Intellect, pastoral skills seen as strength of Argentine primate

By Catholic News Service

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (CNS) -- As primate of Argentina, a role that forces him to speak publicly and frequently about the economic, social and political problems facing his country, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio is still known as "Father Jorge" to many members of his Buenos Aires flock.
Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, Argentina. (CNS photo from Catholic Press Photo)

Dressed as an ordinary priest, the 68-year-old Jesuit still uses the city's subway and buses and shuns interviews.

But despite his low media profile, Cardinal Bergoglio often is listed as a possible successor to Pope John Paul II because of his intellect, his pastoral focus and his administrative skills.

His homilies and speeches are filled with references to the fact that all people are brothers and sisters and that the church and the country need to reach out to ensure that everyone feels welcome, respected and cared for.

While not overtly political, Cardinal Bergoglio has not tried to hide the political and social impact of the Gospel message, particularly in a country still recovering from a serious economic crisis.

Argentina is also beginning to face serious challenges to traditional social norms. In early 2005, when the nation's health minister suggested decriminalizing abortion and the media gave the suggestion wide coverage, Cardinal Bergoglio accused both of lacking respect for the values held by the majority of Argentines and of trying to convince the Catholic Church "to waver in our defense of the dignity of the person."

The cardinal, praised for living what he preaches, told the archdiocese's corps of catechists in March that one of the biggest temptations facing bishops, priests or lay people who work for the church is the temptation to feel they are special.

"One of the most serious problems that faces the church and that often threatens the evangelizing tasks of its pastoral agents is that we are more concerned with the 'things of God,' so inserted in the ecclesiastical world, that we frequently forget to be good Christians," he said.

Cardinal Bergoglio said there is a temptation to speak about "the spirituality of the lay person, of the catechist, of the priest, etc., with the serious danger of losing the Gospel's originality and simplicity. And once we lose sight of the common Christian horizon, we face the temptation of being snobs ... of being attracted to that which entertains and fattens, but not that which nourishes nor helps us to grow."

Gospel simplicity and Gospel certainty are the church's best responses to the cataclysmic changes facing Argentine society, he said.

"Not everything is changing, not everything is unstable, not everything is the fruit of culture or of consensus," the cardinal said.

The Gospel promises of God's love, of salvation in Jesus Christ and of unchanging moral values still have the power to guide and to give life, he said.

The cardinal also told the catechists that in a culture that proclaims "modern dogmas such as efficiency and pragmatism," the church must lead the way in reaching out to the elderly, to suffering children, to the poor and others excluded from the mainstream of modern society.

Cardinal Bergoglio preached a similar message in May 2003 as the country was still reeling from the 2001-02 economic crisis and as a new president, Nestor Kirchner, was taking the reins of the government.

Preaching on the Gospel story of the good Samaritan, the cardinal said: "Every economic, political, social or religious project involves the inclusion or exclusion of the wounded lying on the side of the road. Each day, each of us faces the choice of being a good Samaritan or an indifferent bystander."

Since becoming archbishop of Buenos Aires in 1998, Cardinal Bergoglio has created new parishes, restructured the administrative offices, taken personal care of the seminary and started new pastoral projects, such as the commission for divorcees. He has mediated in almost all social or political conflicts in the city; the newly ordained priests are described as "the Bergoglio generation"; and no political or social figure misses requesting a private encounter with him.

From the time he was named archbishop until Pope John Paul named him a cardinal in 2001, he had given only one interview to the press. The media he selected was a parish news bulletin, "Estrellita de Belen" ("Little Star of Bethlehem.")

In the interview, heavily reproduced by the secular media, Cardinal Bergoglio corrected his interviewer when asked what to do in a country "where Catholicism is the religion of the large majority."

"Excuse me, but this is not a country of a Catholic majority," the cardinal said. "Maybe most of the people proclaim themselves Catholic, but Catholicism is, without doubt, a cultural minority.

"Otherwise, how do you explain the high level of corruption, of destructive messages in the media, or social inequality? This would not be possible in a country with a truly Catholic majority," he said.

"Therefore, the question is how we, hierarchy and laity, work in speeding the new evangelization, in a way that all the environments of our society and culture are impregnated by the Gospel," he added.

A hard-core "porteno" -- the slang term for natives of Buenos Aires -- Jorge Bergoglio was born in Argentina's capital city Dec. 17, 1936.

He studied and received a master's degree in chemistry at the University of Buenos Aires, but later decided to become a Jesuit priest and studied at the Jesuit seminary of Villa Devoto.

He studied liberal arts in Santiago, Chile, and in 1960 earned a degree in philosophy from the Catholic University of Buenos Aires. Between 1964 and 1965 he was a teacher of literature and psychology at Inmaculada high school in the province of Santa Fe, and in 1966 he taught the same courses at the prestigious Colegio del Salvador in Buenos Aires.

In 1967 he returned to his theological studies and was ordained a priest Dec. 13, 1969. After his perpetual profession as a Jesuit in 1973, he became master of novices at the Seminary of Villa Barilari in San Miguel. Later that same year, he was elected superior of the Jesuit province of Argentina.

In 1980 he returned to San Miguel as a teacher at the Jesuit school, a job rarely taken by a former provincial superior.

When many believed that the thin, tall and intellectual priest would end his days teaching, writing and spending several hours in the confessional, Cardinal Antonio Quarracino called the cardinal to Buenos Aires in 1990.

In May 1992, the Jesuit was appointed auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires. As such, he was the one of three auxiliaries who kept the lowest profile, spending most of his time caring for the Catholic university, counseling the priests of the urban area under his responsibility, as well as preaching and hearing confessions of youths at parishes.

On June 3, 1997, he was named coadjutor archbishop. He was installed as new archbishop of Buenos Aires Feb. 28, 1998, after Cardinal Quarracino died.

Some controversy has arisen over the position taken by Cardinal Bergoglio during Argentina's 1976-1983 military dictatorship, which cracked down brutally on political opponents. Estimates of the number of people killed and forcibly disappeared during those years range from about 13,000 to more than 30,000.

Citing a case in which two young priests were detained by the military regime, critics say that the cardinal, who was Jesuit provincial at the time, did not do enough to support church workers against the military dictatorship.

Others, however, have said that he attempted to negotiate behind the scenes for the priests' release, and a spokesman for the cardinal, quoted in the daily newspaper La Nacion, called the accusation "old slander."

Except for a few bishops, Argentina's church leaders were largely silent during the "dirty war" and have been accused of complicity. In 1996, the bishops' conference issued a statement apologizing for the church's actions or failure to act during those years.


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