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Pope Francis: First Latin American, Jesuit Pope Picked to Head Church; Praised for Work with Poor

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Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina was picked Wednesday to become the first pope from Latin America and the first not to hail from Europe in more than 1,000 years. Bergoglio is viewed as a theological conservative who has staunchly opposed abortion, same-sex marriage and the ordination of women, but he has been praised for his devotion to the poor. We speak to Tom Roberts, editor-at-large at the National Catholic Reporter and author of “The Emerging Catholic Church: A Community’s Search for Itself.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: A papal conclave has selected Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, Argentina, to be the new pope. He replaces Pope Benedict XVI, who shocked the Catholic Church last month when he became the first pontiff to resign in almost 600 years. Bergoglio is the first pope from Latin America and the first not to hail from Europe in more than a thousand years. He’s also the first to come from the Jesuit order of priests, which is known for its work on social justice.

On Wednesday, the new Pope Francis took to the balcony of St. Peters wearing an unadorned white robe. He briefly addressed the thousands of Catholic pilgrims waiting to greet him.

POPE FRANCIS: [translated] Brothers and sisters, good evening. As you know, the duty of the conclave is to give Rome a bishop. It seems that my brother cardinals went almost to the end of the world, but we are here. First of all, I would like to pray for Benedict, our bishop emeritus. We pray all together for him for God to bless him and for the Madonna to hold him.

AMY GOODMAN: Pope Francis is viewed as a theological conservative who staunchly opposed abortion, same-sex marriage and the ordination of women. Here in the United States, the Jubilee USA Network praised his selection for his devotion to the poor. In Argentina, he’s long been dogged by reports he aided the military dictatorship in the ’70s.

Later in the broadcast, we’ll go to Argentina to speak with a leading investigative journalist who has written extensively about the role of the new pope during Argentina’s military dictatorship. But we begin our show with Tom Roberts, editor-at-large at the National Catholic Reporter, author of The Emerging Catholic Church: A Community’s Search for Itself. He joins us from Kansas City, Missouri.

Tom, welcome to Democracy Now! Give us a thumbnail history of the new pope, Pope Francis.

TOM ROBERTS: Well, he is 76 years old, which puts him on sort of the older end of the scale for a new pope. He was educated in Argentina and also in Rome and Germany. He kind of embodies that mix of European and developing world, First World and developing world sensibilities. He is a Jesuit. And as you mentioned earlier in the lead-up, a lot of firsts in this one: the first Jesuit, the first non-European in a long, long time. He’s the first one to be named Francis. And so, it’s an interesting—he’s an academic. He started life as a—pursuing a career in chemistry, decided to join the Jesuits, rose quickly in their ranks. He was named a bishop by John Paul II, I think in 2001, and then rose to the ranks of cardinal. So he’s been around for quite a while. He’s been in leadership positions, but not in Rome and not in the Vatican bureaucracy. So, it is, again, a very interesting choice because of all the firsts and the fact that he’s outside of the normal wheel of Vatican influence and that culture.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Tom, the significance again of some of these breakthroughs here, these firsts, specifically about the—him being a Jesuit? Obviously, the Jesuits have always been considered the intellectuals or the philosophers of the church. Way back in the colonial period, the Spanish monarchy expelled them from the Americas because of their role, their social role. That particular significance?

TOM ROBERTS: Well, I think that for any order priest—it’s significant for any order priest to be elected pope—I don’t know how many of them there have been—but especially Jesuits, who have a particular charism, have been big players in the church through history. And they are noted for, you know, intellectual accomplishments, for raising institutions of higher learning, and for the social justice component. I mean, they’ve been strong social justice advocates in many areas of the world.

I think the other thing that is distinctive—and this has nothing to do with him being a Jesuit as much as it does an approach toward ecclesiology and also what it means to be a religious leader—is the way he lives. When he became a cardinal, became bishop of Buenos Aires, he didn’t take the big mansion. He gave up the driver and the car. He takes the bus to work, as they say, often takes the equivalent of the subway. He really does live a life identified with the poor. He lives in a simple apartment, cooks his own meals, and has really been identified with a very, very strong social justice current in Latin America. He has used language about the inequalities between countries and talks about Argentina as one of the most unequal places in the world, talks about the unjust distribution of goods as a social sin.

So, there are a lot of characteristics to him that don’t fit any categories, except that he comes from the Global South, and there we find leaders, religious leaders, who have very, very strong social justice instincts, even though, on many of the issues, as you’ve noted, he would be considered a theological conservative, which would not be rare, by the way, for any of those cardinals. I mean, you’re not going to find a liberal or someone that—somebody in the developed North would call liberal on those issues in that conclave.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Tom Roberts, the significance of him choosing the name Francis, Pope Francis, for Francis of Assisi?

TOM ROBERTS: Yes, and he made it clear that it was for Francis of Assisi and not Francis Xavier, one of the early Jesuits. The significance, I think, cuts a number of ways. First of all, I think that it’s a recognition, if Francis is used as a reform figure, for the—the recognition of the need for reform in the church, a getting back to the gospel. He doesn’t like—and it’s been pretty well chronicled—doesn’t like rigid clericalism. He doesn’t like all the fuss of elaborate clothes. Again, simplicity is the order for him. And he came out in a plain white cassock, none of the—none of the other frills that can go along with that first entrance.

The other thing he did was he bowed in prayer to the group, to the crowd before him, and asked them to pray for him first before he gave them his blessing, which is a significant sign of humility. And the other thing he did, which I think was very endearing to Catholics worldwide, was that he asked them to pray with him, and he prayed very familiar prayers—you know, the Our Father and the Hail Mary. Catholics worldwide are familiar with those. And so, it was a meeting of someone we could understand. This was not elevated theology. This was not, you know, a triumphal entry. This was a very humble “Walk with me,” as he said. “Let’s begin this journey together, and let’s pray the simple prayers that we all know. And before I, as pontiff, bless you, pray for me.” So it was a really different—a different entrance of a new pontiff, introduction of a new pope.

AMY GOODMAN: Tom Roberts, we want to thank you for being with us, editor-at-large at the National Catholic Reporter, author of The Emerging Catholic Church: A Community’s Search for Itself. When we come back, we’re going to Buenos Aires to speak with the leading investigative journalist, Horacio Verbitsky, to talk about the role that the new pope, Pope Francis, played during the 1970s, during what is known in Argentina as the “dirty wars.” Stay with us.

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Pope Francis’ Junta Past: Argentine Journalist on New Pontiff’s Ties to Abduction of Jesuit Priests

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