The first Jesuit, the first Latin American (and indeed American), the outsider – these are the first impressions of a wider world floundering in surprise at the election of Argentine Jorge Bergoglio as Pope Francis I. Here in Argentina, nobody was prepared for the announcement either, though without doubt there’ll be celebrations nationwide over the coming days as the news sinks in and the world shines a light, if for a moment, on the new Pope’s home country.
Jorge Bergoglio was known here as the humble cardinal, who declined the cook, chauffeur and palace that traditionally accompany the role, and often took the metro out to the poor suburbs of Buenos Aires to visit projects, soup kitchens and hospitals. He also criticised at times what he believed to be the comfortable life of Argentine clerics, describing it as hypocrisy, and urging them to follow Christ’s example and go out and mix with the poor and the unfortunate. It is in this respect perhaps understandable why he chose to be called Pope Francis.
He was also known in Argentina for his fractious relationship with the government, and particularly with the previous president (and husband of the current one) Nestor Kirchner, who once described Cardinal Bergoglio as “the true opposition”. His relationship seemed better with Nestor’s widow, current president Cristina Kirchner, until she pushed through a same-sex marriage law in 2010, the first in Catholic Latin America. The cardinal described the law as having “destructive aims on God’s plan”, and lobbied senators not to pass the law, though ultimately unsuccessfully. Argentina’s government has a habit of discrediting its critics and opponents, and sure enough rumours emerged in Nestor’s time that the cardinal had briefly colluded with the military dictatorship in the 1970s – allegations that were denied, never proved, and subsequently dropped.
Argentine opposition newspaper Clarin gleefully reported this evening that as Cardinal Bergoglio’s election was announced, and the world celebrated, within minutes #HabemusPapam was the most trending topic on Twitter, however President Kirchner, oblivious, was busy tweeting about public works in the Patagonian mining province of Neuquén.
Hugo Lesser is an Anglo-South American based in Salta in north west Argentina. He is the founder of Estados, which sells beautiful leather goods handmade in Argentina.