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BUENOS AIRES, Mar 14 2013 (IPS) - The selection of a Latin American pope, who is known for his austere lifestyle and his work with the poor, has created a stir among Catholics in the region, who are confident that Pope Francis will help bolster the Vatican’s tarnished reputation.
To the surprise even of Argentine cardinals, the archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Bergoglio, was elected the new pontiff Wednesday, and his first actions as he greeted crowds of faithful from the balcony over St. Peter’s Square thrilled those clamouring for a leader to demonstrate a clear preferential option for the poor.
Sources consulted by IPS say Pope Francis is conservative in doctrine, but his lifestyle, they all agree, testifies to his unassuming modesty and closeness to the poor, the homeless, the sick, the elderly, prisoners, immigrants, victims of human trafficking for sexual exploitation and forced labour, and to parish priests.
The hope is that his personal qualities will help to restore the credibility of the Catholic Church and the Vatican, rocked by paedophilia and corruption scandals. For deeper changes, those in the know recommend waiting for the first appointments to his entourage and his future designations of cardinals.
“The bishops of northwest Argentina were all very happy,” Pedro Olmedo, the bishop of Humahuaca in the province of Jujuy, who was meeting with about ten other bishops of the region, the poorest in the country, when the news broke, told IPS. “There were tears, because we know him well, he always helped us and was there for us.
“Having a Latin American pope has been an aspiration of the region for many years. The Vatican has opened itself to a church from the New World, in a choice made by cardinals, the majority of whom are European. I hope this will give the Vatican a Latin American imprint, even in its structures,” said Olmedo.
Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff, a founder of Liberation Theology, a social justice-oriented current that stresses a ”preferential option for the poor” and has been heavily criticised by the Vatican, was also optimistic about Pope Francis’s first gestures of humility, beginning with his selection of the name of Francis of Assisi, the 12th century friar who devoted his life completely to the poor.
At the Fifth General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean, held in May 2007 in Aparecida, Brazil, Bergoglio was elected by the bishops to draft the concluding document. It sets out the regional church’s position on a wide array of issues.
The document recognises the Church’s concern that in Latin America, home to 43 percent of the world’s Catholics, the growth of new members is lower than the rate of population growth. And it expresses regret for “the weakness of our option for the poor.
“The preferential option for the poor is one of the most characteristic facets of the Latin American and Caribbean Church,” says the text, which also laments “the significant number of Catholics who leave the Church in order to join other religious groups.”
Bergoglio appears to have lived in accordance with this commitment. He gave up the archbishop’s palace and chauffeur-driven car, to live in a room adjacent to the Cathedral in Buenos Aires. He travelled by bus or metro, cooked his own meals and avoided social events and the press.
Those close to him say he visited HIV/AIDS patients at the Muñiz Hospital for infectious diseases. He was also a frequent visitor to homeless shelters and soup kitchens, personally cared for elderly and ailing priests, and could be seen at bus stops when he went home in the early hours of the morning.
Organisations working against labour and sexual exploitation in Buenos Aires counted him as an ally. He often visited victims of trafficking, was moved by their testimonies and denounced those responsible for these forms of slavery in his homilies.
He would often visit penitentiaries, another issue raised in the concluding document from Aparecida, which calls for strengthening pastoral work in prisons.
The greatest stain on Bergoglio’s past is his alleged complicity with the 1976-1983 military dictatorship, when he was the provincial superior of the Jesuit order. He was accused of failing to protect priests and catechists who were subsequently abducted, and in some cases were forcibly disappeared.
He was called to testify as a witness in a case investigating these crimes, and in another investigation of the illegal appropriation of the young daughter of disappeared parents. Bergoglio stated he only found out about the theft of the babies of political prisoners after the end of the dictatorship.
Argentine theologian María Alicia Brunero, a retired university professor who has written several books on ethics, told IPS that “the important thing about the designation is not so much that it has fallen on an Argentine or a Latin American, but on someone from the periphery, outside of Europe.
“The cardinals are hoping for solutions to arrive from outside, from someone with a different profile, who is less contaminated and removed from the Vatican’s pomp and bureaucracy, and in that sense Bergoglio fulfils the expectations, because he is an austere man, who travels on buses and is close to the people,” she said.
Brunero, who knows Bergoglio personally, said that he is also someone who “knows how to command and delegate,” and that “he is not exempt from the aspiration to power, which is not necessarily a bad thing. He knows how to build networks and does it well, without trampling on anyone,” she said.
“He gives me hope,” she said.
On the other hand, no great changes in doctrine can be expected from him, Brunero said. As archbishop, he was an uncompromising critic of Argentina’s law on same-sex marriages and of any attempt to decriminalise abortion.
But she did predict he might bring a breath of fresh air to other issues.
“Ninety percent of theologians believe that women can exercise the priesthood, and the majority also want priests to be able to marry. It is possible that steps in this direction may be taken during his papacy,” she said.
Brunero said the priesthood is the Church institution facing the deepest crisis at present. Half of the priests ordained in recent years have left the priesthood, not because of loss of faith, but “because they fell in love, or came into conflict with Church structures because of its rigidity on the issue,” she said.
She pointed out that the first Vatican Council, in 1869, focused on the figure of the pope. The second, in 1959, focused on the bishops. “Perhaps there will now be a third council focused on priests,” she said.
In contrast with the conservatism of his other positions, in Buenos Aires Bergoglio reprimanded priests who refused to baptise the children of single mothers. He also accepted non-Catholic godparents for baptism candidates, Gustavo Vera, an activist for the rights of victims of labour and sex trafficking, told IPS.
The pope is open to inter-faith dialogue, and has had frequent contacts with representatives of the Jewish religion in Argentina.
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