The 76-year-old hails from a country and a continent where the once powerful voice of the church is increasingly falling flat, losing ground — as it is in Europe — to a tide of more permissive and pragmatic faiths and to fast-rising secularism. He gives voice to a church whose center of global gravity is increasingly shifting south.
But the first Latin American pope also represents a cultural bridge between two worlds — the son of Italian immigrants in a country regarded by some as the New
World colony Italy never had. For many Italians, his heritage makes him the next best thing to the return of an Italian pope.
Bergoglio remains a fierce critic of socially progressive trends, including gay marriage, representing a continuity of Benedict XVI’s conservative doctrine. Though questioned for some of his actions during Argentina’s Dirty War, he may also be a target hard for progressives to hit. In recent decades, he has emerged as a champion of social justice and the poor who has spoken out against the evils of globalization and slammed the “demonic effects of the imperialism of money.”
His papal name honors St. Francis of Assisi, the son of wealthy merchants who abandoned all for a life of poverty in the path of Jesus Christ.
At the same time, in the age of 24-hour news cycles and the cult of celebrity excess, he is described by some as so retro as to be something oddly new. He represents a flashback to an old-school view of the Catholic leaders as humble, soft-spoken clerics who walked among their flock and led by example — though he has also used the Internet as a tool to reach lapsed Catholics.
“He knows how to take a municipal bus,” said the Rev. Robert Pelton, the director of Latin American/North American Church Concerns at the University of Notre Dame. “When he became a local ordinary of Buenos Aires, he moved from a large, impressive home to a modest dwelling. He has a sense of social justice, but he can be seen as quite conservative doctrinally.”
“He’s a simple person,” Pelton added. “The fact is that he has a straightforwardness and simplicity that is quite unusual in public figures of our time.”
It remains unclear whether even Latin Americans will respond with newfound energy to Bergoglio’s ascension to the throne of St. Peter. Among many of its neighbors, Argentina is seen as a nation apart — a country that fancies itself more European than Latin American, with many likely to see the rise of an Italian Argentine as largely unrepresentative of the region as a whole.