March 13, 2013

Pope Francis: Simple image, complex past

The Associated Press

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Pope Francis speaks from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, Wednesday, March 13, 2013. Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio who chose the name of Francis, is the 266th pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)

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In this Jan. 13, 2007 file picture, Pope Benedict XVI shakes hands with the then-archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, during a meeting at the Vatican.

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Unlike many of the other papal contenders, Bergoglio never held a top post inside the Vatican administration, or curia. This outsider status could pose obstacles in attempts to reform the Vatican, which has been hit with embarrassing disclosures from leaked documents alleging financial cover-ups and internal feuds.

But the conclave appeared more swayed by Bergoglio's reputation for compassion on issues such as poverty and the effects of globalization, and his fealty to traditional church teachings such as opposition to birth control.

His overriding image, though, is built around his leaning toward austerity. The motto chosen for his archdiocese is "Miserando Atque Eligendo," or "Lowly but Chosen."

Even after he became Argentina's top church official in 2001, he never lived in the ornate church mansion where Pope John Paul II stayed when visiting the country, preferring a simple bed in a downtown building, warmed by a small stove on frigid weekends when the building turned off the heat. For years, he took public transportation around the city, and cooked his own meals.

He accused fellow church leaders of hypocrisy and forgetting that Jesus Christ bathed lepers and ate with prostitutes.

"Jesus teaches us another way: Go out. Go out and share your testimony. Go out and interact with your brothers. Go out and share. Go out and ask. Become the Word in body as well as spirit," Bergoglio told Argentina's priests last year.

Bergoglio almost never granted media interviews, limiting himself to speeches from the pulpit, and was reluctant to contradict his critics, even when he knew their allegations against him were false, said Bergoglio's authorized biographer, Sergio Rubin.

Bergoglio's legacy as cardinal includes his efforts to repair the reputation of a church that lost many followers by failing to openly challenge Argentina's dictatorship. He also worked to recover the church's traditional political influence in society, but his outspoken criticism of President Cristina Fernandez couldn't stop her from imposing socially liberal measures that are anathema to the church, from gay marriage and adoption to free contraceptives for all.

His church also had no say when the Argentine Supreme Court expanded access to legal abortions in rape cases, and when Bergoglio argued that gay adoptions discriminate against children. Fernandez compared his tone to "medieval times and the Inquisition."

Yet Bergoglio has been tough on hard-line conservative views among his own clerics, including those who refused to baptize the children of unmarried women.

"These are today's hypocrites; those who clericalize the church," he told his priests. "Those who separate the people of God from salvation. And this poor girl who, rather than returning the child to sender, had the courage to carry it into the world, must wander from parish to parish so that it's baptized!"

Bergoglio himself felt most comfortable taking a very low profile, and his personal style has been the antithesis of Vatican splendor.

"It's a very curious thing: When bishops meet, he always wants to sit in the back rows. This sense of humility is very well seen in Rome," said the biographer Rubin.

His preference to remain in the wings, however, has been challenged by rights activists seeking answers about church actions during the dictatorship after the 1976 coup, often known as Argentina's "Dirty War."

Many Argentines remain angry over the church's acknowledged failure to openly confront a regime that was kidnapping and killing thousands of people as it sought to eliminate "subversive elements" in society. It's one reason why more than two-thirds of Argentines describe themselves as Catholic, but less than 10 percent regularly attend Mass.

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Cardinals watch as Pope Francis speaks to the crowd from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, Wednesday, March 13, 2013. Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, who chose the name of Francis, is the 266th pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

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Pope Francis waves to the crowd from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican on Wednesday.

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Visitors take photos of Pope Francis as he speaks from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, Wednesday, March 13, 2013. Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, who chose the name of Francis is the 266th pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)



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