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Pope Francis' Latin American upbringing is unique among popes

By Richard Fausset

Los Angeles Times

Published: Saturday, March 23 2013 9:47 a.m. MDT

Argentina's Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, right, is now Pope Francis. He's seen here meeting people in Buenos Aires in 2009. Argentina's Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, right, is now Pope Francis. He's seen here meeting people in Buenos Aires in 2009.

Alessandra Tarantino, Associated Press, Natacha Pisarenko, Associated Press

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — A block away from Pope Francis' childhood home, a modest neighborhood church is wedged between a bakery and a bank of middle-class town houses. Inside is a small sign festooned in pastel construction paper — like the kind that church ladies anywhere in the world might make to celebrate a child's first communion.

"Thank you, Francis!" it says. "Your pueblo accompanies you and prays for you."

Underneath is a reproduction of a card identifying Francis — Holy Father, bishop of Rome and vicar of Jesus Christ — as a fan of San Lorenzo, Buenos Aires' underdog soccer team.

The 76-year-old Francis, the 266th man to lead the Roman Catholic Church, is the first to hail from the New World. He is also, in nearly every respect, a product of this singular city. Like so many residents of the Argentine capital, he is a Spanish speaker with Italian immigrant roots.

He is a man who knows how to dance the tango, and its equally sensuous cousin, the milonga. He is a lifelong admirer of Jorge Luis Borges, Buenos Aires' great agnostic builder of literary labyrinths. And like virtually everyone here, he is a soccer fanatic.

It was in worldly Buenos Aires that the young Francis, then known as Jorge Mario Bergoglio, flirted with girls, and flirted with death after being stricken with a serious case of pneumonia. The city and nation's troubled history would shape his destiny, with critics alleging that its most harrowing chapter — the time of dictatorship and dirty war — stained his reputation.

Its streets shaped his tastes, and were the testing ground for a leadership style notable for its rejection of ostentation. It was here, while serving as archbishop, that he became South America's most famous public transportation user: When he wanted a view of his beloved city, he rode the bus. When he needed to be somewhere fast, he rode the subway. He was usually dressed in simple black shirt, "just like any other priest," Brigida Trasmonte, 59, a nurse who is one of his many local admirers, said last week.

The rest of the world was exposed to Francis' humility on March 13, in his first public appearance as pope. On the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica, his words were self-effacing, his body language meek.

But it would be wrong to confuse meekness, an attribute Francis has said that he prays God to grant him, with naivete. The acts of humility have earned him love, respect — and power. Now that he has ascended to the papacy, many are wondering if the same humility he demonstrated on the streets of Buenos Aires will be powerful enough to rally the faithful, and right the lurching church of Rome.

"To be humble is not to be silly," said Enrique Lopez, a priest at the Church of San Jose de Flores, where Francis said God called him to the priesthood decades ago. "It is clever. Very wise."

Jorge Mario Bergoglio was born Dec. 17, 1936, the oldest of five children. His mother was the daughter of Italian immigrants; his father, a railway worker, was born in Italy. They lived in Flores, then a neighborhood of cobblestone streets and middle-class strivers, mostly of Spanish and Italian descent, and mostly Catholic.

According to Ernesto Lach, 77, an elementary school friend, the young Bergoglio was affable, smart, popular, and passionate — though not, at first, for religion. His interests ran to soccer, and to the then-revolutionary tango records of Buenos Aires stars like Carlos Gardel and Ada Falcon, who would eventually leave the limelight to become a nun.

There was a girl from the neighborhood, too, named Amalia, who appeared last week in the Argentine news media. Now white-haired and squinting with age, she described the trouble she got in with her parents when they discovered a love letter written by Bergoglio who was about 12 at the time. In it, he promised to someday marry her, and buy her a little red and white house.

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