VATICAN CITY – The man who will move into the 10-room papal residence inside the vaulted gates of the Holy See has been living in a simple, austere apartment across from the Cathedral of Buenos Aires. In a city with a taste for luxury and status, he frequently prepares his own meals and abandoned the limousine of his high office to hop on el micro – Argentine slang for the bus.
A staunch conservative and devout Jesuit in Latin America’s most socially progressive nation, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, is the product of an almost Solomonesque choice by the princes of the church.
The 76-year-old hails from a country and a continent where the once powerful voice of the church is increasingly falling flat, losing ground – as it is in Europe – to a tide of more permissive and pragmatic faiths and fast-rising secularism.
He gives voice to a church whose center of global gravity is shifting increasing south. But the first pope from Latin America is also a cultural bridge between two worlds – the son of Italian immigrants in a country where a massive influx earned Argentina a reputation as the New World colony Italy never had.
For many Italians, his heritage makes him the next best thing to the return of an Italian pope.
As cardinal, Bergolio was a fierce critic of socially progressive trends including gay marriage, representing a continuity of Benedict XVI’s conservative doctrine. Yet his other attributes – as a champion of social justice and the poor who spoke out against the evils of globalization during the Argentine economic meltdown of 2000 – made him a difficult target for progressives to attack.
He also represents an old-school view of the Catholic leaders as humble clerics who walked among their flock and led by example.
He knows how to take a municipal bus. When he became a local ordinary of Buenos Aires, he moved from a large impressive home to a modest dwelling. He has a sense of social justice, but he can be seen as quite conservative doctrinally, said the Rev. Robert Pelton, CSC, the director of Latin American Church Concerns at the University of Notre Dame.
He’s a simple person, Pelton said. The fact is that he has a straightforwardness and simplicity that is quite unusual in public figures of our time.