Watch Out, Vatican City: Francis Is Here

Pope Francis is warm, humble, and ready to shake things up. Christopher Dickey on the cardinal who managed to escape the taint of the church’s worst scandals.

03.13.13 10:20 PM ET

Pope Francis, a.k.a. Jorge Mario Bergoglio, is a very humble man with a very complicated history.

As an Argentine, the 76-year-old is the first pontiff from the Americas—anywhere in the Americas. Indeed, he is the first non-European pope since the first millennium. His fellow cardinals had gone to “the end of the world” to find him, he said with winning modesty in his first remarks from the balcony at St. Peter’s.

He is also a Jesuit, part of that order of brilliant scholars (think of their Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., for instance) and historically an order of conspirators whose leader used to be called the Black Pope, a power behind the scenes in the internal politics of the Catholic Church.

Eight years ago, press reports named him as the runner-up in the last conclave, which gave way to Josef Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict XVI and who resigned last month. Bergoglio later suggested in an interview he would have dreaded living among the Curia, the introverted bureaucracy that holds the core of the Catholic Church in its grip. “In the Curia I would die,” he said in 2005. “My life is in Buenos Aires. Without the people of my diocese, without their problems, I feel something lacking every day.”

This is the rhetoric of holiness, and the quiet, human voice with which he spoke to the crowd packed into St. Peter’s Square tonight—a crowd that barely knew who he was, or at least who he had been—quickly won them over. The rain that had poured down on everyone there for hours had abated. He bid the multitude good evening. He said he would pray for them, and asked them to pray for him. After the desiccated intellectualism of Ratzinger, Bergoglio’s warmth instantly struck people as sympathetic, and indeed charismatic.

Francis inherits a church infected with scandals as if by leprosy. In the United States and Europe, he must restore credibility to a clergy rotting with allegations of criminal behavior of thousands of priests who abused their position by sexually abusing children. He will also have to deal with the Vatican’s tangled finances, and the reputation its bank has earned for laundering corrupt money.

In Latin America, and indeed in all the world south of the Tropic of Cancer, Francis will be expected to represent societies in transition from poverty to hope, and from hope to regional and even global power. (Certainly the Brazilians are disappointed that the cardinal of São Paulo, Odilo Scherer, was not the conclave’s pick after countless reports that he was among the front runners.)

The public record of Bergoglio has not been touched by moral or monetary rot. But there are dark chapters nonetheless. At a crucial moment in this pope’s past, some of his fellow priests—and they were fellow Jesuits—found him wanting. During the horrific “dirty war” in Argentina in the 1970s, he was the Jesuit Provincial, the head of his order in his country. Many members of his order were under ferocious pressure from the generals running the country, who waged a clandestine war of savage repression aimed at anyone deemed a communist sympathizer, including many priests who had taken what they called “the option for the poor” in the context of a leftist movement known as “liberation theology.”

Two Jesuits who were picked up by a secret organization, imprisoned, and tortured for many months said afterward that they felt Bergoglio had sold them out. His defenders say he worked tirelessly to win their freedom, which is why, in the end, they were released alive while almost everyone else abducted by the same group linked to the generals was thrown into the sea from a helicopter or otherwise “disappeared.”

On the issues of great concern to many in the United States—the role of women in the church, his position on homosexuality, and the question of how to deal with abuse—Bergoglio’s positions have all been orthodox, in line with the diktats of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who together appointed all 114 of the cardinals who chose Francis.

But now that Bergoglio is pope, he is both God’s man and his own. The Curia should be worried. The 1.2 billion Catholics in the world, and the rest of us, should be hopeful.