The election of Jorge Bergoglio as Pope Francis has reinvigorated interest in the Church for many people, both Catholics and non-Catholics alike. With a winning smile and a casual ‘Buona Sera’ the new Pope greeted the world, and the world was entranced. His message of simplicity, and his commitment to the poor and marginalised, have attracted the rapt attention of an often cynical world.
So who is Francis, Bishop of Rome, the man his colleagues went ‘to the end of the world’ to find? This short biography by Fr Michael Collins, Vatican expert and biographer of Pope Benedict XVI, explains in simple terms who Francis is, where he came from, and what the main influences on his life have been.
Collins also outlines briefly the important events in the new pontiff’s life to date, from entrance to the Society of Jesus as a young man, his appointment as Provincial of the Jesuits in Argentina at a time of great civil unrest, his appointment as bishop and later Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires, and ultimately his election as Pope and Bishop of Rome. Having studied Greek and Roman Civilisation and History at University College Dublin, Michael Collins was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Dublin, where he has served in a number of parishes. Michael has co-authored and written a number of books including Benedict XVI: Successor to Peter, John Paul II: The Path to Sainthood (Columba Press), The Story of Christianity, Vatican Secrets and Treasures of the Holy City (Dorling Kindersley). He recently edited The Illustrated Bible (Dorling Kindersley, 2012).
- Independent Catholic News
In terms of symbolism, Jorge Mario Bergoglio hasn’t put a foot wrong since becoming the first Jesuit and the first South American to be elected Pope and taking the name Francis. But what makes him tick and what kind of pope will he turn out to be when he passes from symbolism to substance?
Unlike his predecessor Benedict XVI, who surprised everybody with his decision in February to abdicate, very little was known about Bergoglio prior to his election. Immediately after, the word went around that the man from Argentina had come second in the 2005 conclave that elected Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
Surprisingly, this doesn’t seem to have been known before the recent conclave, because in the run-up to it, Bergoglio didn’t get a mention in the media and certainly wasn’t considered one of the favourites.
Indeed, he thought himself that his age — 76 — would rule him out, and he had even booked his return (economy class) ticket before he left Buenos Aires for Rome. The cardinal-electors thought otherwise, and as Pope Francis he has surprised us, albeit in small ways so far. He has dropped some of the trappings of a monarchical papacy, eschewing the ornate and medieval-style papal garments that his predecessor was so fond of, and he continues to live in St Martha’s Home (a Vatican hotel in all but name) rather than the splendid and spacious papal apartments on the other side of St Peter’s Square.
More importantly, he has appointed a committee of eight cardinals from five continents to assist him — a move that presages a shift in the direction of collegiality, one of the key concepts to emerge from Vatican II.
He also did something many had waited for. “The Pope pushed forward the beatification of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, the outspoken and tenacious proponent of human rights, who had been assassinated while celebrating Mass on 24 March 1980,” according to the author of a new biography. There is still an awful lot we don’t know about the former archbishop of Buenos Aires, whose father was an Italian who settled in Argentina in 1930, and married a local woman.
Now Fr Michael Collins has attempted to fill in the gaps and provide us with a fuller picture of the new Pope. A priest of the Archdiocese of Dublin, Collins is a respected ecclesiastical historian (one of his earlier books is The Fisherman’s Net: The Influence of the Papacy on History) and, as he did in the case of Benedict XVI, he has produced a quick, short biography of Bergoglio.
According to the author, a key to Bergoglio’s style as Pope may lie in his fondness for gradualism. He displayed this in regard to mandatory priestly celibacy. “If the law on celibacy is relaxed, Bergoglio believed, it would be done on a regional basis, according to cultural demands, rather than a universal abolition of the requirement. This view of gradualness is a hallmark of his intellectual make up.”
He also states that Bergoglio was “unique among the country’s bishops in the kindness he showed toward a bishop who had resigned from his diocese and married”. He was also the first bishop to regularly visit the slum districts of his diocese. But, when it came to dealing with cover-ups over clerical paedophilia, Bergoglio was “resolute” in his views. “I do not believe in taking positions that uphold a certain corporative spirit in order to avoid damaging the image of the institution,” he wrote to one bishop who had sought his advice.
He was appointed provincial of the Jesuits in Argentina on Jul 13, 1973, for a six-year term. It was to be a turbulent and dangerous time. “The second three years of Bergoglio’s period in office coincided with the most brutal period of civil unrest which engulfed Argentina,” Collins notes. In a coup in 1976, which overthrew President Isabel Peron, General Jorge Videla became de facto president, as head of a military junta.
This had the support of the US, not surprising given Washington’s paranoia over left-wing movements. “In the decades following the Second World War, several countries in South America were caught up in the so-called Cold War,” Collins says.
“The clash between communist and capitalist ideologies in the region led to the establishment right-win dictatorships. Some of these were granted military and financial support from the United States of America. Specifically, the Americans were determined to keep Soviet influence from infiltrating the United States.”
The brutal rule of these oppressive military regimes, and their blatant disregard for fundamental human rights and social justice posed a major challenge for a Church committed to the gospel of Jesus Christ. One response to this challenge was the emergence of “liberation theology”. This was a radically different way of interpreting and applying the gospel message. The Peruvian Dominican priest Gustavo Gutierrez produced a seminal work entitled A Theology of Liberation, published in 1971.
“Poverty is not fate,” Gutierrez wrote. “It is a condition; it is not a misfortune, it is an injustice. It is the result of social structures and mental and cultural categories, it is linked to the way in which society has been built, in its various manifestations.”
It resulted in a call for the Church to commit to a “preferential option for the poor”. However, because this theology borrowed certain tools of socio-economic and socio-political analysis from Marxism, it has been treated with suspicion and even outright condemnation, most notably from John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
“Bergoglio’s term of office as provincial coincided with the development of liberation theology and with the ‘dirty war’ of the military junta. Bergoglio, understanding the motivation of his confreres engaged in promoting social justice, took a cautious approach,” writes Collins. “He urged those under his authority to avoid open conflict with government agents.”
In Nov 1979, RTÉ broadcast a Radharc documentary directed by the late Fr Joseph Dunn entitled Argentina: The Church & Human Rights. This was also the title of a chapter in a later book by Fr Dunn called No Vipers in the Vatican in which he dealt with the background to the documentary, and the continuing controversy about the Church’s role during the “dirty war” of 1976-1983. Amnesty International was later to claim that during this period, as many as 15,000 people were unaccounted for. They became known as “the disappeared”.
Although there is no mention of Bergoglio, the Church’s refusal to confront the regime was a feature of that dark period. “The record shows that the bishops continually refused to receive organisations representing relative of the disappeared,” writes Dunn.
“By and large the bishops as a conference were too frightened and conservative to challenge the military, and preferred to turn a blind eye to what went on.”
Bergoglio of course wasn’t a bishop then, but while there is evidence that as Jesuit provincial he made private interventions with the junta, there is none indicating that he spoke out publicly against the generals. “I did what I could,” he said in 2010.
Other churchmen had a far more comfortable relationship with the dictatorship. Fr Dunn noted that Archbishop Pio Laghi, who became papal nuncio in Argentina in 1974, was accused by several newspapers “of playing tennis frequently with Admiral Emilio Massera, commander of the navy and the principal architect of the ‘disappearances’ during the military regime”. It is, however, to Bergoglio’s credit — as Collins points out — that after becoming archbishop of Buenos Aires in Feb 1988, he played a pivotal role in the drafting and issuing of a collective apology from the bishops in Oct 2012 for the Church’s failures to protect its followers during the period of the military dictatorship. But the statement blamed the era’s violence on both the junta and its enemies.
Two days after his election, Pope Francis invited the media to a special audience in the Paul VI Hall, during which he declared: “Ah — how I would like a Church which is poor and is for the poor.” How far he goes in bringing this about could well become the litmus test of his pontificate.
Bergoglio’s elevation to the papacy hasn’t shielded him from the appalling legacy of the period of military dictatorship in Argentina. “In his own country the mothers and grandmothers of the victims of the Dirty Wars called on his intervention,” notes Collins. “But even a pope could not unravel the horrific threads of murder and torture carried out by the military juntas.”
Collins ends with a pertinent quotation from Fr Leonardo Boff, one of the main proponents of liberation theology: “Bergoglio’s past does not matter. What matters is Francis’s future.” This may have been said more in hope than expectation, but then again Francis might just go on surprising us.
- TP O’Mahony - Irish Examiner