Padre Jorge Hopes Are High for Pope of the Poor
Part 2: Advocate for the Poor -- Or the Powerful?
When the white smoke rose above the Sistine Chapel in faraway Rome, the people of Villa 31 flooded into the church. Padre Guillermo read a Mass and they prayed all night long. Leo Caballero, a street vendor, wants to write Francis a letter to beseech him not to forget the poor. He hopes the pope will come to visit one day.
With Bergoglio's election, the center of the Catholic Church shifts to the continent where more than 500 million of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics live. Some 163 million live in Brazil, 99 million in Mexico. In the new pope's native Argentina, 90 percent of the people were baptized as Catholics, although only about half still follow the Roman church. Evangelical Protestant churches are making huge inroads, especially among the poor.
So who is this Argentine who inspires so much hope both in Latin America and in Europe, and who has taken to his office so quickly?
Bergoglio has a biography that suits a universal church: He's a representative of Latin America, but with European roots. Born in Buenos Aires in 1936, he has two brothers and two sisters. His parents were immigrants from northern Italy and he holds both Italian and Argentine citizenship. He studied chemical engineering, was a passionate tango dancer in his youth and once fell in love as a young man. At 22, after part of his right lung had been removed following a serious bout of pneumonia, Bergoglio experienced a spiritual turning point.
Deciding that he wanted to become a priest, he entered the Jesuit order and studied in Chile, Argentina and at St. George's Philosophical and Theological School in Frankfurt, where he improved his German and where he is remembered by pastoral theologian Michael Sievernich.
Even then, poverty was a focus of their conversations, says Sievernich. Bergoglio, the Jesuit from the poor south, saw the wealth of the north in Frankfurt. Sievernich expects that the new pope will now change the focus of the Catholic Church. "Instead of faith and reason, as with Joseph Ratzinger, the church will revolve around faith and justice," says Sievernich.
According to Sievernich, Bergoglio searched for the writings of religious scholar Romano Guardini in the library at St. George's. But a doctoral thesis on Guardini, which Bergoglio was apparently planning at the time and for which he was doing research in Germany, never materialized. Back in Argentina, he taught literature and philosophy, then became a priest, and was later awarded a professorship in theology. One of his books is called: "Dialogue Between John Paul II and Fidel Castro."
At 37, he was named Jesuit provincial superior for Argentina, and he later worked as a parish priest in the Diocese of San Miguel, in the midst of a working-class neighborhood. "He got up every morning at four to pray," says Jesuit priest Guillermo Ortiz, who runs the Spanish-language department of Radio Vatican today and worked with Bergoglio at the time." Bergoglio prayed for the victims of human trafficking, prostitution and the organ trade. "He spoke out against bribery and corruption, and he defended human dignity."
Bergoglio became auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires in 1992 and archbishop in 1998. As archbishop, he refused to be addressed as "Excellency," but instead insisted he be called "Padre Jorge."
But there may be another side to Francis. He has, in the past, become embroiled in fierce debates with the Kirchner regime, demonstrating a keen understanding of power. And his role in Argentina's former military dictatorship still hasn't been completely cleared up. Many disappointed Argentines accuse him of not having protested against torture and murder at the time. Some even say he abandoned his own employees to the dictatorship's thugs and lied in court. This is the side of Francis that Estela de la Cuadra says she experienced.
De la Cuadra lives in the provincial capital La Plata, about 60 kilometers (37 miles) from Buenos Aires. After the 1976 military coup, the generals built some of their most brutal torture centers in the quiet university town.
Estela's sister Elena and her companion Héctor Baratti were abducted in 1977, when Elena was five months' pregnant. According to fellow prisoners, she gave birth in a police station. Elena and Héctor were tortured and Héctor was later thrown into the sea from an airplane while still alive. His body ultimately washed up on the shore, but Elena was never found. The baby also disappeared.
'An Accomplice of the Military Dictatorship'
Fellow prisoners say that an officer and his wife had adopted the baby, and that they had learned this from Christian von Wernich, a police chaplain of German origin who heard the torture victims' confessions before they were murdered. Elena's brothers, who lived in exile in Italy, appealed to the head of the Jesuit order in Rome for help in 1977. He, in turn, asked for assistance from his representative in Argentina, Bergoglio.
Bergoglio wrote a letter to a friend of his, a bishop, asking him to look into the matter, but it came to nothing. Yet Bergoglio later claimed that he had known nothing about the victims and their abducted children. De la Cuadra, though, has a copy of the letter, which, she claims, shows that "Bergoglio was an accomplice of the military dictatorship."
"In coups, the Catholic Church was always on the side of the armed forces," says Argentine church critic Horacio Verbitsky. "Those in power saw the church as a bastion against revolutionary movements." Verbitsky says that Bergoglio, as head of the Jesuits, had substantial influence at the time and was politically active even before the 1976 coup. "He was part of the Peronists' right wing," says Verbitsky.
Verbitsky believes that Bergoglio participated in the "Guardia de Hierro," or "Iron Guard," a group of fanatical supporters of former President Juan Perón who saw themselves as the keepers of the Peronist ideology. After Perón's death and the 1976 coup, the Jesuit chief pulled his staff out of the slums, says Verbitsky. Two young priests, Franz Jalics and Orlando Yorio, were determined not to abandon the poor and refused to leave. "Bergoglio then deprived them of the church's protection," claims Verbitsky. Soon afterwards, the two priests were abducted and tortured. After five months, a helicopter dropped them off near Buenos Aires. They were drugged at the time, but later the two men pressed charges against Bergoglio, saying that he had handed them over to the dictatorship.
The Jesuit leader's office denied the accusations, and the case came to nothing. Yorio is since dead, and Jalics went into exile in Germany. Jalics says he has since had a long discussion about the events with Bergoglio, and the two men even celebrated a mass together and embraced.
Battling the Vatican Administration
Nevertheless, in a 1995 book Jalics accused Bergoglio of betraying him to the dictators: "The man promised that he would let the military officers know that we were not terrorists. But through the subsequent statements of a government official and with the help of 30 documents, to which I later gained access, we were able to demonstrate without a doubt that this man did not keep his promise but, in fact, did the opposite and denounced us to the military."
That man was Bergoglio.
Who, then, is the real Francis? Does the façade of being a pope for the poor in fact conceal a cunning right-wing populist, as Verbitsky suspects? "Instead of a reformer, the cardinals have in fact given us a two-faced Jesuit," claims the writer.
Adolfo Pérez Esquivel disagrees with such indictments. Esquivel won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1980 for his nonviolent struggle against the junta. He says that perhaps Bergoglio "lacked the courage other priests had, but he never assisted the dictatorship, and he wasn't an accomplice." Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi has dismissed all accusations as slander against the new pope.
Archbishop Bergoglio headed the Argentine Episcopal Conference for six years. In that position, he represented all of the conservative positions of his church, from bioethics to gay marriage. He was a regular speaker at the annual meetings of Comunione e Liberazione, a conservative movement within the church, in the Italian seaside resort of Rimini.
This is and remains the ambivalent aspect of his personality. Francis is an extremely conservative moral theologian, and yet he leans to the left on issues of social policy. He is a passionate football fan, a supporter and member No. 88235N-0 of San Lorenzo, a professional football club. His demonstrative modesty, as evidenced by his choosing to live in a simple apartment, take the subway and dispense with almost all status symbols, has practically been elevated to cult status. He is said to be an ardent lover of the German poet Hölderlin, and of Dostoyevsky and Beethoven. He is a cultured man who must now enter the trenches in the battle to reform the Vatican administration.
His election alone reflects the tense environment over which he is to hold sway in the future. He attracted attention in the pre-conclave with two remarkable speeches, in which he talked about the need to cleanse oneself of all careerist thoughts. "They were the best contributions I heard," says a prominent German cardinal. "We inquired about him. We heard that he was politically independent and had a great deal of pastoral experience, that he thinks in terms of long periods, and that he was tested by crisis in his country. We also noted his serenity and his distance." By distance, the cardinal was referring to Bergoglio's recognizable skepticism toward the church's administration in Rome.
Those members of the Curia aligned with the powerful but unpopular Cardinal Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone had initially supported Brazilian Bishop Odilo Scherer. Cardinals Angelo Sodano and Giovanni Re, empathic opponents of Milan Cardinal Angelo Scola, who many had believed would finally bring reform to the Vatican, campaigned for Scherer. But these two favorites, Scherer and Scola, canceled each other out from the beginning of the election procedure. Bergoglio, on the other hand, received more votes from one round of voting to the next.