BUENOS AIRES, March 13, 2013 – Argentina’s Jorge Bergoglio, chosen Wednesday to lead the world’s Roman Catholics, is a humble rail worker’s son who became a Jesuit priest and who is seen as true to his working-class roots.
At 76, Bergoglio — the first pope from Latin America — still enjoys a reputation as an ascetic despite his archbishop’s robes. He rides clattering city buses, makes his own meals and is famously accessible.
He lived in a small apartment rather than the palace that came with his former job and, while he fought to stop his church from siding with the left, his election was hailed by anti-poverty activists.
Bergoglio’s choice of the papal name Francis is also a first and was seen as a non-traditional choice as it honors a saint who famously lived a simple life.
“He’s very much a pastoral priest, close to the people. He chose the name to refer to Saint Francis of Assisi, who renovated the church and was a man of humility, poverty and dialogue,” his former spokesman Gustavo Boquin said.
Pope Francis is seen in Argentina as ideologically mainstream, while the Jesuits — members of the Society of Jesus — are regarded as belonging to one of the most progressive Church institutions, especially in education.
Sergio Rubin, the religion writer for the Buenos Aires newspaper Clarin, said that, like last-pope-but-one Pope John Paul II, Bergoglio is “conservative at the level of doctrine, and progressive on social issues.”
For example, the Argentine has hit out sharply at the International Monetary Fund and at modern market capitalism.
Even so, Rubin acknowledged that Bergoglio’s rejection of liberation theology remains controversial among left-leaning Argentines.
Those who know him describe the Archbishop of Buenos Aires and primate of Argentina as a shy, softly-spoken man who shuns high society.
He was born December 17, 1936 to a rail worker and a housewife from an Italian immigrant family. He went to a state-run school before studying to become a chemical technician.
“In the confessional of the Church of San Jose de Flores, at age 17, he had a divine revelation and chose to enter the priesthood,” Father Gabriel, a friend of the new pope, told AFP.
When he graduated at 22, he joined the Jesuit order and earned a degree in philosophy. He followed this with theological studies and was ordained in 1969. He has also studied in Chile, and years later studied in Germany.
Analysts said being from Latin America, having Italian family roots and studying in Germany may have worked in Bergoglio’s favor in the conservative conclave — which many had thought would choose a European.
He was only 36 when he was named to lead Argentina’s Jesuits, a job he held for six difficult years under the country’s military dictatorship.
Bergoglio battled to prevent Jesuits from joining the liberation theology movement, which drew many of the continent’s Catholic priests into political activity in opposition to right-wing governments.
His former spokesman Guillermo Marco recalled that he issued a simple order: “Maintain the non-politicization of the Society of Jesus.”
He has nevertheless, from time to time, clashed with temporal authority.
“We live a scandalous situation of poverty and disease and everything leads to a lack of justice,” he once declared, during the administration of late president Nestor Kirchner, husband of the current leader, Cristina Kirchner.
Since Nestor’s death in 2010, Bergoglio grew closer to the new President Kirchner and in particular appreciated her opposition to the legalization of abortion, while clashing with her over attempts to legalize gay marriage.
When Argentina became the first Latin American country to permit same-sex marriage in 2010, he was furious.
“Let’s not be naive,” he declared. “This is not just a political struggle. It is destructive to God’s plan.”
Bergoglio’s broader theological position was in line with the mainstream vision of John Paul II, who as pope directed a campaign to repress the left-leaning liberation theology that was growing in Latin America.
In the 1980s Bergoglio studied for a doctorate in Freiburg, Germany, after which he returned to become a parish priest in Cordoba.
His ascent in the Catholic hierarchy began when in May 1992 Pope John Paul II named him assistant bishop of Buenos Aires. By 1998 he was archbishop of Buenos Aires and, three years later, a cardinal.
His reputation grew among bishops after he stepped in to produce the final report of the Church’s October 2001 Synod when New York Archbishop Edward Egan was prevented from taking on the task by the September 11 terrorist attacks.
A great student of writers Jorge Luis Borges and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, he rises at 4:30 am and is known to have little social life. Unlike most Argentines, who often dine at 11:00 pm, he goes to bed at 9:00 pm.
But Bergoglio does enjoy the local passions of tango and football and has been photographed holding the blue and red strip of his beloved Buenos Aires club, San Lorenzo, which he has supported since he was a young boy in 1946.
Some media reports published in 2005 after the papal conclave that elected Joseph Ratzinger as Benedict XVI, said Bergoglio had come in a close second behind the German in that debate, setting him up for this’s year vote.