Announcement from Vatican takes South American commentators by surprise

Cardinal Bergoglio’s detractors denounce him for not speaking out against abuses when he served as the Jesuits’ provincial superior in Argentina

 Argentina’s flag  is waved after white smoke rose from the chimney above the Sistine Chapel, indicating a new pope had been elected, at the Vatican last evening.  Photograph: Giampiero Sposito/Reuters

Argentina’s flag is waved after white smoke rose from the chimney above the Sistine Chapel, indicating a new pope had been elected, at the Vatican last evening. Photograph: Giampiero Sposito/Reuters

Thu, Mar 14, 2013, 06:00

Although a Latin American pope had been widely discussed in the month since Benedict resigned, there was still an element of shock across the region when Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was announced as the latest successor to St Peter.

Television anchors in Brazil had to pause and confirm with each other the news they were hearing, that indeed the Catholic Church had elected its first Latin American pope more than five centuries after the first missionaries arrived with the Spanish conquistadores.

But those who know Cardinal Bergoglio will be less surprised by his radical choice of name. Pope Francis has shown a devotion to the simple life exemplified by St Francis.

On becoming archbishop of Buenos Aires in 1998, he dispensed with the previous cardinal’s car and instead rode to work on the city’s buses. He also decided against a housekeeper and cooked his own meals, and, in one of the world’s most fashion-conscious cities, has been photographed wearing cheap shoes.

He first came to wider attention in the region following the conclave that elected Pope Benedict, when it emerged he had placed second with 40 votes. That surprised local church- watchers.

The region then had also hoped for a Latin American pope but cardinals from elsewhere on the continent were considered more papable than Cardinal Bergoglio, who becomes the first Jesuit pope.

This time around he was considered too old, at 76, to be a leading contender.

His chances were also seen as complicated by his involvement in several clashes with the government of President Cristina Kirchner, whose relationship with the local hierarchy had deteriorated following her legalisation of same-sex marriage and moves to liberalise abortion laws.

It was already strained by Archbishop Bergoglio’s use of his pulpit to denounce what he saw as the polarisation of Argentina’s political life under the Kirchner couple.

In sermons that ran counter to the government’s claims to have cut poverty rates, he also harshly criticised persistent poverty in the country more than a decade after its economic collapse in 2001.

His criticisms caused supporters of the Kirchners to raise the subject of Cardinal Bergoglio’s record during the country’s military dictatorship that unleashed a dirty war against political opponents during its rule between 1976 to 1983.

Thousands were murdered or disappeared by the generals while the Argentinian Catholic hierarchy, in contrast to colleagues in several neighbouring countries during their dictatorships, remained indifferent to the abuses and even offered to provide spiritual counselling to young army officers traumatised by the killing of defenceless captives in secret detention centres.

Cardinal Bergoglio’s detractors denounce him for not speaking out against abuses at the time when he served as the Jesuits’ provincial superior in Argentina.

He was even accused of complicity in the kidnapping of several young priests, who were supposedly singled out for their radical beliefs.

He vigorously denied the accusations, which his backers say were motivated by his criticisms of the government. The Kirchner government is closely allied with the country’s human rights groups that are seeking justice against those responsible for the dirty war.

The archbishop stepped down from command of the Buenos Aires archdiocese last year after more than 14 years in charge, during which he won a reputation as a strong pastoral leader and firm administrator.

So far Argentina’s Catholic Church has not become embroiled in the paedophilia scandals that have afflicted other national churches, while he has spoken in the past of the need for reform in the curia.

The pope’s first scheduled foreign trip is coincidently to Latin America, when he will visit Rio de Janeiro in July for World Youth Day. He can expect an ecstatic welcome from the continent’s faithful.

However Pope Francis’s difficult relationship with the Kirchner government will almost certainly lead to renewed attention on the role played by the Argentinian Catholic hierarchy – and the new pope – during the country’s military dictatorship.