‘First Maradona, then Messi and now Pope Francis’

Argentinians in shock over Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s election as pope

Roman Catholics celebrate the election of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio  at the Metropolitan Cathedral in Buenos Aires. Photograph: Agustin Marcarian/Reuters

Roman Catholics celebrate the election of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio at the Metropolitan Cathedral in Buenos Aires. Photograph: Agustin Marcarian/Reuters


impossible to avoid in Argentina. The news is on television and hastily made T-shirts, and it has even replaced the numbers on the huge screens of the Buenos Aires financial district.

The country is in shock at the election of an Argentinian to the papacy. Even Pope Francis ’s sister is in shock. Maria Elena, who yesterday lived quietly in the western Buenos Aires suburb of Ituzaingo, today has the world’s media on her doorstep.

She said the low-key Bergoglio “didn’t want to be pope” and that when he emerged as a contender in the 2005 papal elections she prayed he wouldn’t be elected. She views her brother’s papacy as an “honour” for the family, the country and Latin America as a whole.

The Jesuit community of Argentina has also expressed its surprise at the choice of Bergoglio, the first pontiff elected from its order. In a statement the order admitted Bergoglio’s age (76) and poor health as a youth (he had a lung removed) did not make him the most obvious choice for the position.

Moreover, he was a relative latecomer to the priesthood, at the age of 21. He was, by all accounts, a brilliant student, ordained days before his 33rd birthday but appointed Jesuit provincial for Argentina by the age of 37.

His favourite Buenos Aires football club, San Lorenzo de Almagro, also woke up to new worldwide media attention. It responded by posting the new pontiff’s membership card on its website.

In an added twist to a surreal 24 hours, the winning numbers of last night’s national lottery, called La Quiniela, were 8235, eerily similar to the pope’s San Lorenzo membership number: 88235.

San Lorenzo spokesperson Marcela Nicolau reaffirmed to The Irish Times Bergoglio’s reputation as a humble man, drawn to the club as a child because it allowed the poor children of the neighbourhood to play football in its grounds if they agreed to go to Mass on Sunday.

“Humble” is the word used repeatedly by people to describe him. Of middle-class Italian immigrant origins, he is not afraid to walk in the feared shanty towns of Buenos Aires. He opted for a simple apartment rather than the palatial comfort of previous archbishops.

The porter of Bergoglio’s now former residence at Rivadavia 415 seemed as bemused yesterday as the rest of Argentina by the cameras of the world on his doorstep.

The night before, as the crowds cheered in St Peter’s Square, the Metropolitan Cathedral in Buenos Aires hosted the largest party it has likely ever seen as 3,000 people gathered on its steps to celebrate the news.

Former archbishop Bergoglio’s right-hand man in his city duties, auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires Eduardo Garcia, said Mass to the congregation inside the packed cathedral at 10pm. In his homily, he thanked God for giving Argentina “first Maradona, then Messi and now Francis” to rapturous applause.

Lapsed Catholics
Many of those who gathered on the cathedral steps hoped the choice of Francis will help promote the church in Argentina itself. Ignacio Lopez, an 18-year-old student from Buenos Aires, said Francis should encourage lapsed Catholics in the country to come back.

In the past decade many Argentines have left Catholicism in favour of evangelical churches that with their rousing sermons and promises of miracles in Argentina’s period of national disillusionment following its defeat in the 1982 Falklands war against Britain and the subsequent 2001 economic crash.

Indeed, the Argentine Catholic Church has also been criticised for its failure to denounce the country’s military dictatorship from 1976 to 1983 in which over 30,000 political dissidents are said to have been “disappeared”, presumed murdered.

In 2005, Argentine investigative journalist Horacio Verbitsky went further by publishing a book in which he claimed Bergoglio personally failed to adequately protect two Jesuit priests who were kidnapped by the military, but later found alive. Bergoglio has denied these allegations.

Furthermore, as Pope Francis, Bergoglio will also have to navigate the long-running tension between the church and the Argentine state. The rift between the two dates to the drawing up in 1853 of the Argentine constitution, which deemed the state to be independent of foreign religious authority.

The divide continued through the rule of Juan Domingo Perón in the 1950s when he distanced himself from the church after it refused to canonise his dead wife, Evita.

In a continuation of these tensions, Bergoglio publicly disagreed with the country’s current president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, following her decision to support same-sex marriage, which was legalised, for the first time in Latin America, in Argentina in 2010.

Yesterday, in a televised speech, Kirchner wished Bergoglio well in his papal duties but reminded him of his responsibility to promote harmony and dialogue within the Latin American region from which he comes.