From the archives: Man of the people

Will the Pope with the wry sense of humour and common touch actually reinvigorate the Church and the papacy?

One year ago today, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope Francis, making history as the first Pope from the New World. Last March, Maclean’s senior writer Brian Bethune filed this story on the new Pope, and his big challenges ahead, from the Vatican.

Man of the people

Antonello Nusca/Polaris

From the moment he became Pope Francis, Jorge Mario Bergoglio started adding to an already impressive list of firsts: the cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires was the first New World pope ever, the first non-European pope in 1,300 years, the first Jesuit pope, the first pope since 913 CE to choose to be known by a name never used by one of his predecessors. When he emerged onto the balcony of St. Peter’s to receive the acclaim of a crowd 100,000 strong, Francis was not wearing the traditional—and monarchical—red papal cape; when he left for the night, he hopped on a minibus rather than in the papal limo; the next morning, he dropped by his hotel to pay his bill, now that he was no longer only visiting the bishopric of Rome. Perhaps most disconcerting of all, he’s been displaying open flashes of humour from the start, beginning with his remark to the cardinal electors—“May God forgive you.” And by doing all that, Francis seems to have accomplished something else new under the sun: freezing in place a rapt world’s judgment, now poised between hope and caution.

Whatever observers, Catholic and otherwise, expected from the new universal pastor of the Roman Catholic Church—and the pre-conclave claim that what the Church needed was a saint with an M.B.A. says more about expectations than possibilities—most remain uncertain about what, and whom, it got.

The cardinal electors may not be worried about their need for divine forgiveness, at least not over their choice for pope, but they too must be watching closely. Bergoglio’s election was a surprise to everyone outside the Sistine Chapel. Italian journalists bellowed “Argentino? Argentino?” at one another after the announcement, while at Pope Francis’s press conference on March 16, veteran Dutch Vatican correspondent Rop Zoutberg remarked how he thought he had all possibilities, however remote, covered by compiling detailed biographies of 15 cardinals. But, Zoutberg added ruefully, he never thought to include the cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires.

Bergoglio was considered beyond even long-shot status, despite the fact he finished second to Joseph Ratzinger at the last conclave in 2005. That finish was dismissed on the grounds that somebody had to finish second to the unstoppable groundswell for the cardinal who became Pope Benedict XVI, and because Bergoglio, 68 in 2005, was no longer relatively youthful. Besides, if Argentina had a long-shot papabile, speculation focused on the country’s other voting-age cardinal, Leonardo Sandri, seven years younger. (Zoutberg did have a biography of him, and of Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet.) To top it off, when it was all over, the bishops of Italy sent a joint email congratulating the wrong man, Cardinal Angelo Scola of Milan.

Almost two-thirds of the men who voted, 67 of the 115, became cardinals under Benedict, meaning none of them was present at the last conclave. So it is likely that more cardinals than just Bergoglio himself—who gave the impression on the papal balcony of a man struggling to adapt to very changed circumstances—were surprised by his election.

In the days leading up to the conclave, the papal election was forecast as a struggle between reformers and status quo defenders over the fate of the scandal-racked Roman Curia. The Vatican bureaucracy is still primarily staffed by Italians, but the curial candidate was supposed to be Brazilian Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer, the presumed Latino heir apparent in pre-conclave buzz, while Cardinal Scola spearheaded the mostly non-Italian reformers. According to purported leaks reported in the Italian media, however, the much-anticipated showdown never materialized. The Italians did snub their countryman Scola, but never rallied around Scherer. Instead, there were enough non-Italian votes cast for Scola in the single round of voting held on March 12, the conclave’s opening day, to put him in a first-place tie with fellow papabile Ouellet, the former archbishop of Quebec City and currently prefect for the Congregation for Bishops, one of the Vatican’s most powerful posts.

Bergoglio, though, aided by support among those cardinals who were present at the 2005 conclave, and by his Italian descent—his father immigrated to Argentina from the Piedmont—finished an attention-grabbing third. When the cardinals returned March 13 for a full day of voting that went four rounds, support for Scola—always soft, given his position as a man not favoured by his own nation—began to melt away. More of that support, including Latin American cardinals rallying to one of their own as soon as they realized he had a chance, went to Bergoglio than to Ouellet. After the day’s first three rounds, Ouellet made a decision that determined which nation would produce the first pope from the Americas: the Canadian asked his voters to support the Argentine.

More solid evidence of what the conclave was thinking comes from a few cardinals’ careful post-election remarks; all participants swore an oath of secrecy as to the actual events of the conclave. “By choosing Bergoglio, we chose someone who was not in the Curia system,” said Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, the archbishop of Paris. “He is not part of the Italian system, but also at the same time, because of his culture and background, he was Italo-compatible. If there was a chance that someone could intervene with justice in this situation, he was the man who could do it best.” The cardinal archbishop of Chicago, Francis George, expressed the same thoughts about Bergoglio. “He’s someone who was looked at who could do the office, particularly in light of the challenges that we now face.” The Church, George added, needs “a revision to the way things work in the Curia.”

The gulf between reformers and business-as-usual cardinals was not the only divide the voters thought Bergoglio could bridge. His latest book, On Heaven and Earth, published two years ago, features a series of conversations with a prominent Argentine rabbi. (Bergoglio is a dedicated proponent of interfaith co-operation, to the extent he once scandalized many in his diocese by joining a soccer stadium full of Protestant evangelicals—much reviled in some sectors of the Latin American church as powerful rivals for adherents—for an ecumenical prayer session.)

In his book, Pope Francis reveals a forceful personality to accompany his mild-mannered, soft-spoken pastoral approach, and a hatred of injustice. He expresses admiration for atheist socialists who dedicated their lives to the poor. While he dismisses arguments that blame clerical sex abuse on celibacy (“If a priest is a pedophile, he is so before he becomes a priest”), Bergoglio is contemptuous of the Church’s self-protective cover-up instinct when faced with such a cleric: “I think that is the solution that was once proposed in the United States, of switching them to other parishes. That is stupid, because the priest continues to carry the problem in his backpack.” The only answer to the problem—which he stressed had not come before him—is zero tolerance: such priests, he said, should be fired and put on trial. Bergoglio also mentions, years before he took the saint’s name for his own, how much he admires Francis of Assisi. “He brought to Christianity an idea of poverty against the luxury, pride, vanity of the civil and ecclesiastical powers of the time,” the archbishop says. “He changed history.”

On the whole, however, Bergoglio shows himself in On Heaven and Earth to be an archetypical Southern Catholic prelate: traditionalist in sexual morality and left-leaning in his criticism of global capitalism. Same-sex marriage is “an anthropological reverse,” while abortion is a question, not of religious dogma, but for the political sphere because it touches on universal human values: “Preventing the development of a being that already has the genetic code of a human being is not ethical,” he says. Trends in globalization that “make things uniform is essentially imperialist”; if cultural diversity is not respected, globalization “becomes a way of enslaving people.” In a Church with numerous fault lines, all represented in the conclave, both liberals and conservatives could find something to admire in Bergoglio, including the way he combines those very Catholic attitudes.

Nor were bridge-building and administrative skills all that were on the cardinals’ minds. “Can he govern?” was in fact Cardinal George’s second rhetorical question about how he chose to cast his ballot. “First thing is, ‘Is he a man of the faith who connects us to Christ?’ ” The Church needed a pastor, Ouellet, who seemed relieved the burden had not fallen on him, told the Globe and Mail. In an interview with Maclean’s, Ouellet said, “He’s a good shepherd, very close to his flock. Last Sunday, he was like a parish priest: he did the mass and greeted the people. This is extraordinary.” In that regard, the same humble, self-deprecating manner and willingness to wander off-script that has—so far—charmed outside observers since his election impressed Bergoglio’s fellow cardinals during the pre-conclave sessions. “It was his personality that was the determiner,” said Jean-Pierre Ricard, the cardinal archbishop of Bordeaux. “I think the college made a very good choice,” added Ouellet, who joked to Quebec reporters that every vote cast for him made him think, in the words of the graphic-novel hero Asterix, “The Romans are crazy!”

In the cardinals’ decision, Bergoglio’s age—at 76, he’s just two years younger than Ratzinger at his election in 2005—seemed to play no role. Or, more probably, it influenced the voters in mutually contradictory ways. The old papal rule is that a fat pope follows a skinny pope, meaning Romanist after outsider, young after old, in an endless see-saw. But among the many long-term uncertainties set in motion by Benedict’s resignation, the first voluntary papal abdication in 700 years, is the current value of the traditional age markers. Would Benedict’s decision influence cardinal electors to seek a younger pope? Or would it free them to choose an elderly candidate on the grounds that an ill pope can always leave office? Some cardinals had been quoted as believing, in the wake of a resignation prompted by old age and ill health, that a younger man was needed. Others, aware that resignation was now a valid option, had varied reasons for rejecting that conclusion.

Conservatives judged, prosaically enough, that time would limit the damage an older pope might cause to the status quo; reformers, that Francis’s advanced years might motivate him to make bold, quick reform moves. Cardinal Ricard called to mind one of Francis’s most beloved predecessors, a pope now virtually mythologized. “There were thoughts about looking to someone much younger,” said Cardinal Ricard. “But we remembered that we had popes like John XXIII who was old but decisive for the evolution of the Church. So the question of age wasn’t such a big factor.” As for health, Pope Francis has only one fully functioning lung, something his fellow cardinals may not have known.

In the end, it all happened very quickly. After Ouellet released his delegates (so to speak), Bergoglio reached the required 77 votes well before the final ballot count was finished, causing the cardinals to break into applause. Five ballots, well below the statistical norm over the last nine conclaves (7.4), is only one more than it took to elect Pope Benedict, who was manifestly on his way to the papal throne from the moment he led John Paul II’s funeral mass.

For all the conclave’s brief, two-day life, the election was in fact a century in the making. Catholicism came to Latin America with the conquistadors in the 16th century, but the region has always been a sleepy Church backwater. But Catholics in developing countries, including Latin Americans, once a small minority of the Church before the Great War, are now a majority of the world’s faithful. The cardinals made a historic turn, acknowledging that demographic reality and giving a human face to it with their choice of Pope Francis. In making that turn, they oriented themselves to a part of the world in which their Church remains strong, but is starting to lose members to other Christian denominations (mainly Pentecostalism) and secularism.

Yet Francis’s very pathway to the papacy, the bridges he has built that make most corners of the Church believe they have a friend in him, will make it difficult for him to move on compelling non-doctrinal issues, especially on what most observers, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, think is crucial to the future of the worldwide Church: a thoroughgoing renewal of its governance structure. It’s one thing to say, as Cardinal Vingt-Trois did, that a pope with a foot in two camps “could intervene with justice,” and another to do it, when one side will feel betrayed.

A pair of Scottish priests from Glasgow waiting out the conclave in St. Peter’s Square, who were having a near-incomprehensible inside-Church-baseball conversation about former Pope Benedict’s vestments when approached, had their own take on how the cardinals’ choice could affect real change in the Church: very slowly. “People keep thinking the Church is like some multinational corporation,” said Father Gerald Byrne, “where instructions go out from the top and are immediately followed. Really, it’s more the opposite, an upside-down arrangement.” That unwieldy structure, he and Father John McGinley agreed, went a long way toward explaining the failure to respond to the sexual abuse crisis. Added Byrne: “My bishop has no idea what’s going on in my parish unless I tell him. And Rome doesn’t know what’s going on in his diocese unless he tells them.” Change of any kind comes slow to a church with “long, long doctrinal continuity,” says Byrne.

No one knows that better than a South American Jesuit. From their founding during the Catholic Reformation, the Jesuits have had a complicated relationship with the papacy, sometimes the favourite agents of papal will and sometimes suppressed. Bergoglio’s order is among the least mentioned of Pope Francis’s firsts, but it is significant. Although his relations with his order have been cool over the years—he preferred to describe himself as “Jorge Bergoglio, priest” rather than “Jorge Bergoglio, Jesuit,” noted one biographer—Pope Francis was spiritually formed by his training in a religious order whose members have always seen themselves as spiritual shock troops, emphasizing education, missionary work, social justice and ecumenical dialogue. In his commitment to the poor, in particular, Bergoglio is profoundly Jesuitical.

As Michael Walsh, a papal historian and former Jesuit, puts it, some members of the order in Argentina were “not altogether enthusiastic” about Bergoglio when he headed the Jesuits there. “As a provincial, he was extremely strict and fairly conservative, which goes against the grain of the society.” But Walsh believes a Jesuit pope may bring two new attributes to the papacy. “Jesuits consult a lot,” he said. “I really think we’ll see a pope who’s going to consult more; I think we’re even seeing signs of that now in his way of dealing with the cardinals and not putting himself above them.” Additionally, Jesuit tradition sees them leaving their offices—whether as provincials or professors—after six-year terms, raising the prospect of a short papacy. “Since the cardinals appointed someone of 76, they might very well have thought that he was going to follow Benedict’s example and retire,” Walsh said.

In his native land, Bergoglio the bridge-builder is a polarizing figure for many. In part, the differing reactions to him turn on the differing definitions of “progressive” that split the Catholic world as much as they form the gulf between Church and secular attitudes. For some, a prelate who has engaged in pitched battles with his own government over issues like legalizing same-sex marriages and financial support for contraception is a hidebound reactionary dragging the Church backward. “I suspect that his papacy will ultimately be remembered a lot like that of John Paul II: two popes with the distinction of being demographic ‘firsts’ and thus getting a lot of attention, but then using that notoriety to push a conservative agenda and putting the brakes on progressive elements within the Church,” writes Kenneth Wolf, a historian at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., and the author of a book on St. Francis. “That would make Bergoglio’s choice of ‘Francis’ ironic.”

But for others, not all of them Catholic, with their own suspicions of globalization and demands for social justice, Francis is a beacon of light. A strong critic of global capitalism, Bergoglio declared at a bishops’ conference in 2007 that Latin America was a region of “scandalous inequality,” where economic growth has “reduced misery the least—the unjust distribution of goods persists, creating a situation of social sin that cries out to heaven.”

In personal terms, Francis has a well-earned reputation for holiness and humility. His personal friendships and sense of compassion cut across ideological divides. One of his friends, Clelia Luro, a radical feminist and Catholic who married a prominent former bishop, spoke at length to a British reporter about Pope Francis. When her husband lay dying, Bergoglio was the only Catholic cleric who went to visit him in hospital. Head of the national Church since 2001, the cardinal has never lived in the ecclesiastical mansion—where John Paul II stayed when visiting Argentina—instead living in the central city in an apartment with an elderly priest, taking public transport, cooking his own meals and heating the place with a small stove. Archbishop Bergoglio regularly visited the slums that ring Buenos Aires, and recently denounced in revolted tones those priests of his diocese who refuse baptism to the children of single mothers. (That’s a particularly sensitive issue for those Catholic leaders aware of the hypocrisy of denouncing abortion while simultaneously dismissing unwed mothers. It is a matter that will resurface as the right-to-die movement gains traction: resources will have to be poured into hospices and palliative care centres if the Church is to be credible in its opposition to euthanasia.)

But nothing divides Argentines more than their memories of the military junta that ruled the country from 1976 to 1983. And Francis’s record then has been controversial. Most Argentines expressed pride in one of their own assuming the papacy, especially fellow fans of the San Lorenzo de Almagro soccer club created by a parish priest in 1908, which plays in the only stadium in the country with a chapel on its grounds. (Bergoglio has celebrated mass in it.) But others found nothing to celebrate. “I can’t believe it, I don’t know what to do, I’m in so much anguish and so enraged,” wrote Graciela Yorio, the sister of a kidnapped and tortured Jesuit priest, in an email published in the Argentine press the morning after Bergoglio’s election.

Already there have been vigorous attempts to cast him as a small-scale Pope Pius XII, a man who may have done good and brave deeds in private but did not speak up enough in public against a murderous regime. The analogy breaks down in the face of the fact Bergoglio was not archbishop at the time, but head of Argentina’s Jesuits; still, human rights activists point out he twice refused to testify in public about what he knew of murder and kidnapping under the junta. “He is a participant in Argentine politics, but in his own way—very low-profile,” said Washington Uranga, a social science professor at the University of Buenos Aires. “More politicians pass through his office than either the opposition or the government would care to admit.”

Although Bergoglio’s biographer says the future pope hid wanted people on Church property and once gave his own identity papers to a man who looked like him, it’s the case of two of his Jesuit priests that best reveals the unsettled nature of his reputation. Liberation theology activists Orlando Yorio, Graciela’s brother, and Francisco Jalics were kidnapped in 1976. Yorio, who died in 2000, later accused Bergoglio of effectively handing them over to the junta when he refused to endorse the priests’ ministry. But both men were freed by Bergoglio’s secret activity: he arranged for dictator Jorge Videla’s family priest to call in sick so that Bergoglio could say mass in Videla’s home and successfully plead for mercy.

Jalics, who left Argentina for a monastery in Germany after he was freed from prison, emerged last week to say that he and his former superior had met up again in 2010 and had concelebrated mass together: “I have been reconciled to the events and, from my side, consider them closed. I hope God will bless Pope Francis abundantly in his duties.” The most serious accusation levelled at Francis—that he actively colluded in the kidnapping—has not only been denied by a furious Vatican, but by more neutral observers. Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, who won the 1980 Nobel Peace Prize for documenting the junta’s atrocities, said, “Perhaps [Bergoglio] didn’t have the courage of other priests, but he never collaborated with the dictatorship—he was no accomplice of the dictatorship.” Dutch journalist Zoutberg agrees. He has been to Argentina several times because the April 20 crowning of King Willem-Alexander means the Netherlands will soon have an Argentine queen consort, Maxima, whose father—a high-ranking minister under the junta—is persona non grata in Holland. “They are digging, digging there. Have been for years. If there were crimes to be laid at Bergoglio, they’d have been found by now.” Whatever his personal role, and whatever he feels about it, much of Bergoglio’s archiepiscopal career was dedicated to reconciling Argentines with the Church.

The papacy, among very many other things, is a matter of tone—of a human face and of listening to others—and some popes have more of it than others: Benedict didn’t score high and Francis does. (In that regard, it will be interesting to see how Francis’s upcoming visit to his predecessor will be seen in various sectors of the Church: as a gesture of courtesy and humility toward an honoured figure, or as a misstep stoking fears that Benedict still remains an influential presence behind the scenes.)

But his choice of name, however much St. Francis means to him personally, was pitch-perfect in tone, catching the mood and yearning of his Church today. Calling himself after one of the most beloved figures in Catholic history, the patron saint of animals, famous for charming the birds into his hands—especially doing so as a series of seagulls coincidentally (presumably) were perching atop the Sistine Chapel chimney—connects deeply with popular Catholic devotion, especially in Italy, Bergoglio’s new home, and in Latin America, where the founder of the Franciscan Order of friars is venerated as an iconic friend of the poor. (It also connects the Pope to one of his most illustrious Jesuit predecessors, the missionary St. Francis Xavier.) But the name Francis resonates even farther afield. Consider the elderly Roman man who, on the night before the conclave, stood alone at St. Peter’s Square with a banner. He didn’t have a papal candidate to suggest, he said, only that he wanted the new pope to take the name emblazoned on the banner: Francesco I Papa. Francis and all its emotional meaning touches all sorts of Catholics tired of legalisms and dogmatic quarrels: the cardinals were right, the Church wants a pastor.

Reaction to the name came first, naturally, from the crowd waiting for the white smoke in St. Peter’s Square on Wednesday, March 13. For 10 rainy, cold hours, the Sistine seagull was the star of the show. He or she or the three different birds who repeatedly settled on the chimney of the Sistine Chapel, always at moments when powerful clouds of either white or black smoke were imminently expected, woke up a cheerful but frozen crowd. The morning crowd, on a working day, had been smaller, and proportionally greater in clergy. There were Capuchin friars and Franciscan monks (spectacularly happy by night’s end); nuns both numerous and, more startling to North American eyes, young; Polish seminarians; and the two Scottish priests who had come on a three-day holiday. (Conclave fans, they’d done the same in 2005 when Benedict XVI was elected. They weren’t, they laughed, just making up for the absence of their cardinal, Keith O’Brien, felled by yet another sex scandal.) But flags and palpable enthusiasm were not in plentiful supply.

By the afternoon, though, even as the rain intensified, the feeling was entirely different. The front rows in St. Peter’s Square were taken up by Brazilians, Mexicans, Argentines and Filipinos, singing, chanting “Vive el papa,” and waving flags, as were citizens of everywhere from Malta to Romania, including someone with an Israeli flag. None of them wanted to jinx their cardinals by discussing their hopes with a journalist, though one middle-aged Argentine couple did mention their long-shot papabile, Leonardo Sandri. Slowly the Romans, who increased in numbers as the day wore on, joined in the fun, and their flags began to dominate. The rain and cold, however, were beating down even the Filipinos—moments of gull action excepted—when the white smoke billowed out a little past 7 p.m.

It was as if a shot of electricity had gone through everyone. There was a moment of hesitation when the colour of the smoke was unclear, a scream when there was no mistaking its whiteness, and the bells began to peal. An hour later, the lights went on behind the basilica balcony, and a cardinal appeared to announce Pope Francis. Almost everyone in the crowd caught that, even if few heard the Latin version of his birth names, and the response was visceral and immediately approving. Even as the buzz among the Italian journalists began—Argentino? Argentino?—the ever-cheerful Filipinos, not fazed at all that they weren’t cheering on their papabile, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, drowned out the reporters with, “Papa Francisco, Papa Francisco!”

The mild-mannered, fatherly looking prelate who finally appeared, all in white, on the balcony asked 100,000 people for silence—and instantly got it—with a highly unusual papal request: “And now I would like to give the blessing, but first I want to ask you a favour. Before the bishop blesses the people, I ask that you would pray to the Lord to bless me—the prayer of the people for their bishop. Let us say this prayer—your prayer for me—in silence.”

And as Francis’s papacy began, so has it continued. He ditches jewelled crucifixes for plain wooden crosses, he visits the sick, he stops to chat with schoolchildren. When he slips on the stairs, he cracks a joke. He cracks jokes all the time, as often as he wanders off-script, even when addressing a hall full of journalists—who had formed a lineup a half-kilometre long to get in and see him—and further charms them before blessing the lot of them by remarking he was aware many were not Catholic or even Christian, but that they were all God’s children. He calls the papal nuncio in Argentina and tells him to tell Catholics there not to come to his inaugural mass on March 19, but to save the money and give it to the poor.

On all occasions, he talks about Francis of Assisi, simplicity, humility and the power of one person to change the world. He attracts unexpected friends from unexpected places: the day after the papal election, two Hells Angels from Finland strolled under his window. By the time Pope Francis gave his first Angelus blessing on St. Patrick’s Day, the crowd in St. Peter’s Square had grown to nearly 300,000. Afterwards, he emerged from the papal apartments to mingle with the departing crowd, many of whom slapped him on the back.

It can’t last, of course. Sticking to the script will become important after the first verbal misstep, and his security officers will surely have already told Francis that Pope John Paul II used to mingle with crowds, too, until he was shot. Then there are burdens of office, the complex governance decisions to be made and constituencies to offend the M.B.A. side of the papacy, which caused Cardinal Ouellet, reluctant papabile, to call it a “nightmare job.” As for the saint side of the job, though, Pope Francis has yet to put a foot wrong. And around the world, tens of millions of people, not all of them Catholic, their hopes awakening, find themselves—possibly to their own surprise—pulling for him.

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