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A spiritual, pastoral, critic of power

by
22 March 2013

By Simon Caldwell and Ed Thornton

AP

Pope on the tube:below: in a photo from 2008, the future pontiff, then the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, travels on the city's subway

Pope on the tube:below: in a photo from 2008, the future pontiff, then the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, travels on the city's subway

Pope Francis was born on 17 December 1936 in Buenos Aires, one of the five children of an Italian couple. His father was a railway worker. He 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 studied 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 the order in Argentina. In 1992, he was made an Auxiliary Bishop of Buenos Aires, and Coadjutor Archbishop in 1997.

As Archbishop of Buenos Aires from 1998, he had a reputation as a spiritual man, a competent administrator, and an excellent pastor. He has also been an outspoken critic of economic injustice and 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 adopted a down-to-earth style of pastoral leadership that allowed him access to ordinary people, many of whom referred to him simply as "Father Jorge".

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.

He has been a stalwart opponent of secularism. He has spoken out against liberal abortion laws and same-sex marriage, describing the latter, when writing to religious, as "a machination of the Father of Lies that seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God".

His opposition to gay adoption prompted the President, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, to attack his tone as reminiscent of "medieval times and the Inquisition".

In general, however, his support for traditional family values has been expressed in positive pro-life initiatives, and in the pastoral care of divorcees.

A former Bishop of Argentina, the Rt Revd David Leake, who is now an Honorary Assistant Bishop in Norwich diocese, knew the new pope for more than a decade in Buenos Aires. Speaking last week, Bishop Leake described how he and a former Bishop of Sheffield, the Rt Revd Jack Nicholls, had met Cardinal Bergoglio, who recognised them both "as bishops in the Church of God".

In Argentina, the Cardinal was "very open to the poor", having been "influenced by liberation theology. He certainly wouldn't be a militant, aggressive liberationist, but he certainly would take on board a lot of their concepts and a focus with an option to the poor."

Preaching at ecumenical services in Buenos Aires Cathedral, Cardinal Bergoglio "would have the President of Argentina and members the government sitting about five to ten yards away from him, and he would in no uncertain terms tell them what he felt [about socio-economic issues]. He is so very brave, courageous, simple, and humble."

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