VATICAN CITY • In unadorned white robes, the first pope from the Americas sets a tone of simplicity and pastoral humility in a church desperate to move past the tarnished era of abuse scandals and internal Vatican upheavals.
The choice of Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio — who took the name Francis — reflected a series of history-making decisions by fellow cardinals who seemed determined to offer a message of renewal to a church under pressures on many fronts.
The 76-year-old archbishop of Buenos Aries — the first from Latin America and the first from the Jesuit order — bowed to the crowds in St. Peter’s Square and asked for their blessing in a hint of the austere style he cultivated while modernizing the Argentina’s conservative Catholic church.
In taking the name Francis, he drew connections to the 13th century St. Francis of Assisi, who saw his calling as trying to rebuild the church in a time of turmoil. It also evokes images of Francis Xavier, one of the 16th century founders of the Jesuit order that is known for its scholarship and outreach.
Francis, the son of middle-class Italian immigrants, is known as a humble man who denied himself the luxuries that previous Buenos Aires cardinals enjoyed. He came close to becoming pope last time, reportedly gaining the second-highest vote total in several rounds of voting before he bowed out of the running in the conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI.
Groups of supporters waved Argentine flags in St. Peter’s Square as Francis, wearing simple white robes, made his first public appearance as pope.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, good evening," he said before making a reference to his roots in Latin America, which accounts for about 40 percent of the world’s Roman Catholics .
Bergoglio often rode the bus to work, cooked his own meals and regularly visited the slums that ring Argentina’s capital. He considers social outreach, rather than doctrinal battles, to be the essential business of the church.
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’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 murderous 1976-83 dictatorship. He also worked to recover the church’s traditional political influence in society, but his outspoken criticism of President Cristina Kirchner 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.
"In our ecclesiastical region there are priests who don’t baptize the children of single mothers because they weren’t conceived in the sanctity of marriage," Bergoglio told his priests. "These are today’s hypocrites. Those who clericalize the Church. 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!"
This sort of pastoral work, aimed at capturing more souls and building the flock, is an essential skill for any religious leader in the modern era, said Bergoglio’s authorized biographer, Sergio Rubin.
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," Rubin said before the 2013 conclave to choose Benedict’s successor.
Bergoglio’s influence seemed to stop at the presidential palace door after Nestor Kirchner and then his wife, Cristina Fernandez, took over the Argentina’s government.
His church 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."
This kind of demonization is unfair, says Rubin, who obtained an extremely rare interview of Bergoglio for his biography, the "The Jesuit."
"Is Bergoglio a progressive — a liberation theologist even? No. He’s no third-world priest. Does he criticize the International Monetary Fund, and neoliberalism? Yes. Does he spend a great deal of time in the slums? Yes," Rubin said.
Bergoglio has stood out for his austerity. 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, heated by a small stove on frigid weekends. For years, he took public transportation around the city, and cooked his own meals.
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 Rubin.Next Page >
Catholics, world leaders welcome church’s new pope
World leaders sent in their congratulations and Catholics around the world were celebrating Wednesday after the Vatican announced the election of Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio to the papacy — making him the first pontiff from the Americas.
Moments after the decision was announced, President Barack Obama offered “warm wishes” to Pope Francis and said the selection speaks to the strength and vitality of the Americas.
“On behalf of the American people, Michelle and I offer our warm wishes to His Holiness Pope Francis,” Obama said. “As a champion of the poor and the most vulnerable among us, he carries forth the message of love and compassion that has inspired the world for more than 2,000 years.”
British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande also issued statements of congratulations.
Wednesday was “a momentous day for the 1.2 billion Catholics around the world,” Cameron said.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he looked forward to cooperation with the Holy See under Pope Francis’ “wise leadership,” while European Union leaders Herman Van Rompuy and Jose Manuel Barroso wished the new Catholic leader “a long and blessed pontificate.”
The atmosphere across Latin America was jubilant, with people bursting into tears and cheers on streets from Buenos Aires to Caracas, Venezuela.
“It’s incredible!” said Martha Ruiz, 60, who was weeping tears of emotion in the Argentine capital. She said she had been in many meetings with the cardinal and said, “He is a man who transmits great serenity.”
At the St. Francis of Assisi church in the colonial Old San Juan district in Puerto Rico, church secretary Antonia Veloz exchanged jubilant high-fives with Jose Antonio Cruz, a Franciscan friar.
“It’s a huge gift for all of Latin America. We waited 20 centuries. It was worth the wait,” said Cruz, wearing the brown cassock tied with a rope that is the signature of the Franciscan order.
Even in Communist Cuba, there was pride as church bells rang to celebrate the news.
On Twitter, the pope’s mothballed account was revived and read: “HABEMUS PAPAM FRANCISCUM,” a reference to the cardinal’s new name: Pope Francis.
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