While questions surround how Pope Francis dealt with Argentina's Dirty War, it is his involvement in the slums of Buenos Aires that is expected to guide his leadership of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics.
Victor R. Caivano/AP
As Pope Francis made his first speech to the world yesterday from the white balcony on St. Peter's Basilica, he rebuffed some of the traditional pomp and circumstance, reportedly declining the ornate Vatican jewelry and fur-lined red cloak.
This came as little surprise 7,000 miles away in a Buenos Aires slum, where the new pope is known as a man of the people, and an archbishop with a personal touch.
“He [is] comfortable among the poor,” says Father Juan Isasmendi, a parish leader in the Villa 21-24 shantytown who was made a priest by Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Francis, in 2008. “He was close to them and knew how to share with them.”
While questions have been raised about Pope Francis’ possible complicity in Argentina’s Dirty War that killed an estimated 30,000 people in the late 1970s and early '80s, it is his unquestioned intimacy with the poor that is expected to influence his papacy.
“Bergoglio’s most urgent task is to transmit the religious message as believers – facing the indifference of the modern world – abandon the church,” Sergio Rubin, his biographer, told Argentina’s Clarín newspaper. “[He’ll do that] by prioritizing its closeness with the people ... making sure it understands and listens.”
In Argentina, a country where Catholicism is still the official religion, a 2008 university survey found that only 24 percent of people practiced regularly, even though 77 percent of the country considered itself Catholic.
Mr. Bergoglio may well draw on his personal experience to attract indifferent Catholics back to the church. His last visit to Villa 21-24 – a sprawling, dangerous neighborhood in the south of Buenos Aires – was only three months ago when he conferred more than 400 confirmations.
Pope Francis would also tell young priests to “work hard ... to get the view the poor have of the world,” recounted Argentine cleric Augusto Zampini.
Born in the Flores district of Buenos Aires in 1936 to an Italian railway worker and a housewife, Bergoglio was a priest in the Jesuit Order before he was announced archbishop of Argentina in 1998. He originally trained as a chemist and later taught theology. In 2001, he was made a cardinal by Pope John Paul II.
His austere, simple lifestyle was reflected yesterday as he stood up to greet cardinals, instead of sitting in the papal throne, and paid for his own hotel bill. In Buenos Aires, he used to take the bus to Villa 21-24 and is said to keep up with his $22 monthly membership fee at San Lorenzo, a popular soccer team in the capital.
Crucially, explained Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff, Bergoglio “comes from the developing world, outside the walls of Rome.” He is the first pontiff from the Americas, home to around half of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, a fact that “augurs well for global development,” Chris Bain, director of Catholic aid agency Cafod, told the Guardian.
While he has been described by some as a progressive – he has spoken out against neoliberal policies that led to Argentina’s financial and social collapse in 2001 – Pope Francis clashed here with President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner over a 2010 law legalizing same-sex marriage.
“It’s a bad sign for equality,” said Esteban Paulón, president of the Argentine Federation for Gays, Lesbians, and Transexuals. “Just because he’s Latin American, it does not mean the church will change its view on diversity.”
“Pope Francis is a moderate,” says Francesca Ambrogetti, who coauthored the 2010 biography with Sergio Rubin. “He’s prudent, but he wasn’t the Vatican’s conservative option.”
Juan Pablo Cafiero, the Argentine ambassador to the Vatican, said he expects Bergoglio to put a focus on social issues.
Despite his long history of community involvement, Bergoglio has been heavily criticized by human rights groups, who say he colluded with the 1976-1983 military dictatorship in Argentina. He is accused of being complicit in the kidnapping of two priests in the late 1970s while serving as a high-ranking Jesuit. No official charges were brought, and and today the Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi said there has never been a “concrete or credible accusation” against Pope Francis.
In 1976, priests Orlando Yorio and Franciso Jalic were taken to ESMA, a Buenos Aires torture center, where an estimated 5,000 activists were killed. They remained there for five months before being released.
A prominent Argentine journalist, Horacio Verbitsky, alleged in his book, “The Silence,” that Bergoglio disapproved of their work in a slum – where they advocated liberation theology – and subsequently paved the way for their capture. “The accusations … must be firmly rejected,” Rev. Lombardi said.
Pope Francis, like many clerics, is also criticized for failing to speak out against the dictatorship’s human rights abuses. He is accused of having knowledge of the 1977 kidnapping of Elena de la Cuadra, whose daughter was born in captivity and given away, but failing to take action.
“[Bergoglio’s appointment] is a step backwards in our fight for the truth,” says Carlos Pisoni, a member of HIJOS, which represents the children of the disappeared – those kidnapped and murdered by the dictatorship.
Other accounts, however, say he protected Argentines being hunted by the military. Indeed, he told Mr. Rubin that he intervened to save Mr. Yorio and Mr. Jalic’s lives, and regularly hid people on church grounds – indicative of the compassion for which many poor people know him.
Back in Villa 21-24, Mónica Aveiro, who first met Bergoglio 15 years ago, organizes the parish church’s food and clothes parcels. “We used to call him the cardinal of the slums,” she says. “Now, he is the pope of the slums.”
“Pope Francis will look to promote a missionary church that gets out and meets the people face to face,” says Ms. Ambrogetti, the coauthor of his biography. “His humanity has always been his most important characteristic, and it will continue to be.”