain shower Wednesday, wearing unadorned white robes, the new Pope Francis appeared to strike the same tone of simplicity and pastoral humility for a church desperate to move past the tarnished era of abuse scandals and internal Vatican upheavals.
While the new pontiff is not without some political baggage, including questions over his role during a military dictatorship in Argentina in the 1970s, the selection of the 76-year-old Bergoglio reflected a series of history-making decisions by fellow cardinals who seemed determined to offer a suggestion of renewal to a church under pressures on many fronts.
“He is a real voice for the voiceless and vulnerable,” said Kim Daniels, director of Catholic Voices USA, a pro-church group. “That is the message.”
A cousin back in Argentina said the new pope “has a good spirit” that will benefit Roman Catholicism.
“He is naturally humble and a pastor,” said cardiologist Hugo Bergoglio, adding: “Jorge never thought he would be pope, or even a cardinal. That’s why he ended up becoming pope.”
Francis, the first pope from Latin America and the first from the Jesuit order, bowed to the crowds in St. Peter’s Square and asked for their blessing in a hint of the humble style he cultivated while trying to modernize Argentina’s conservative church and move past a messy legacy of alleged complicity during the rule of the military junta of 1976-83.
“Brothers and sisters, good evening,” he said before making a reference to his roots in Latin America, which accounts for about 40 percent of the world’s Roman Catholics.
Groups of supporters waved white-and-blue Argentine flags in St. Peter’s Square as Francis made his first public appearance as pope. Bergoglio, who flew to Rome in tourist class, reportedly had envoys urge Argentines not to come to Rome to celebrate his papacy, but instead donate money to the poor.
In taking the name Francis, he drew connections to the 13th century St. Francis of Assisi, who saw his calling as trying to rebuild the simple spirit of the church and devote his life to missionary journeys. It also evokes references to Francis Xavier, one of the 16th century founders of the Jesuit order that is known for its scholarship and outreach.
Francis, the son of middle-class Italian immigrants, came close to becoming pope during the last conclave in 2005. He reportedly gained the second-highest vote total in several rounds of voting before he bowed out of the running before selection of Vatican insider Joseph Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict XVI.
By returning to Bergoglio, the conclave confounded speculation that it would turn to a younger candidate more attuned to younger elements in the church and with possibly more stamina for the rigors of the modern papacy with nearly nonstop obligations and frequent global travel. Francis appears in good health, but his age and possible limitations from his single lung raise questions about whether he can face the demands of the position. He doesn’t much like to travel, say priests in Buenos Aires.
Unlike many of the other papal contenders, Bergoglio never held a top post inside the Vatican administration, or curia. This outsider status could pose obstacles in attempts to reform the Vatican, which has been hit with embarrassing disclosures from leaked documents alleging financial cover-ups and internal feuds.
But the conclave appeared more swayed by Bergoglio’s reputation for compassion on issues such as poverty and the effects of globalization, and his fealty to traditional church teachings such as opposition to birth control.
His overriding image, though, is built around his leaning toward austerity. The motto chosen for his archdiocese is “Miserando Atque Eligendo,” or “Lowly but Chosen.”
Even after he became Argentina’s top church official in 2001, he never lived in the ornate church mansion where Pope John Paul II stayed when visiting, preferring a simple bed in a downtown building, warmed by a small stove on frigid weekends when the building turned off the heat. For years, he took public transportation around the city, and cooked his own meals. He likes to drink mate, a traditional South American tea. He rises at 5:30 a.m. and starts work at 7.
A man doesn’t like the limelight, Bergoglio almost never granted media interviews, limiting himself to speeches from the pulpit. He was reluctant to contradict his critics, even when he knew their allegations against him were false, said Bergoglio’s authorized biographer, Sergio Rubin.
Bergoglio’s legacy as cardinal includes his efforts to repair the reputation of a church that lost many followers by failing to openly challenge Argentina’s dictatorship.
He also worked to recover the church’s traditional political influence in society, but his outspoken criticism of President Cristina Fernandez couldn’t stop her from imposing socially liberal measures that are anathema to the church, from gay marriage and adoption to free contraceptives for all. Fernandez compared his tone to “medieval times and the Inquisition.”
Yet Bergoglio has been tough on hard-line conservative views among his own clerics, including those who refused to baptize the children of unmarried women.
“These are today’s hypocrites; those who clericalize the church, those who separate the people of God from salvation,” he told Argentina’s priests last year.
Bergoglio feels most comfortable keeping a very low profile, a personal style that is the antithesis of Vatican splendor.
Many Argentines remain angry over the church’s acknowledged failure to openly confront a regime that was kidnapping and killing thousands of people as it sought to eliminate “subversive elements” in society. It’s one reason why more than two-thirds of Argentines describe themselves as Catholic, but less than 10 percent regularly attend Mass.
Under Bergoglio’s leadership, Argentina’s bishops issued a collective apology in October 2012 for the church’s failures to protect its flock. But the statement blamed the era’s violence in roughly equal measure on both the junta and its enemies.
“Bergoglio has been very critical of human rights violations during the dictatorship, but he has always also criticized the leftist guerrillas. He doesn’t forget that side,” Rubin said.
The statements came far too late for some activists, who accused Bergoglio of being more concerned about the church’s image than about aiding the many human rights investigations into the junta era.
Bergoglio twice invoked his right under Argentine law to refuse to appear in open court. When he eventually did testify in 2010, his answers were evasive, human rights attorney Myriam Bregman said.
At least two cases directly involved Bergoglio, who ran Argentina’s Jesuit order during the dictatorship.
Bergoglio told Rubin that he regularly hid people on church property during the dictatorship, and once gave his identity papers to a man with similar features, enabling him to escape across the border. But all this was done in secret, at a time when church leaders publicly endorsed the junta and called on Catholics to restore their “love for country” despite the terror in the streets.
Initially trained as a chemist, Bergoglio taught literature, psychology, philosophy and theology before taking over as Buenos Aires archbishop in 1998. He speaks Spanish, Italian and German, and reads English. He became cardinal in 2001, when the economy was collapsing, and won respect for blaming unrestrained capitalism for impoverishing millions of Argentines.
Later, there was little love lost between Bergoglio and Argentina’s government. Relations became so frigid that the president stopped attending his annual “Te Deum” address, when church leaders traditionally tell political leaders what’s wrong with society.
“Is Bergoglio a progressive, a liberation theologist even? No. He’s no Third World priest,” said Rubin. “Does he criticize the International Monetary Fund, and neoliberalism? Yes. Does he spend a great deal of time in the slums? Yes.”