Pope Francis:
from bouncer to Bishop

The people's pontiff

The man rapidly becoming one of the most beloved popes of all time was born Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Dec. 17, 1936, in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Unlike many of today's public figures, trained from a young age to be singers, tennis stars or politicians, Bergoglio led a remarkably normal early life, working in laboratories, as a janitor, and even as a bar doorman before rising through the ranks of Argentina' clergy and living through a military dictatorship to become one of the world's most influential religious figures.

Born the eldest of five to immigrant Mario Jose Bergoglio — who fled to Argentina from Benito Mussolini's fascist regime in Italy — and his Argentine-Italian wife Regina Maria Sivori, Jorge graduated vocational training school as a chemical technician. The pope-to-be developed interests in soccer — to this day he is a supporter of San Lorenzo de Almagro — and grew an "intense fondness" for traditional Argentine-Uruguayan tango music.

Age 18, Bergoglio made a decision that would prove essential for his papal trajectory: he joined the Immaculate Conception Seminary in his home city to study theology. The only threat during that time to his chosen path, he has said, was a crush on a girl. 

Three formative events happened in 1958, when Bergoglio was 21: he suffered from life-threatening pneumonia and had to have part of his lung removed; he received a degree in philosophy; and, crucially, he entered the Society of Jesus as a novice on March 11. He officially joined the order two years later, when he took the Jesuit perpetual vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

Bergoglio spent the 1960s teaching literature and psychology until, in 1969, he finished his theological studies and was ordained, later becoming a professor, then rector at the Philosophical and Theological Faculty of San Miguel. 

The 1970s he spent between Spain and Argentina, completing his Jesuit training and vows. He also made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1973, which was cut short by the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War.

In 1980, Father Bergoglio spent three months at a Jesuit center in Dublin, Ireland, learning English before taking up the post of rector in San Miguel. However, his posting as rector did not last long. 

In what sounds like a scene from the 1992 movie “Sister Act,” Bergoglio was dismissed as rector in 1986 by the Jesuit superior-general because, in direct opposition to Jesuit educational trends which favored problem-solving via sociological analysis, Bergoglio was encouraging young Jesuits to participate in direct pastoral work.

He also spent time studying in Germany in the 1980s, before returning to Argentina to serve as a confessor and spiritual director to the Jesuit community in Cordoba. 

Tensions with certain sectors of the Jesuits continued for him and, in 1992, Bergoglio was asked to cease living in the Jesuit house. His split with the Jesuits notwithstanding, 1992 was a good year for Father Bergoglio, who became both auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires and titular bishop of Auca. In 1997, he was appointed coadjutor archbishop of Buenos Aires, taking over the main job in 1998. As archbishop, Bergoglio redefined parish boundaries and restructured church administration. One of his most famous initiatives was to increase the Church's presence in the slums of Buenos Aires, doubling the number of priests working in the city's poorest areas, who became known as "slum priests."

Archbishop Bergoglio took on fiscal reform for the archdiocese, selling its shares in multiple banks and converting its accounts into normal customer accounts in order to bring previous high spending habits under control. It could be argued that he showed his social justice roots when, during police repression during riots in December 2001, the archbishop contacted the Interior Ministry to ask that the police distinguish rioters engaged in acts of vandalism from peaceful protesters.

That same year, Pope John Paul II turned Archbishop Bergoglio into a cardinal, putting him in charge of five administrative positions in the Roman Curia, later that year becoming relater (recording secretary) in the Synod of Bishops. Despite his rise through the ranks, Bergoglio was known for his personal humility, doctrinal conservatism and his commitment to social justice, as well as his modest lifestyle: he took public transport and lived in a small apartment, rather than the grand bishop's residence in Buenos Aires, and he cooked his own meals.

He was considered worthy of papal succession after Pope John Paul II died in 2005; the Italian magazine Limes suggested Bergoglio had been the runner-up and main challenger to Cardinal Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict XVI. Other sources suggested Bergoglio even requested people not vote for him so there was no delay in finding a successor to John Paul II.

Cardinal Bergoglio became Pope Francis in 2013, age 76, succeeding Ratzinger in the post, who had become the first pope to resign since 1415. Francis is the first Jesuit Pontiff, and also the first from the Southern Hemisphere. He can speak three languages fluently and understand seven other languages or dialects. He was a popular choice for Pope among high-ranking Islamic and Jewish figures, and is often praised by nonbelievers for his tendency toward social justice.

While Bergoglio butted heads with the progressive government of Nestor Kirchner (2003-2007), as well as his successor, President Cristina Fernandez, over policies such as marriage equality for same-sex partnerships, the relationship has warmed especially since he became Pope. Fernandez became the first head of state to meet with the newly inaugurated Pope.

the dirty war

March 24,1976. A shot of a street in Buenos Aires after the army advised people to stay inside. A military junta, run by Gen. Jorge Videla, had just ousted President Isabel Peron.

In the 1970s, Argentina was under the thumb of a brutal military dictatorship. Through the continent-wide U.S. backed Operation Condor, which targeted any critics of harsh right-wing regimes, some 30,000 Argentines were disappeared, detained, tortured, and raped, while hundreds of their children were stolen and given to military families. 

Members of the Catholic Church were implicated in complicity for murders and disappearances, and as such, all clergy have at some point been the subject of scrutiny. Much has been said about Bergoglio during this time, including allegations of collaboration with the regime and involvement in a kidnapping of two Jesuit priests. However, court cases and evidence from the dictatorship has failed to make a connection between Bergoglio and any wrongdoing from that period.

One judge from the time, Alicia Oliveira, says while he did not publicly denounce the dictatorship at the time, he was "anguished" and "very critical of the dictatorship." Bergoglio himself says during that time he sheltered people from the dictatorship on church property and at least three separate people, including Oliveira, have testified that Bergoglio helped people in danger flee the country.

Artist and human rights activist Adolfo Perez Esquivel, who won the 1980 Nobel Peace Prize, said: "Perhaps he didn't have the courage of other priests, but he never collaborated with the dictatorship ... Bergoglio was no accomplice of the dictatorship."

Later, Bergoglio would speak out against the atrocities that happened, saying in 2000, the Argentine Catholic Church, needed "to put on garments of public penance for the sins committed during the years of the dictatorship." During his time as elected president of the Bishops' Conference of Argentina (2005-2011), he issued a collective apology on behalf of the country's bishops for the Church's failure to protect people from the Junta during the Dirty War. In 2005, Bergoglio authorized a request for beatification for six members of the Pallottine community who were massacred during the dictatorship and ordered an investigation into the murders.

In 2015, Pope Francis continued trying to uncover justice for his country by ordering the Vatican to open its files relating to Argentina's military dictatorship, which could lead to the clarification on the fate of tens of thousands disappeared between 1974 and 1983.

The Catholic leader has since continued to blaze a trail with words and deeds, traveling to various regions of the world to preach peace and social justice, while also signaling the motives behind war, poverty and inequality. He has convened meetings with social movements from around the globe - including Brazil's radical left Landless Peasant Movement, or MST - and has even held sessions with progressive economists and politicians to push for the adoption of a 'humanized' economic platform.

Pope Francis' stances have upset some quarters among conservative Catholics, some who paint the pontiff as some sort of closet 'communist.' Perhaps nowhere in Latin America is this clearer than in Colombia, where sections of Alvaro Uribe's right-wing party plan to protest the visit of the Pope and of course, his message.

Photo: EFE