Pope Francis: The Times They Are A-Changin'

Page 4 of 6

The reaction on the other side of the spectrum has been less complicated. "Pope Francis is a gift from heaven, a prophetic voice willing to be a critic of capitalism and imperialism," says Cornel West, long a leading voice on the Christian left. "I don't want to fetishize the pope. He heads a deeply patriarchal and homophobic organization that I'm critical of. But I love who he is, in terms of what he says, and the impact of his words on progressive forces around the world."

Bergoglio was born in Buenos Aires, but his parents were Italian; his father fled Italy when Mussolini came to power. The family settled in Flores, a leafy, solidly middle-class neighborhood. There were many Italian relatives around, including a great-uncle whom Bergoglio described in a 2010 book of interviews as a "rascally old man" who "taught us to sing some rather risqué ditties in Genoese dialect. That explains why the only things I can say in Genoese do not bear repeating."

Buenos Aires was a cosmopolitan city, where vestiges of Spanish colonialism blended with an aspirational embrace of European culture. (There's an old joke about Argentines being Spanish-speaking Italians who think they're British.)

Bergoglio studied chemistry at a technical school, worked in a laboratory, moonlighted as a bouncer at a Buenos Aires bar, loved soccer and dancing the tango. Then, at 17, while meeting some friends, he walked past a church and had an epiphany. In an interview with a Buenos Aires radio station, Bergoglio described feeling "like somebody grabbed me from inside and took me to the confessional. . . . While I was there I felt that I had to become a priest, and I didn't doubt it."

Bergoglio didn't tell anyone about this incident for the next four years, while he continued to work and go to school, but in 1958, at age 21, he entered a Jesuit seminary. His mother was unhappy with his decision, and for years refused to visit him. "My mother experienced it as a plundering," Bergoglio recalled. "'I don't know, I don't see you as . . . you should wait a bit. . . . You're the eldest. . . . Keep working. . . . Finish university,' she said. The truth is, my mother was extremely upset." Bergoglio later said he was drawn to the Jesuits because of their emphasis on obedience and discipline, and also because he hoped to work as a missionary in Japan, where the Jesuits had been the first to introduce Christianity in the 1540s, though health problems – he'd lost part of a lung after a bout with pneumonia – prevented him from such travel. Instead, he taught literature at a Jesuit school, bringing in the great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges for a lecture and, eventually, at the age of 36, found himself appointed provincial superior of the Jesuits in Argentina, which meant he oversaw the activities of the religious order throughout the country. "That was crazy," the pope acknowledged in his interview in America. "I had to deal with difficult situations, and I made my decisions abruptly and by myself." According to Paul Vallely's biography Pope Francis, Untying the Knots, Bergoglio was a divisive figure, seen by some Argentine Jesuits, ironically enough, as a conservative throwback clinging to pre-Vatican II tradition. Bergoglio used the word "authoritarianism" to describe his leadership style back then, admitting, "I did not always do the necessary consultation. . . . My style of government as a Jesuit at the beginning had many faults."

Bergoglio's term as provincial superior coincided with one of the most traumatic eras in his country's history, the so-called Dirty War that tore Argentina apart in the wake of a 1976 military coup. For the next seven years, the country was ruled by a right-wing dictatorship; death squads terrorized the nation as tens of thousands of civilians were "disappeared." The junta was outwardly Catholic, and many church leaders openly collaborated. One of the few Argentine bishops to speak out against the government was murdered in a faked car accident.

If there is anything close to a stain on Bergoglio's record, it's his behavior during this period. As a provincial superior, he had far less power or stature than a bishop, and public denunciations of the junta would have likely gotten him killed. Defenders argue that he worked effectively behind the scenes, risking his own life by disguising hundreds of targeted civilians as seminarians and sneaking them out of the country. But critics believe he was complicit in the arrest and torture of a pair of activist Jesuits with whom he'd been feuding. Bergoglio has strongly denied the charge, insisting that he immediately "set the ball rolling" to orchestrate their release, but one of the priests, Orlando Yorio, wrote a book claiming Bergoglio had been the one who tipped off the junta. Yorio died in 2000. The other priest, Francisco Jalics, refutes Yorio's account; in October, he met with the pope in Rome, and they had previously celebrated Mass together. Elisabetta Piqué, who has spent much of her career as a journalist covering wars, believes Jalics, dismissing the controversy as "totally fake, as we know now. Bergoglio has a clear conscience. He's at peace with himself. He did whatever he could."

At the same time, liberation theology was spreading throughout Latin America. Its Marxist focus on the class struggle and open calls for revolution – some priests actually took up arms and joined groups like the Sandinistas – petrified Catholic traditionalists. John Paul II's Vatican denounced liberation theology as heresy and all but smothered it (clandestinely abetted, in many countries, by the CIA). In Vallely's telling, Bergoglio was also hostile to the movement during the Dirty War, even though the spirit of liberation theology has clearly influenced his own papacy, most markedly in the language of Evangelii Gaudium. He may have been responding to pressure from Rome in obedient Jesuit fashion; he also clearly worried that overtly radical activity by any of his priests could make the entire order a target of the junta. Whatever his true feelings back then, as pope, Francis has made his sympathies clear: Last September, he invited the Peruvian founder of the movement, Father Gustavo Gutiérrez, to visit him at the Vatican.

Bergoglio's self-described "authoritarian" reign ended in banishment. After his stint as provincial, his new Jesuit superiors received so many complaints about his difficult personality that he was eventually assigned to a new post in Córdoba, 400 miles away. There, Vallely writes, he "brooded," feeling "sidelined and belittled." The colleagues he'd alienated could barely recognize him when he returned to the capital in 1992. The chastening had forced Bergoglio to mature, mellow, open his mind. Six years later, in 1998, he became archbishop of Buenos Aires. Foreshadowing his behavior as pope, he rejected many of the princely trappings of his new office, getting around town via bus, residing in a simple apartment and cooking his own meals on weekends. An interviewer once asked if he was a good cook, to which Bergoglio responded, "Well, no one ever died." He would ask friends to tape CDs for him, because all he had was a cassette player.

Much of his attention was focused on the dispossessed: He wandered the city's worst neighborhoods, kissed the feet of AIDS patients in a hospice, heard confessions from prostitutes on park benches, disguised himself in a poncho to march in a slum procession, stood up to drug dealers who threatened one of his priests. Piqué's husband, Gerry O'Connell, also a journalist, who covers the Vatican for La Stampa, recalls visiting the archbishop's palatial residence shortly after Bergoglio took office. The "grand meeting room," where previous archbishops had received visitors, was now stuffed with boxes of clothes and food for the poor. "It was amazing – he'd turned it into a storeroom!" O'Connell says.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

Culture Main Next
Around the Web
Powered By ZergNet
Daily Newsletter

Get the latest RS news in your inbox.

Sign up to receive the Rolling Stone newsletter and special offers from RS and its
marketing partners.


We may use your e-mail address to send you the newsletter and offers that may interest you, on behalf of Rolling Stone and its partners. For more information please read our Privacy Policy.