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Pope Francis, the Buenos Aires pontiff

As a youth, he learned to tango, and he remains an admirer of writer Jorge Luis Borges. On the darker side, critics say his nation's past stained his reputation.

March 16, 2013|By Richard Fausset, Los Angeles Times
  • Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio visits a shantytown in Buenos Aires in an undated photo.
Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio visits a shantytown in Buenos Aires in an… (Sergio Rubin / Clarin )

BUENOS AIRES — A block away from Pope Francis' childhood home, a modest neighborhood church is wedged between a bakery and a bank of middle-class town houses. Inside is a small sign festooned in pastel construction paper — like the kind that church ladies anywhere in the world might make to celebrate a child's first communion.

"Thank you, Francis!" it says. "Your pueblo accompanies you and prays for you."

Underneath is a reproduction of a card identifying Francis — Holy Father, bishop of Rome and vicar of Jesus Christ — as a fan of San Lorenzo, Buenos Aires' underdog soccer team.

The 76-year-old Francis, the 266th man to lead the Roman Catholic Church, is the first to hail from the New World. He is also, in nearly every respect, a product of this singular city. Like so many residents of the Argentine capital, he is a Spanish speaker with Italian immigrant roots.

He is a man who knows how to dance the tango, and its equally sensuous cousin, the milonga. He is a lifelong admirer of Jorge Luis Borges, Buenos Aires' great agnostic builder of literary labyrinths. And like virtually everyone here, he is a soccer fanatic.

It was in worldly Buenos Aires that the young Francis, then known as Jorge Mario Bergoglio, flirted with girls, and flirted with death when he was stricken with a serious case of pneumonia. The city and nation's troubled history would shape his destiny, with critics alleging that its most harrowing chapter — the time of dictatorship and the so-called dirty war — stained his reputation.

Its streets shaped his tastes and were the testing ground for a leadership style notable for its rejection of ostentation. It was here, while serving as archbishop, that he became South America's most famous public transportation user: When he wanted a view of his beloved city, he rode the bus. When he needed to be somewhere fast, he rode the subway. He was usually dressed in simple black shirt, "just like any other priest," Brigida Trasmonte, 59, a nurse who is one of his many local admirers, said last week.

The rest of the world was exposed to Francis' humility Wednesday, in his first public appearance as pope. On the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica, his words were self-effacing, his body language meek.

But it would be wrong to confuse meekness, an attribute Francis has said that he prays God to grant him, with naivete. The acts of humility have earned him love, respect — and power. Now that he has ascended to the papacy, many are wondering whether the humility he demonstrated on the streets of Buenos Aires will be powerful enough to rally the faithful, and right the lurching church of Rome.

"To be humble is not to be silly," said Enrique Lopez, a priest at the Church of San Jose de Flores, where, Francis said, God called him to the priesthood decades ago. "It is clever. Very wise."

Jorge Mario Bergoglio was born Dec. 17, 1936, the first of five children. His mother was the daughter of Italian immigrants; his father, a railway worker, was born in Italy. They lived in Flores, then a neighborhood of cobblestone streets and middle-class strivers, mostly of Spanish and Italian descent, and mostly Catholic.

According to Ernesto Lach, 77, an elementary school friend, the young Bergoglio was affable, smart, popular, and passionate — though not, at first, for religion. His interests ran to soccer, and to the then-revolutionary tango records of Buenos Aires stars like Carlos Gardel and Ada Falcon, who would eventually leave the limelight to became a nun.

There was a girl from the neighborhood, too, named Amalia, who appeared last week in the Argentine news media. Now white-haired and squinting with age, she described the trouble she got into with her parents when they discovered a love letter written by Bergoglio who was about 12 at the time. In it, he promised to someday marry her, and buy her a little red and white house.

He studied chemistry in public high school, working in a lab in the morning, according to "The Jesuit," a biography written by Argentine journalists Sergio Rubin and Francesca Ambrogetti. Years later, he would write that science should "have its autonomy, it should be respected and encouraged," though he also warned of its destructive power, citing Mary Shelley's Frankenstein as a cautionary tale.

Nestor Carabajo, a friend from Bergoglio's high school days, described him as one of the guys, joining in spirited basketball games on the small school campus. But by then, Carabajo said, Bergoglio's passion for religion was evident.

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