03/18/2013 05:34 PM

Padre Jorge

Hopes Are High for Pope of the Poor

There are a number of firsts associated with the election of Pope Francis, including that of shunning some of the pomp of the papacy. But the list of expectations that have been placed on his shoulders is even longer. Will he be able to lead the Catholic Church out of crisis?

It's lying on the table in front of him, a thin, faded little book called "De consideratione." It describes the pressures and demands facing a pope while in office. Just prior to heading for the conclave at the Vatican, Cardinal Karl Lehmann, Bishop of Mainz, had quickly pulled it out of his private library, the only book from his collection -- some 120,000 volumes he claims -- to have traveled with him to Rome. He leafed through it often during the conclave, reading passages from it in the evening at the heavily guarded Santa Marta guesthouse, where the 115 cardinal-electors stayed, sealed off from the outside world, without television, mobile phones or Internet.

He sat at the desk in room 121, back straight, pen in hand, trying to focus on the election of a suitable successor to the chair of St. Peter. He kept leafing through the book, written for Pope Eugene III around the year 1150. "It's still valid today," says the elector from Germany.

Lehmann, at 76 "half a year older than the new pope," is obsessed with books, not unlike the now-retired Pope Benedict XVI. Last week, having been back in the real world for a few hours, he seemed rejuvenated by the election. He had just moved to the German Bishops' Conference's Mater Dei house on Gianicolo Hill. Thousands of people were still gathered on St. Peter's Square below. The dining room, with its lace doilies on the tables, was filled with the smell of bratwurst.

Lehmann picks up the book and reads a passage out loud. It addresses the "decay of the church and the vilest abuses that surround the papal throne: excessive ambition, greed, falsification of the truth," the allure inherent in the office, and the "flatterers, supplicants, sycophants, the arrogant and the unruly." He is astonished by how relevant these words still are today, especially when he quotes the author's advice to the pope to "leave the care of his household in the hands of a proven man, not to those who have yet to prove themselves."

He chuckles and says: "How true." Then he turns to one last striking passage from the book, which reads like a prophecy: "The pope must remain the person he was: a humble monk, but one who is now there for everyone." These words are particularly applicable to the new pope, says Lehmann, to Francis, the surprise pontiff from abroad.

'Hampered Greatly'

Lehmann smiles as he snaps the book shut, pleased with his discovery. He is not among those who now claim they knew all along that Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio from Argentina would emerge from the conclave as the next pope. But he had certainly hoped for something fundamentally new and different. When it comes to his bearing and temperament, the bishop from Mainz is the opposite of Joseph Ratzinger, and he cannot conceal his relief over the change. "Ratzinger's considerable talent," says Lehmann, "was hampered greatly, both in the curia and beyond, by communication difficulties."

Ultimately, it became clear that Benedict was no longer in control of his administration. Lehmann is among many who see Benedict's resignation as a sacrifice -- and as an unexpected opportunity to replace the old, divided, corrupt Vatican administration with a more capable one.

He speaks of a new beginning, and of change and reform. Will he present his new boss with his little book, in which he has discovered so many passages that still apply today? The cardinal demurs, saying that the new pontiff doesn't need advice from another German.

When the Argentine pope stepped onto the loggia of St. Peter's Basilica last Wednesday, gazed down at thousands of umbrellas, hesitantly raised his arm and said nothing at first, it quickly became clear that this new pontiff is presenting himself and his simplicity as a contrast against a church that has become obsessed with its own image. He had only one request for the people on St. Peter's Square: Before blessing them, he asked them to pray for him.

Many of those who had just elected him, and were watching from the adjacent balcony, had never heard anything like it. And it certainly wasn't the only sensation associated with this pope. He is the first non-European pope in 1,272 years. He is the first pope whose predecessor is not buried in a tomb in Rome, but will be living in his garden. He is the first Jesuit pope, a member of an order that was founded as a Catholic movement of restoration. It was seen as the sword of the counter-reformation, a force to combat Enlightenment in Europe, and later as an elite group within Catholicism, one that former Pope John Paul II viewed with great mistrust.

And despite his background as a member of the self-confident Society of Jesus, the newly elected pontiff is the first pope to choose the name Francis, after the founder of the Franciscan order, Francis of Assisi, a friend of the poor and of animals, an itinerant preacher and a stubborn contrarian. Franciscans humbly refer to themselves as the "Brothers Minor," an appellation that a traditional Jesuit would never choose.

Declining the Red Shoes

But the new pope is apparently an exception. "There are quite a few firsts here," Rainer Maria Woelki, the Archbishop of Berlin, marveled the next day.

And the firsts continued. Bergoglio won his first power struggle with the Roman Curia after being pope for less than five minutes. In the "Room of Tears," the changing room for newly elected popes for centuries, the three papal robes, as well as several shirts, collars, cufflinks, and several pairs of the famous red shoes made of the finest calfskin, in sizes 40 to 46, were waiting for the new pontiff. This was where he was to leave his old life behind. But the man from Buenos Aires, a city of immigrants, had his own ideas, which conflicted with those of the Curia's masters of ceremonies.

He declined the fur-lined red stole made by the papal tailor, a symbol of long gone secular power. He was also unwilling to wear the red shoes when stepping out in front of the crowd.

The Argentine pope didn't prevail immediately and the cardinals waiting next door became restless, ultimately sending a servant to knock on the door of the Room of Tears. There was a certain sense of urgency: Tens of thousands of people had been waiting outside in the rain on St. Peter's Square for hours -- waiting to find out who their new pope would be.

After the servant had knocked on the door two or three more times, the new Pope Francis finally emerged in a simple white cassock. He had won the struggle over the dress code, and now he looked determined as he made his way to the loggia. Looking neither left nor right, he strode through the Sistine Chapel until he encountered a cardinal in a wheelchair who had participated in the conclave. The cardinal was the first to receive the new pope's embrace.

He courted his fellow cardinals with emphatic humility. When the chauffeured papal Mercedes with the license plate number SCV 1 appeared, Francis sent it away, boarded the bus carrying the cardinals, and sat down in the second row behind the driver, on the left-hand side of the bus. One of the cardinals took a blurred picture with his mobile phone. At the Santa Marta guesthouse, he didn't sit in the white chair intended for the pontiff, but ate his pasta at the table with the others instead. The papal suite that had been prepared for him remained empty that night. Instead, Francis preferred to stay in the modest room No. 201, which had been assigned to him before the conclave. The next morning, he went in person to the guesthouse to pick up his suitcases, paid the bill with his own money and walked to the Apostolic Palace -- to be the next pope.

Shining Role Model?

Vatican aficionados and newspapers were practically tripping over themselves, calling Francis the austerity pope and a shining role model.

"These are little things that say a lot about a person," says Vienna's Cardinal Christopher Schönborn. "Details that may signify great promise." The new pope reminds him a little of John Paul II and of John XXIII, he says. "He can conjure up beaming faces in ordinary people. Il Papa dei poveri, the pope of the poor." This is no exaggeration, says Schönborn.

Almost the same sentiment is being expressed in his native Argentina. Buenos Aires shows its third-world side in a slum called Villa 31, where children kick a ball around between piles of garbage and drug dealers hang around on street corners. There are often shootings at night and taxi drivers refuse to drive into the slum. The Church of Cristo Obrero is under a highway overpass, where the slum gives way to a no-man's land of shipping companies and warehouses. A simple wooden cross protrudes from the corrugated metal roof. Local residents have erected a mausoleum of red bricks in front of the entrance to the church.

It contains the mortal remains of Padre Carlos Mugica. A priest who worked among the poor, he was murdered by death squads in 1974 and buried in a remote cemetery. It was only in 1999 that the dead priest was brought back to his parish. Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio had Mugica's body exhumed and brought to Villa 31 in a ceremonial procession, with Bergoglio walking behind the coffin. The bishop has been worshiped as a hero since then. "He gave the poor their dignity back," says Padre Guillermo Torre, who has headed the parish for the last 14 years.

Photos of the new pope hang in the church auditorium, next to images of Mother Teresa. He often read Mass there, and President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner even visited the church once, though she and Bergoglio are not on good terms. The last time Padre Guillermo spoke with Bergoglio was two months ago. The cardinal was helping him develop a center for the treatment of drug addicts and a soup kitchen for the poor. "He is a man of dialogue," says Torre. "He has no conceits."

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.

Padre Jorge

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.

A Long List of Challenges

The decision was reached during a pasta lunch on Wednesday, at about 1:30 p.m., at least according to information the Turin newspaper La Stampa claims to have obtained. After the third round of voting, when it was clear that neither Scola nor Scherer could win, and a compromise candidate from Boston, Cardinal Patrick O'Malley, could not prevail against the votes of the African cardinal-electors, Bergoglio established himself as the unbeatable front-runner. In the fifth, decisive round of voting, Bergoglio reportedly received substantially more than the required 77 votes.

When the name Francis was mentioned for the first time, Cardinals Scherer and Schönborn, sitting across from each other in the Sistine Chapel, looked at each other and broke out laughing. Bishops from São Paulo and Vienna respectively, the two had run into each other in Assisi while on their way to the conclave. Scherer says that the two men had wondered "why a pope has never named himself after St. Francis."

Berlin's Cardinal Woelki, one of the youngest at the conclave, who, by his own account, entered the Sistine Chapel "with wobbly knees and sweaty palms," was sitting a little farther away. He immediately thought: "Francis -- the name says it all!"

Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich, a man known for his occasional radical critiques of turbo-capitalism, felt that the new pope was a spiritual brother. "A completely different figure, a completely different style. Not a man of the Curia," Marx said. "His emphasis on simplicity will be good for us all."

The German cardinals did not, of course, mention the new pope's pronounced conservatism on all questions of theology. But Bergoglio's rise could indeed spell a new beginning. His election is seen as a revolutionary event, not unlike Benedict's resignation. "A fresh wind has prevailed," says Vatican veteran Marco Politi, who argues that the election proves that the Roman church reacts with much greater flexibility than Italy's political system.

Disastrous Curia Management

On the evening following the election, the new pope gave a reception at the Santa Marta guesthouse. "May God forgive you," he reportedly said in jest. New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan was so enthusiastic about the pope's exclamation that he later posted it on his blog. Before the reception, Francis had a long telephone conversation with Benedict, who is still at the papal summer residence of Castel Gandolfo and who was reportedly deeply moved over the choice of his erstwhile challenger.

An almost unprecedented number of problems came to a head within the church during the eight-year pontificate of Benedict XVI. Under former Pope John Paul II, the various crises were more or less defused. This included the many abuse cases and the failures of the disastrously managed Curia. But neither of the last two popes were skilled administrators. The former spent most of his papacy on the road, before becoming mortally ill. The latter preferred to be alone at his desk. Hardly anyone in Rome still believes the explanation given by Benedict's spokesman that the pope emeritus resigned solely because of age and infirmity.

How, though, does Francis intend to fight the "filth in the church" that Ratzinger deplored, but which he was ultimately unable to eliminate? How will he deal with the Vatileaks scandal, leaks in the Curia and money laundering at the Vatican Bank?

All of the cardinals who had traveled to Rome were in agreement that the Curia needs comprehensive reform. The topic dominated debates leading up the conclave with the daily meetings of the general congregation lasting much longer than normal. The cardinals noted that there had never been this much discussion of the problems in the church, about corruption and intrigues in the Secretariat of State, the lack of power in the episcopal churches, the role of women, the church in China, and the church's handling of the child abuse cases and its relationship with the Society of Saint Pius X. According to the cardinals, the discussions had never been this open and critical.

In the pre-conclave, four cardinals, including German Cardinal Walter Kasper, asked for information about the report on the Vatileaks investigation, which has been shrouded in mystery. The report, said to be 300 pages long, was written by three retired bishops, all over 80, and is kept locked in the papal safe. It reportedly contains background information on the scandal surrounding documents from the pope's desk that a butler, apparently working on behalf of others, had stolen and passed on to the media. There was much media speculation of corruption, cronyism, gay networks in which positions are traded, intrigues and even the threat of a schism within the church.

Not Enough Time

In their last debate before the beginning of the conclave, the cardinals also discussed the Vatican Bank, or IOR, which is accused of money laundering. Cardinal Bertone delivered a short report on the bank's activities and the introduction of international standards for financial transactions. The cardinals actually wanted to know much more about the affair. The Americans, in particular, asked for more access to the investigative report by the Vatileaks commission, which reportedly contains longer passages on the IOR. But there wasn't enough time left for that.

For years Italian politicians used accounts at the bank, officially known as the Institute for Works of Religion, to obscure their financial assets, partly because the Vatican Bank does not publish its financial statements. Until recently, the institute was only answerable to the pope. "Perhaps we'll no longer have a Vatican Bank in a few years," said a German cardinal's spokesman after the election of Pope Francis. A group of non-Italian cardinals led by Viennese Cardinal Schönborn wants to dissolve the institution altogether.

It is still unclear how decisively Francis will address all of these tasks. He has to appoint a strong-willed, independent secretary of state. But the new secretary of state should only share power, without seeking to acquire more power to control and discipline everyone and everything, like the power-crazed Bertone.

A strong manager who hopes to liberate the Curia from the corrupt pack of informers and uninhibited overachievers will have to slim down the machinery and organize it more horizontally. The pope has to become accessible again -- to everyone. In Ratzinger's case, only Bertone and the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller, received appointments right away, while all others were kept waiting for months. The German participants in the conclave urged that regular cabinet meetings be held in the future, and that the Roman church maintain more intensive contact with the bishops and papal ambassadors around the world.

The question is how absolutist this pope can be in ruling the church, after Benedict's resignation and in times of crisis. Cardinal Lehmann complains that "the right to codetermination in the appointment of bishops was treated with contempt." A renewed church should be able to delegate more responsibility so that, for example, a nun at a hospital in Africa treating HIV patients decides whether to distribute condoms or the morning-after pill -- and not the prelate in Rome.

Subject to Negotiation

The pope has continued offering indications that he is serious about renewal. Last Thursday, he read his first mass in the Sistine Chapel at an altar facing the congregation -- an altar Benedict had had removed to accommodate the traditionalists. Yet what he had to proclaim didn't sound very different from his predecessor's fight against the "dictatorship of relativism." Francis also applies a simple either-or approach: "He who doesn't pray to the Lord prays to the devil." It is the creed of a modern reactionary.

The new pope must find answers to how the church should behave in the world of today, in which many conflicts are religiously charged, especially in the Middle East and Asia. The church's sexual morality, furthermore, has long since been rejected in Europe and increasingly in Latin America as well. And the church needs to develop an approach to the inequalities triggered by the global financial crises. Finally, the pope must also be clear about where the Catholic Church stands on popular uprisings and the end of tyranny in countries across the world.

Catholics in democratic countries are demanding more say. And the laity, both men and women, must take more responsibility in the church due to the growing shortage of priests. This also applies to the much greater dearth of priests in Latin America, where self-proclaimed Evangelical preachers in storefront churches are becoming serious challengers to the Catholic Church.

As archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis already showed that he could rule with a flexible hand in such cases. And it may in fact be easier for a non-European pope to find answers to many of these questions.

For the German bishops, however, change could be coming: After the election in Rome, they all praised the example of modesty and humility set by the new pope. This could set a new standard for their own behavior, and it could happen more quickly than many an archbishop in Germany would like. From the squandering of church tax revenue to opulent episcopal sees, dark official limousines with chauffeurs, well-stocked wine cellars and ample household staff, the luxury and status symbols of German bishops are suddenly subject to negotiation.


Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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