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Pope Francis' Latin American upbringing is unique among popes

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) 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.

Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, offers Holy Thursday Mass in the Cathedral of Buenos Aires. Thursday, March 24, 2005. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko) **EFE OUT** (Alessandra Tarantino, Associated Press, Natacha Pisarenko, Associated Press) Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, offers Holy Thursday Mass in the Cathedral of Buenos Aires. Thursday, March 24, 2005. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko) **EFE OUT** (Alessandra Tarantino, Associated Press, Natacha Pisarenko, Associated Press)

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.

Pope Francis waves to crowds as he arrives to his inauguration Mass in St. Peter's Square on Tuesday.   (Associated Press) Pope Francis waves to crowds as he arrives to his inauguration Mass in St. Peter's Square on Tuesday. (Associated Press)

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.

Pope Francis on the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, Wednesday, March 13, 2013. Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, who chose the name of Francis is the 266th pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church.  (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky) (Associated Press) Pope Francis on the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, Wednesday, March 13, 2013. Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, who chose the name of Francis is the 266th pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky) (Associated Press)

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.

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.

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