Financial Times ( UK ) on Pope Francis

’Slum pope’ is sharp political operator

By Jude Webber in Buenos Aires

New pontiff aware of how to grab headlines

What kind of pope will Jorge Bergoglio be? For clues, look at his hat.

On the balcony of St Peter’s, the newly elected Pope Francis appeared in a white skull cap, not a fancy mitre – a sign, his supporters say, of the simplicity and common touch he made his hallmark in his native Argentina.

“He modernised the church in the sense that he behaved like normal people,” recalls Father Ignacio Pérez del Viso, who was once one of the pope’s theology professors.

The Jesuit who travelled by bus, flew tourist class to the conclave that elected him, preferred “Father” to “Monsignor” and was even seen doing the washing up at a meeting of his order, has affectionately been dubbed the “slum pope” by grateful residents of Buenos Aires’ biggest shanty town.

T-shirts and mugs bearing his picture – and even, according to one report, a football shirt of his beloved Buenos Aires club, San Lorenzo, with the name “Francisco I” on the back – have begun appearing as Argentina embraces one of its own as pope.

“My God!” – the headline on Página 12 newspaper on Thursday – summed up both the surprise choice of the man who, at 76, thought he was too old to be picked, and the outpouring of pride in a country better known for its history of crisis and chaos.

But a pope now charged with healing divisions in a worldwide church riven by sex scandals and allegations of financial mismanagement has his own, vocal, detractors.

“For us, his election is a backwards step in the fight for human rights,” said Carlos Pisoni of the H.I.J.O.S. lobby group representing children of the 30,000 leftist sympathisers who died or disappeared during the Argentine military dictatorship’s “Dirty War” in 1976-83. “There is sufficient proof that Bergoglio was complicit during the dictatorship.”

While no one is suggesting that the pope went to the torture centres run by the military to hear confessions, he is alleged by rights activists to have withdrawn protection from two Jesuits who were later kidnapped and tortured, though subsequently freed.

While the pope, who has testified in two Dirty War trials, says he lobbied for their release, Horacio Verbitsky, a journalist and author of a book on the church and the dictatorship, slammed him in an opinion piece in Página 12 as “the right person to cover up rottenness. He’s an expert in cover-ups”.

The former cardinal says he only learned about the dictatorship’s systematic plan to steal babies years after the end of the regime. H.I.J.O.S. meanwhile, displayed its disgust in a poster on its website showing a photo montage of the new pope riding in an open-topped, blood-spattered Ford Falcon – the cars used for kidnappings – alongside junta members.

Hebe de Bonafini, head of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, said the lobby group of women whose children were “disappeared” under the dictatorship considered the official Argentine church “oppressive”.

“We compiled a list of 150 priests murdered by the dictatorship that the official church kept quiet about . . . about this pope that was named yesterday, all we have to say is: amen.”

Felipe Denegri, a longtime Chilean Jesuit priest who has since left the church, painted a picture of a divisive, power-hungry leader and a manipulator adept at winning sympathy through his humility.

Joaquín Morales Solá, a commentator in La Nación newspaper who knows the pope and met him shortly before he left for the Vatican, called him “a balanced mix of pastor and politician”.

A return to grass roots, to getting priests on streets and in contact with the faithful, is one of Pope Francis’ passions, and Father Pérez del Viso said he was politically skilful and aware of how to convey his messages in headline-grabbing ways.

Indeed, after his election, he used the balcony of St Peter’s like a pulpit, speaking candidly to the crowds below.

In his new role, it will come in handy that he is seen, as Father Pérez del Viso said, as “a man who doesn’t get out of the way of problems. He likes difficult situations to resolve”.

While he is likely to seek to bring a breath of fresh air to the protocol-laden Vatican – he left on Wednesday night on a bus with other cardinals and paid his own bill at his lodgings – he is seen as basically conservative, albeit pragmatic on doctrinal issues.

He has been critical of neoliberal policies and outspoken in his opposition to gay marriage, legalised in Argentina in 2010. In line with church doctrine, he opposes contraception and abortion.

But there are signs of a pragmatic side: “He never agreed with the word ‘marriage’ for homosexual couples but he would not have objected to the name ‘civil union’,” Mr Morales Solá wrote in La Nación newspaper. The new pope has also spoken out in favour of baptising the children of single mother, saying priests who did not do so “are today’s hypocrites”.

What he certainly seems to be cultivating is a reputation as a wisecracker. He joked in his first appearance that cardinals had gone to the ends of the earth to select him. At a dinner with cardinals later, New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan says he told them: “May God forgive you!”

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