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

He studied chemistry in public high school, working in a lab in the morning, according to "The Jesuit," a biography written by Argentine journalists Sergio Rubin and Francesca Ambrogetti. Years later, he would write that science should "have its autonomy, it should be respected and encouraged," though he also warned of its destructive power, citing Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" as a cautionary tale.

Nestor Carabajo, a friend from Bergoglio's high school days, described him as one of the guys, joining in spirited basketball games on the small school campus. But by now, Carabajo said, Bergoglio's passion for religion was evident.

The future pontiff was 17 when, on a school holiday in September, he was struck by the revelation that changed his life. He had planned on going to confession at Flores' big, beautiful church on the Avenida Rivadavia, and then to meet his friends to hang out. But during the confession, he said, he become aware that he was meant to be priest. He described it as a meeting with God, a God who had been waiting for him. "It surprised me, with my guard down," he said in his biography.

He kept the revelation to himself for four years, for reasons that are not clear. When he finally told his parents, he was about to enter the seminary; his father was pleased, and his mother was not — though Bergoglio, with a hint of satisfaction, would tell his biographers that she eventually came around: "I remember seeing her on her knees in front of me at the end of my ordination ceremony, asking for my blessing."

He joined the intellectually rigorous Jesuit order; he said he admired their discipline, and their focus on missionary work. He asked to go to Japan, but they told him he wasn't healthy enough: his earlier, near-fatal brush with pneumonia had forced doctors to remove part of his right lung. The scare had only strengthened his faith.

He spent three years teaching high school literature and psychology, somehow convincing Borges to visit one class and lecture on gaucho literature, according to Jose Maria Candiotti, a former student.

The young seminarian was also tempted. In a book of religious conversations with Abraham Skorka, a Buenos Aires rabbi, he described meeting a beautiful woman at a wedding, then returning to the seminary, where he couldn't get her out of his head. He couldn't even pray.

But he resisted, and in 1969 he was ordained. In 1973, he ascended to the national Jesuits' leadership ranks. In 1976, things turned ugly. A right-wing military dictatorship had seized power, and was ruthlessly killing or kidnapping suspected dissidents.

The country had never been more divided. He said in his biography that he had read and admired the writing in a left-wing periodical as a young man, and he had good things to say about a high school teacher who was a communist. But he himself was no communist.

In May 1976, armed men detained a pair of Jesuit priests suspected of being subversives. They were tortured, but released alive. One of Argentina's best-known journalists, Horacio Verbitsky, has made the case that Bergoglio "delivered" the priests to the dictatorship.

The pontiff has vehemently denied the charge, arguing that he in fact helped dissidents hide and escape. But the accusation continues to make headlines. On Friday, Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said that nothing "concrete or credible" had ever emerged to prove the accusation.

"What did the church do in those years?" the pontiff said, reflecting on the period in his published dialogue with the rabbi. "It did what an organization does that has saints and sinners. It also had men who combined both characteristics."

In 1992, Bergoglio was named auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires, and in 1998 he became bishop. His pulpit — in Buenos Aires' stately neoclassical Metropolitan Cathedral — could not have been more opulent. But he rejected the comfortable apartment that traditionally went with the job, preferring to live next to the church in a room with a bed, desk and chair, and a radio, which he used to tune in to soccer games.