BUENOS AIRES, Argentina —
Like most of those in Argentina, he is a soccer fan, his favorite team being the underdog San Lorenzo squad. Known for his outreach to the country’s poor, he gave up a palace for a small apartment, rode public transportation instead of a chauffeur-driven car and cooked his own meals. He also maintains an affection for the tango, which he said he loved as a youngster.
The new pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, 76, will be called Francis. Chosen Wednesday by a gathering of Catholic cardinals, he is a history-making pontiff, the first from the Jesuit order and the first Latin American to fill the post in more than 1,200 years.
But Pope Francis is also a conventional choice, a theological conservative of Italian ancestry who vigorously backs Vatican positions on abortion, gay marriage, the ordination of women and other leading issues — leading to clashes with Argentina’s current left-leaning president.
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He was less energetic when it came to standing up to Argentina’s military dictatorship during the 1970s as the country was consumed by a conflict between right and left that became known as the Dirty War. A many as 30,000 people were “disappeared,” tortured or killed by the dictatorship that seized power in March 1976, and he has been widely accused of knowing about the abuses and failing to do enough to stop them.
Despite the criticism, many in Argentina praise Francis as a passionate defender of the poor and disenfranchised. In 2001, for instance, he surprised the staff of Muniz Hospital in Buenos Aires, asking for a jar of water, which he used to wash the feet of 12 patients hospitalized with complications from the virus that causes AIDS. He then kissed their feet, saying that “society forgets the sick and the poor.”
More recently, in September 2012, he scolded priests in Buenos Aires who refused to baptize the children of unwed mothers. “No to hypocrisy,” he said of the priests. “They are the ones who separate the people of God from salvation.”
Though he is averse to liberation theology, the pope has emphasized social outreach to the impoverished, and as cardinal of Buenos Aires he has overseen increased social services and evangelization efforts in the slums that ring the capital.
“I am encouraged by this choice, viewing it as a pledge for a church of simplicity and of ecological ideals,” said Leonardo Boff, a founder of liberation theology from Brazil. What is more, Boff said, Francis comes from the developing world, “outside the walls of Rome.”
Jorge Mario Bergoglio was born in Buenos Aires on Dec. 17, 1936, to railway worker Mario Bergoglio, an immigrant from northern Italy, and Regina Bergoglio, a homemaker. He came relatively late to the priesthood, enrolling in a seminary at age 21, after studying chemistry. He has had health concerns since his youth, when one lung was removed because of an infection.
By all accounts, he was a brilliant student who relished the study not just of theology but also of secular subjects such as psychology and literature. He studied in Argentina, Chile and Germany, where he obtained a doctorate in philosophy. He was ordained a priest in 1969 a few days short of turning 33, and from that point, his ascent was rapid: By 1973, he had been named the Jesuit provincial for Argentina, the church official in charge of supervising the order’s activities in the country.
He remained in that post through 1979, and his performance during the Dirty War has been the subject of controversy in Argentina. In 2005, Bergoglio was formally accused by an Argentine lawyer in a lawsuit of being complicit in the military’s kidnapping of two Jesuit priests whose anti-government views he considered dangerously unorthodox.
The priests, whom he had dismissed from the order a week before they disappeared, were discovered months later outside Buenos Aires, drugged and partially undressed. At the time the lawsuit was filed, the cardinal’s spokesman dismissed the accusations as “old slander.” The lawsuit was eventually dismissed.
After the church had denied for years any involvement with the dictatorship, he testified in 2010 that he had met secretly with Gen. Jorge Videla, former head of the military junta, and Adm. Emilio Massera, commander of the navy, to ask for the release of the priests. The year after, prosecutors called him to testify on the military junta’s systematic kidnapping of children, a subject he was also accused of knowing about but failing to prevent.
In an interview published by an Argentine newspaper in 2010, he defended his behavior during the dictatorship. He said he had helped hide people being sought for arrest or disappearance by the military because of their political views, had helped others leave Argentina and had lobbied the country’s rulers directly for the release and protection of others.
In November 2005, he was elected head of the Argentine Conference of Bishops for a three-year term, which was renewed in 2008. At the time he was chosen, the Argentine church was dealing with the scandal of the Rev. Christian von Wernich, a former police chaplain who had been accused of aiding in the questioning, torture and death of political prisoners.
The church authorities had spirited von Wernich out of the country and placed him in a parish in Chile under a false name, but he was eventually brought back to Argentina and put on trial. In 2007, he was found guilty on seven counts of complicity in homicide, more than 40 counts of kidnapping, more than 30 of torture, and sentenced to life imprisonment.
In more recent years, Bergoglio has clashed with the government, particularly former President Nestor Kirchner and his successor and widow, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, about issues such as gay marriage, abortion and the adoption of children by gay couples. In 2010 he described a government-supported law to legalize marriage and adoption by same-sex couples as “a war against God” and “a maneuver by the devil.”
At the time, Cristina Kirchner said, “Bergoglio’s position is medieval.” But Wednesday, she congratulated him and said he had her “consideration and respect.”
Material from The Associated Press is included.