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Pope Francis: a profile

15 March 2013

by Simon Caldwell


In touch: Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio travels on the subway in Buenos Aries, in October, 2008

In touch: Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio travels on the subway in Buenos Aries, in October, 2008

Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio is the first prelate from the Americas to become Roman pontiff.

The 76-year-old Argentinian generated the second-highest number of votes in the 2005 conclave, when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger emerged as Pope Benedict XVI after the fourth ballot. He remained a clear favourite of his fellow cardinals who last night elected him on the second day, after five ballots.

He was born on 17 December 1936 in Buenos Aires, one of the five children of an Italian couple. His father was a railway worker. So, although he is the first non-European Pope in more than 1200 years (since the Syrian St Gregory III, Pope from 731 to 741), he is of European origin, and has spoken fluent Italian all his life.

He obtained a Master's degree in chemistry before deciding to join the Jesuits, studying at the national Jesuit seminary of Villa Devoto. He undertook further studies in Chile and earned a further degree, this time in philosophy, at the Roman Catholic University of Buenos Aires. In the 1960s, he taught literature and psychology at Inmaculada High School in Santa Fe, and later at the Colegio del Salvador in Buenos Aires.

He was ordained a Jesuit priest in 1969, and in 1973 became the head of his order in Argentina. In 1992 he was ordained an auxiliary Bishop of Buenos Aires and was made coadjutor Archbishop in 1997.

Archbishop of Buenos Aires since 1998, he has a reputation as a deeply spiritual man, a highly competent administrator, and an excellent pastor.

He has also been an outspoken critic of economic injustice, social inequality, and a champion of the poor. During a 48-hour strike by public servants in Buenos Aires, for example, he publicly noted the differences between "poor people who are persecuted for demanding work, and rich people who are applauded for fleeing from justice".

He has adopted a down-to-earth style of pastoral leadership which allows him access to ordinary people, many of whom refer to him simply as "Father Jorge". He chooses to ride the bus instead of being driven by a chauffeur, and he cooks his own meals instead of having a household to look after him.

His enemies, however, have criticised him for behaving as if he were the sole interpreter of the Jesuit charism. Some also say that while he was Jesuit provincial, he did not do enough to oppose the dictatorship in Argentina which killed up to 30,000 people between 1976 and 1983. His defenders argue, however, that he negotiated behind the scenes for the release of political prisoners.

The accusations first emerged in April 2005, when a human-rights lawyer filed a criminal complaint against him, accusing him of involvement in the kidnapping by the Navy in May 1976 (during the military dictatorship) of two Jesuit priests. The priests, Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics, were found alive five months later, drugged and semi-naked. Bergoglio's spokesman has flatly denied the allegations.

He has been a stalwart opponent of secularism. He has spoken out against liberal abortion laws and same-sex marriage. In 2010 he asked the large Roman Catholic population of Argentina to oppose gay marriage on the grounds that it would "seriously injure the family". He said it represented a "real and dire anthropological throwback. . .

"Let's not be naïve: we're not talking about a simple political battle. It is a destructive pretension against the plan of God," he said in a letter to religious. "We are not talking about a mere Bill, but rather a machination of the Father of Lies that seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God."

He has also opposed gay adoption because, he argued, it infringed the rights of children to both a mother and father. His opposition to this prompted President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner to attack his tone as reminiscent of "medieval times and the Inquisition".

When Argentina proposed to permit abortion in some situations, Archbishop Bergoglio also intervened, claiming that the government was betraying the values of the Argentinian people. But in general, his support for traditional family values has been expressed in positive pro-life initiatives, and in the pastoral care of divorcees, for example.

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