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Pope Francis: a lover of silence enters the fray

Francis greets the crowd at his inauguration Mass (Mazur/

Last week José María Poirier’s 2005 profile of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was read all over the world. In this exclusive article he considers how Pope Francis will govern the global Church

Who could have imagined so many surprises? First came the brave resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, then the unexpected election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, now Pope Francis. A certain Argentine pride surfaced within me, seeing him serene and smiling faintly, speaking in Italian to the crowd, as the new Bishop of Rome. Once again, he managed to communicate the confidence of someone who fully understands the task he has undertaken, beyond the fact that the cardinals had gone looking for him ‘almost to the end of the world’. He was grateful for the crowd’s warm welcome, remembering Pope Benedict fondly, and asking them to accompany him on ‘the shared journey between the people and the bishop… a journey of brotherhood and trust’.

He also addressed himself to Rome, a diocese that seems to welcome him warmly. This address might also appear to be an ecumenical gesture that embraces the Anglican, Lutheran and even Orthodox faiths. Our new Pope, the first from the Americas, is also the first Jesuit to take on the role of St Peter. His name is also significant: as one of the most important figures in the history of the Church, St Francis of Assisi predicated peace and embraced the poor with an open heart. It was he who Jesus chose to rebuild the Church, and he who, as G K Chesterton observed, changed the history of humanity. His name identifies a problem, and makes reference to a change which is as attractive as it is ambitious, as impossible as it is necessary. Giotto paints St Francis defending a Church that was much more beleaguered then than it is today.

What will the task of the new Pope be? Most probably to effect a much-needed overhaul of the Roman Curia, the Church’s central governing body, more often now seen as an impediment rather than a bridge between local churches and the Vatican. Up to now, Bergoglio has overseen a complex diocese and has led the bishops’ conference in Argentina over two periods. As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he has not hidden his differences with the Argentinian government of Néstor Kirchner and that of his wife, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Within his historic engagement with poverty he has permanently supported priests involved in social work, as well as fighting for the cause of the street children in Buenos Aires, victims of drug addiction, the unemployed, the homeless, the frail and the ill. He bolsters this stance with a life of extreme austerity.

He is also well known for his diplomacy across the religions. His friendship with Abraham Skorka, a rabbi and author from Buenos Aires, with whom he co-authored a book and debated on television, was one of his most striking examples of religious dialogue and ability to unite people in warmth. Now he will have to confront one of the Church’s central problems: how to combine centuries-old tradition with the 2013 generation and current cultural sensibilities. Bergoglio is more of a man of action than an intellectual, who combines a marked social antenna with a deep social conscience. The extreme simplicity of his habits is well known. It was not unusual to see him walking the street taking public transport.

It¹s not easy to see into the mind of this Jesuit (who was so outspoken within the Society of Jesus, which he led in Argentina): a lover of silences, loved in turn by the people and feared by those in positions of power who have crossed his path. We’ll soon start familiarising ourselves with his leadership style and looking out for his signals, his rhythms and his decisions. And while this chemical technician does not stand on ceremony, he knows his way around the corridors of power, and is not averse to political strategy. He comes from a hard-working family and has always had a strong, protective attitude towards his clergy. He was a passionate reader as a youth, favouring classics like Dostoyevsky and his compatriot Borges, until his pastoral duty took over ­ a role that he would devote himself to completely.

Deciding a new ‘cabinet’ will be a key task something not acknowledged much externally, but important when it comes to fixing one’s trajectory. Another issue that needs confronting is the modernisation of the Curia. He’ll also need to start familiarising himself with the different realities that the modern Church embodies, with its diverse continents, cultures, and political spectrums. His choice of Vatican Secretary of State will also be key and, as the months progress, his choice of bishops across the world.

Will he know how to stand up to the challenges of new generations, to theological issues and moral doctrine, to part of the West’s apathy toward a Church that seems out of touch and unattractive? Will he be able to carry his message of peace and social justice to the places where they are most needed? Will he acknowledge Vatican II and the principle of collegiality? These are deep, decisive questions.

The College of Cardinals have played a surprising card. Perhaps, by choosing Jorge Mario Bergoglio they have found the Holy Spirit’s response to these testing times for the Church. We needed a priest who was close to the people and distanced from the logic of the Roman Curia, who symbolised both continuity and change from Joseph Ratzinger’s trajectory.

Furthermore, the resignation of Benedict XVI allows us to be clear in our minds that we can have a Pope who is more in line with the times. In this case, it wouldn’t be too bold to presume that Pope Francis will confront his mission and after a few years, when the task he has given himself is complete,­ continue in the steps of Pope Benedict.

This article was translated by Miguel Cullen