MEXICO CITY, Mexico — Latin America, home to more than two of every five Roman Catholics alive, finally has its pope after decades of dreaming and lobbying.
His fellow cardinals seemed to reach far outside the Vatican's box in electing Buenos Aires Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio, 76 — now Pope Francis — to lead the 1.2 billion member church. In addition to being the first non-European pope in many centuries, the Argentine Bergoglio is the only member the Society of Jesus — the Jesuits — ever to reign in the Vatican.
Still, Bergoglio hardly fits the mold of either Latin America's largely mixed-blooded population or the Jesuit order's relatively liberal social philosophy.
While his austere lifestyle reflects his Jesuit formation, Bergoglio is a doctrinal conservative who, like most every Catholic prelate, firmly opposes gay marriage, abortion and the end of celibacy for priests. He broke decades ago with the Latin American clergy's many adherents to Liberation Theology, the “preferential option for the poor” that advocates activism to achieve political and social change.
Pope Francis' two conservative predecessors condemned the movement as a “secular aberration.”
And while he's said to have rarely left Argentina during this career, Bergoglio was raised one of five children born of Italian parents who had immigrated to Buenos Aires. In that sense, though he's from the Southern Hemisphere, Bergoglio may be someone comfortable to the Italian clergy who hold outsized sway in the Vatican.
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“In terms of church culture he's an intermediary, a hybrid,” Elio Masferrer, a Mexican religion scholar, told a radio interviewer here Wednesday.
“He's never showed his cards as to what it is that he believes. He's a mystery. Now we are going to see exactly what Bergoglio thinks,” he added.
Though he's said to spend a lot of time in Argentina's poor neighborhoods — and to do such un-cardinal things such as taking public transportation, live in a simple apartment and eating in down-market restaurants — Bergoglio has been criticized by some in Argentina for being too close to government officials, especially during the military dictatorship of the late 1970s.
Former Argentine military dictator Gen. Jorge Rafael Videla takes communion from then-priest Bergoglio.
Last October Argentina's bishops, led by Bergoglio, apologized for failing to better defend the faithful from abuse during the so-called “dirty war,” in which the military regime killed thousands of suspected leftist supporters, according to The Associated Press.
Despite Latin America's huge importance to the Vatican, the church faces widespread challenges here, with millions of its members converting to Protestant faiths and even most nominal Catholics attending mass rarely if at all.
Still, as many as 90 percent of Latin Americans consider themselves Roman Catholic and Bergoglo as pope is expected to help hold many of them more tightly to the church.
Despite the years of scandals and some of the region’s changing cultural mores out of step with the Vatican's teachings, both Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI drew huge crowds on their visits to the region.
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“It fills us with happiness because he is close to the Latin American people,” Monsignor Eugenio Lira, secretary general of the Mexican Episcopal Conference, told a press conference of Bergoglio's election. “He knows the situation of the church. He can be sensitive to its joys. But also to the problems that Catholics face.”
Indeed, though he may hold a hard line on church doctrine, Bergoglio has also demonstrated he understands the plight of too many of Latin America's faithful.
“In our region three are priests who don't baptize children of single mothers because there weren't conceived in the sanctity of marriage,” Bergoglio said in a sermon last year. “Those are the hypocrites of today, those who separate the people from the God of Salvation.
“And that poor girl, who could have sent her son to the trash,” he continued, referring to abortion, “had the courage to bring him into the world goes from parish to parish so that someone would baptize him.”
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