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Holy merchants of austerity

The irony of humility is that it shows only in the background of great riches, and we manage to locate it only when it appears more brilliantly in the company of power or money or both. Such is the story of the ascension of former Cardinal and head of Argentine Catholic Church Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis I, or Francis the Humble as he would like to be known, the 266th head of Roman Catholic Church, that we are faced, not with a staid, monologic tale of the rise and rise of a humble Jesuit priest from South America, but with a papacy that has hatched directly into the eye of a storm, as it were, with competing narratives as dramatically opposed to each other as the accounts in a Kurosawa film.

The game of playing politics of poverty and situating oneself within it to earn limelight was mastered by none other than our Saint Teresa of Calcutta, who was bestowed with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 and was christened a ‘saint’ by Pope John Paul II who led a hurried orgy of beatification during his papacy. However, while Anjeze Gonxhe Bojaxhiu — the ethnic Albanian, Indian Roman Catholic nun, who founded the Missionaries of Charity in 1950 in Calcutta, running soup kitchens, poor shelters, orphanages and hospices — metamorphosed into Teresa of Calcutta gradually, over several decades and through tireless ‘dedication’, her espousal of poverty and suffering as conditions that connected one to Jesus’ pain on the cross has increasingly come under scathing criticism. As the late Christopher Hitchens had pointed out, while Mother Teresa, after British filmmaker Malcolm Muggeridge made a documentary on her,
Some Beautiful for God
that catapulted her to the summit of global fame, was seen planted in the centre of a doting circle of rich, white admirers, who also kept her coffers filled, the poor of Calcutta, whom she was supposed to have ‘saved’ from damnation and disease, as she comforted their souls while letting them encumber physical atrophy, faded into the ahistorical backdrop of the forever unfortunate, shapeless and formless, only to brighten the luminescence around the Saint. Further, the source of her charity money has often been linked to dictators and fraudsters, and a latest academic paper even alleges that Teresa’s organisation had ‘secret’ accounts wherein much of the money had been siphoned off to.  

In a similar vein, Francis the Humble, has reiterated his credentials as a ‘pro-poor, left of the centre person’ by declaring that he wants ‘a poor Church, for the poor,’ following his election as the pontiff overseeing the souls of 1.2 billion Catholics around the world. He refused the popemobile and moved around in a bus. His choice of name for himself during his reign as the warden of the Vatican is significant, because it’s harking back to the 12-13th century St Francis of Assisi (in Italy), who represented ‘poverty and peace.’ In a stark admonition to his own cohort, the Jesuits (who are an ecclesiastical order to serve the papacy and are not supposed to covet power by getting ordained a bishop or a cardinal), he shunned the name ‘Ignatius’, after Ignatius of Loyola, the Spanish soldier and mystic who founded the Society of Jesus in 1534. Evidently, Francis the Humble’s humility ends at his doorstep, no matter how sparse his accommodation is, and despite leading and preaching a pro-poor, austere attitude towards life, which he certainly himself practices devoutly, his political ambitions never had any room for modesty.

Francis I is, however, an Argentine of Italian descent. He’s the pope from the New World, the ‘global South’ but has European ancestry. He started as a Jesuit in Buenos Aires, after one year of the May 1968 movements around the world, when the Jesuits embraced liberation theology that preached free love and global peace. Yet, despite his Jesuit background, Francis I is a hardline conservative when it comes to social ideas, and he’s strictly against homosexuality, gay marriage and even abortion (much like Mother Teresa), although credit must be given to his relatively happier views on the use of contraceptives (that they prevent sexually transmitted diseases is his reason to support them), or baptising children of unwed mothers or those born out of wedlock. Although, it is said that this Latin American pontiff is ‘left of Nancy Pelosi (the firebrand Democrat and leader of US Senate) on economic issues’, and that ‘he’s not a candidate of Wall Street’, as his predecessors have been accused to have been, he, nevertheless, has a cloudy past that many would like he comes clean about.   

The Bergoglio imbroglio is about the alleged role of the former head Argentine Church during the country’s anti-Communist witch-hunt three decades ago. Officially known as the ‘Process of National Reorganisation’ by the military junta that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983, the period of the ‘Dirty War’ saw a comprehensive crusade aimed at exterminating the Communists and others with radical left-leanings, who were deemed ‘subversives’. Bergoglio, who was the top Jesuits in Argentina during the initial years of the Dirty War, is said to have tacitly withdrawn protection from the freethinking cheerleaders of liberation theology within the Jesuit community, as the latter had not stopped their work with the poor during the junta’s repressive reign. Two Jesuit clerics, Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics, who were kidnapped and tortured for five months by the junta, had later accused Bergoglio of having given them up to the military marauders. The controversy was brought alive in the wake of Bergoglio’s election as the new pontiff, as was the ghost of the Dirty War, for which the current pope had recalcitrantly refused to either admit the complicity of his Church, or apologise for the silence of his esteemed institution over the excesses of the junta regime.

For an institution that is marked histories of secrecy, systematic sexual abuse and organisational opacity, the election of Francis I, in a way, challenges some of the very foundations of the Catholic seat of power, on one hand, but on the other, it reestablishes the supreme hold of the institution on the moral kingdom of the billion strong global Catholics. Yet, what must be remembered that these merchants of austerity, these traders of salvation preaching asceticism and self-denial, who ‘sell love’ and not ‘free love’ must be beheld with the right dose of scepticism, and not only with eyes blinded by awe.

The author is an assistant editor at Millennium Post.
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