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The Life And Career Of Pope Francis


It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

The newly named Pope Francis, as archbishop of Buenos Aires, was known for his humility, for standing with the poor, and for his staunch conservatism on church teachings. With no experience in Vatican administration, the strength of this first Jesuit pope is thought to be his intellectual vigor and his pastoral skills. With his Italian-immigrant parents, Pope Francis represents a sort of two-for-one for the Vatican: an Italian and a New World pontiff.

NPR's John Burnett has this profile.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: After the new pope had slipped on the Ring of the Fisherman, donned his new white vestments, blessed the adoring crowd in St. Peter's Square and gotten his things together, he was expected to take his first ride in the papal convoy. As the conclave adjourned, the other cardinals piled onto buses for the ride back to Domo Santa Marta, where they'd been staying.

New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan picks up the story.

CARDINAL TIMOTHY DOLAN: And as the last bus pulls up, guess who gets off the bus? Pope Francis. So I guess he told the driver, that's OK. I'll just go with the guys on the bus. So, he's a wonderfully simple man.

BURNETT: Seventy-six-year-old Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who inherits the Throne of St. Peter, is a man seemingly unaccustomed to ecclesiastical royalty. As archbishop of Buenos Aires, he lived in a small apartment instead of the Episcopal palace. He reportedly cooked for himself and rode the bus.

Cardinal Bergoglio took the name Pope Francis, Dolan says, because he was inspired by St. Francis of Assisi, who lived in solidarity with the poor.


BURNETT: In this homily at the Metropolitan Cathedral in Buenos Aires in 2010, Bergoglio intoned: If the nation suffers, the poor suffer worse.

Like a Latin American populist, he spoke out forcefully against the International Monetary Fund and neo-liberalism during Argentina's economic crisis. But he stopped way short of joining his fellow Jesuits who embraced Liberation Theology, which states that the church should actively work to combat the social, political and economic oppression of the poor.

Historian Andrew Chesnut holds a chair in Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University.

ANDREW CHESNUT: Jesuits really were on the vanguard of Liberation Theology in Argentina and throughout Latin America, but he definitely is not one of them. Although he has made pronouncements that are sympathetic with the poor and disenfranchised of Latin America, definitely is not - wasn't part of Liberationist Jesuit strain.

BURNETT: Indeed, as a leader of the Jesuit order in Argentina, Jorge Bergoglio is criticized for his actions during the country's infamous Dirty War. This was the seven-year campaign from 1976-1983 by the Argentine government against suspected dissidents and subversives.

JUAN CRUZ ESQUIVEL: (Foreign language spoken)

BURNETT: This is very controversial, says Juan Cruz Esquivel, a sociologist at the University of Buenos Aires, who studies church-state relations. There have been publications here in Argentina that say Bergoglio had a compromised role, that he divulged to the military names of some of Jesuits in his congregation who had worked in poor barrios. Cruz continues: There was some documentation that showed he had relations with the last military dictatorship.

The new pope may be moderate in temperament, but he's unyielding on traditional church teachings. He stridently fought against Argentina becoming the first Latin American country to legalize gay marriage. And he opposed President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner's promotion of free birth control. Bergoglio so irritated the president when he inveighed against same-sex couples adopting children, that she compared his argument to medieval times and the Inquisition.

Andrew Chesnut of Virginia Commonwealth University cautions modernists in Europe and the United States not to look for a social reformer.

CHESNUT: And what I really think is that we'll see is new evangelization. In fact, this is the main reason I think they chose a Latin American pope.

BURNETT: He points out that Latin America is home to around 40 percent of the world's Catholics, and together with Africa and Asia, they may hold the key to the future of the world church.

John Burnett, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018 and again in 2019, he won a national Edward R. Murrow Award from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.
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