Who exactly is Pope Francis? Getting acquainted with the new Bishop of Rome

By Juan Guajardo


North Texas Catholic

March 19, 2013

At 7:06 p.m. Rome time March 13, white smoke rising from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel signaled that a pope had been chosen. About an hour later, the 266th pope, a quiet man wearing a shy smile and simple white vestments, emerged from behind the curtained doorway of the second story of St. Peter Basilica.

To many onlookers that day, the name Jorge Mario Bergoglio brought much excitement but didn’t quite ring a bell. So who exactly is Pope Francis? Here are some details to get you better acquainted with the new Bishop of Rome. 

He has a sense of humor.

At a dinner with the cardinals at Casa Santa Marta the day of his election, the characteristically humble Pope Francis kept the mood light, joking with them about their choice to elect him. Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York told the National Catholic Register, “When the secretary of the state toasted to him, he toasted back to us and said, ‘I hope God forgives you.’” 

He is a universal man.

He is a cardinal born and raised in Argentina, a country at “the ends of the earth,” as he put it. He is the son of middle-class Italian immigrants. He is fluent in Italian, Spanish and German. He was a university professor. He is the first Jesuit ever to be chosen pope. He studied in Chile, finished his doctoral studies in Germany and has authored various books. He’s held various leadership positions and quickly climbed Church ranks when he became a bishop in 1992. Even so, this prince of the Church has become known more specifically for his servant’s attitude (during a visit to a hospice in 2001, he washed and kissed the feet of 12 AIDS patients).

“If you look at his background, it’s far reaching at several points,” said Marlon de la Torre, diocesan director of Children’s Catechesis and Catechist Formation. “If you have a compass, he’s going north, south, east, and west… It’s a microcosm of everything. As a universal Church, he is a universal man.” 

He is down to earth.

The story of Pope Francis’ habit of riding the bus to work, living in an unpretentious apartment, and cooking his own dinners as archbishop of Buenos Aires has spread quickly. His actions during his first few days as pope indicate Francis will continue practicing the spirit of poverty that he preaches.

On March 13, New York’s Cardinal Archbishop Dolan told the National Catholic Register that the newly elected pope rode the minibus with the cardinals back to the Santa Marta residence rather than riding in the papal car — a Mercedes-Benz with the license plate “Stato Vaticano 1.” The pope also declined wearing the usual papal fittings — an elegant gold pectoral cross and ermine-trimmed red mozzetta (cape) — opting instead to wear a simple white cassock and the cross he used as a bishop. Indeed, L’Osservatore Romano reported that Pope Francis has been known to say, “My people are poor and I am one of them.”

Father Jonathan Wallis, diocesan director of Catechesis finds this simplicity impressive. “There seems to be a great personal humility and also a real focus toward the Church’s mission,” he said. 

He connects with his people.

During his announcement to the world on Wednesday night, Pope Francis spoke familiarly and conversationally with the crowd in attendance, addressing them, “Brothers and sisters, good evening!” and asking them to pray for him, before bestowing his apostolic blessing on them. “His request to the people for silent prayer to invoke God’s blessing on his new bishop was unheard of and stunning,” reflected L’Osservatore Romano in an editorial.

De La Torre agrees, “The fact that he asked for everybody to pray for him first before he gave his apostolic papal blessing to everybody, that speaks volumes. What man would be able to calm hundreds of thousands of people at St. Peter’s square to pray in silence for him? That’s very revealing of how he’s going to handle and lead the Church…. That’s a servant of the servants of God.”

Then the next morning, Pope Francis stopped by the residence he stayed at during the conclave and paid his bill, picked up his own bags, and personally greeted the attendants and housekeeping staff before heading off. The same day, on his way to the Basilica of St. Mary Major to pray to the Virgin Mary, he stopped to wave hello to a group of high school students, wrote John Thavis, a Vatican watcher and author of The Vatican Diaries. 

He defends our faith.

There’s a misconception that clergy with a strong sense of social justice sometimes offer weaker support for and promotion of Church teaching and morality. Pope Francis brings a strong social justice background, but De La Torre says if people were expecting him to budge on traditional Church teaching, they’re wrong. His track record shows that he is pro-family, pro-life, and opposes liberation theology, homosexual marriage, and abortion.

In 2010, he spoke out vehemently against the Argentinian government, which passed legislation giving same-sex couples the right to marry and to adopt children.

“As it’s his responsibility, there has to be a connection between the present day and the apostles,” said Father Carmen Mele, OP, diocesan director of Hispanic adult catechesis and director of the diocese’s School of Lay Ministry. “We are facing tremendous challenges of relativism, and he has to oppose them. The fact that he has defended the teachings of the Church amongst great criticism from the president of Argentina indicates that he will fulfill this primary responsibility of keeping the Church on the course of the true faith that has been handed down from the apostles and from Jesus.” 

He walks the talk.

Bergoglio chose the name Francis after the popular saint known for his keen dedication to poverty and peacemaking. It’s a fitting papal name for a man who for the second time (His first? When he became cardinal in 2001) encouraged his fellow Argentinians to stay home instead of celebrating his installation Mass in Rome, asking them instead to donate the money they would have spent to charity. He is described as a man who would teach his parishioners to go out and live their faith, and would do just that himself.

As archbishop, he made frequent trips to Buenos Aires’ shantytowns where he visited with local parishioners, wrote Sergio Rubin in his biography of Bergoglio, El Jesuita. Rubin wrote that as cardinal, Bergoglio “set up a direct telephone so that priests could call him at any hour with a problem. He would stay overnight in a parish, helping a sick priest, if it was needed.”

“If you want to find an example of somebody immediately evangelizing without using words, well there he is, by his actions he’s already fostering conversion to the whole world,” De La Torre said.

To many onlookers that day, the name Jorge Mario Bergoglio brought much excitement but didn’t quite ring a bell. So who exactly is Pope Francis? Here are some details to get you better acquainted with the new Bishop of Rome.

Published (until 5/1/2013)