Francis I, Latin America’s first pontiff in history to be crowned the overseer of Vatican, has evoked mixed reactions from not only his home turf Argentina, but the world all over. Jorge Mario Bergoglio, as Pope Francis I was hitherto known, has been the face of ‘true opposition’ for Argentina’s current government, headed by President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who is the widow of Nestor Kirchner, former Argentine president. Francis I has been a bitter critic of the consecutive Kirchner governments, which are left-wing, and in fact, had been close the recently deceased Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. While Bergoglio, while he was the head of Argentine Church, had refused to criticise the atrocities and brutalities committed by the junta, or the US-backed military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1976-83. Allegations against Bergoglio include not only endorsing the junta rulers, but also colluding with them to seek out Jesuit priests who preached ‘liberation theology’. While Francis I is the first Jesuit priest to actually occupy the venerated papal chair, the fact that in the 70s and 80s, he might have collaborated with argentine dictators cast a big blemish in his otherwise brilliant career as a man of the chuch.
Bergoglio has nevertheless been also associated with several positive developments within the Latin American church, such as accepting sexual contraception, baptising children of unwed women. However, he did stop short at endorsing same sex marriage, which the current argentine government had legalised and because of which a battle of staggering proportions was waged between President Kirchner and the new pope. As Catholics account for 70-80 per cent of Argentina’s 40.8 million population, Bergoglio’s election, however, bode well for Argentina and does shift the centre of gravity of the 1.2 billion Catholics from Europe to the Americas. In a way, this election proves that global Catholicism has come a long way since the time it was heavily dominated by Italian pontiffs, even though the previous two popes had been German (Benedict XVI) and Polish (John Paul II). Despite Francis I’s refusal to apologise for the intransigence and conniving of the Argentine Catholic Church, which had asked the citizens to be ‘patriotic’ and accept the military dictatorship during the years of the ‘dirty war’, he has also worked for the poorer sections of society, lived in austerity all his life, travelled in public transport and even now, has refused to move around in the lavish car that the head of global Catholicism is entitled to. Alleviating poverty has been Francis I’s chief concern, and he has urged for a shift from theological warmongering to participating in outreach programmes, such as ensuring health and education of children and women in his country. His frugal lifestyle has won him supporters and it remains to be seen if his inglorious brush with dictatorship casts a shadow on his papacy.