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For Pope Francis, people are more important than ideas

As Pope Francis prepares to visit the United States, it’s telling that many Americans are still trying to get a political read on him. Some are convinced he’s a leftist reformer, some see him as a conservative in sheep’s clothing, and many are just a little bit confused.

One minute Francis is thundering against capitalism, welcoming refugees into the Vatican, and declaring “Who am I to judge?” about gay people, while the next he’s attacking “ideological colonization” of the developing world by gay rights and contraception advocates and warning that “the Devil is on the prowl.”

It’s enough to give someone accustomed to how things usually break in American politics a case of whiplash.

Americans may wonder why this maverick pontiff resists being pinned down, but his fellow Argentinians have a simple explanation: It’s because Francis is history’s first porteño pope, meaning someone from Buenos Aires, the country’s capital city, and a place where stereotypes and conventional categories famously go to die.

In the words of Argentinian theologian the Rev. Carlos Galli: “To understand Francis, you don’t need labels. You need to understand where he comes from.”

It’s easy to forget now, given his globe-trotting style as pope, but for the 21 years he helped lead the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires, Francis was basically a stay-at-home bishop. He spent his vacations in the city’s slums, covering for priests who were away, and famously described his annual trips to Rome later in his career as a “Lenten penance.”

Back in March, to mark his two-year anniversary as pope, Francis gave an interview to veteran Mexican journalist Valentina Alazraki. When she pressed him to explain his outlook, he repeatedly returned to his hometown, his country, and the continent of Latin America. When he speaks, Francis said, he usually does so on the basis of his own personal experience.

Geographically, his experience is of Latin America. His spirituality, however, is shaped by his priestly formation with the Jesuit order.

Theologian Juan Carlos Scannone says a key part of that experience is a strongly Argentinian stream of Catholic thought called “theology of the people.” It holds, Scannone said, that reflection on virtually any topic shouldn’t start with ideological categories, but with the concrete experiences of ordinary people.

It may be apocryphal, but a story from the early 1960s holds that Pope John XXIII, now declared a saint by Francis, once was speaking with a group of visitors who warned him that they may have different theological ideas from the Catholic Church.

“Good Pope John” supposedly replied as follows: “Ideas, ideas . . . what are ideas among friends?”

It’s a line that easily could be repeated by his Argentine successor.

The key to Francis, therefore, may be to understand that ideas are less fundamental for him than people – and to the extent he has blinders or limits, it’s less because of faulty concepts than because he hasn’t yet met the right people.

A porteño Pope

“The thing is, I am who I am even where protocols are concerned, just as I was myself in Buenos Aires.” – Francis to Argentinian journalist Elisabetta Piqué in December 2014.

Argentines from other parts of the country generally have the same love/hate relationship with Buenos Aires as Frenchmen do with Paris, or Americans with New York. The specificity is such that when people from outside the city introduce themselves by nationality, they usually say, “I’m Argentinian, but not porteño.”

The term porteño comes from the Spanish word for “door,” reflecting the fact that in the early 20th century, Buenos Aires was a gateway for millions of Europeans arriving in the country seeking refuge after the two wars and the Great Depression.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio was born in Buenos Aires in 1936 as the first child of a middle-class immigrant family that left Italy fearing for the life of his grandmother, who was highly involved with the movement Catholic Action during the early rise to power of Benito Mussolini’s fascist movement.

At the time, the “Paris of South America” was one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities with 2.6 million inhabitants, only half with Argentinian origins. Forty percent were Italians, 40 percent Spaniards, and the rest from a wide diversity of backgrounds, including both Jews and Muslims from various parts of the world.

Buenos Aires remains the city with more bookstores per capita than anywhere else in the world. It’s a city that treats its writers and artists as rock stars, including Jorge Luis Borges — an author whom Bergoglio once hosted as a special guest in a literature class when the future pope was a young Jesuit teaching high school.

Speaking to Crux in the Domus Santa Marta, the hotel inside Vatican grounds where Francis has lived since he was elected pope, Galli said that beyond his love for mate (the famed Argentine tea), soccer, and tango, Bergoglio’s identity was forged by two currents of popular religiosity in Buenos Aires.

The first goes back to the era of colonies, which brought devotions such as Our Lady of Luján, patroness of Argentina. A second is that of immigrants who would wait in line for hours to venerate the image of San Cayetano, patron of bread and work.

These expressions of popular piety have kept millions flocking to shrines as an expression of the people’s faith. According to Galli, Pope Francis learned to value such popular expressions of devotion early on, seeing them not merely as quaint or kitschy, but rather a touchstone for both theology and pastoral activity.

The pope’s porteño identity also helps explain his interest in interfaith relations, since coexistence among different creeds has been part of the culture of Buenos Aires since the late 19th century. Buenos Aires boasts the sixth largest Jewish community in the world — not to mention the only McDonalds selling kosher food outside of Israel — and also a big Muslim community, the result mostly of a wave of Syro–Lebanese immigration.

The resulting blend of faiths and peoples produced some unique contradictions in the Argentina of Bergoglio’s youth, including the surreal reality that at times, children of Nazi concentration camp survivors attended public school with the children of Nazi war criminals, both groups that sought refuge in the country.

Argentina is also among the few countries in Latin America that also features an important presence of historic Protestant churches, such as the Lutheran, Methodist, and Anglican confessions.

Bergoglio savored the coexistence among Christians, Jews, and Muslims when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, and took it with him to the Vatican. Two of Francis’ closest advisors on inter-faith affairs are friends from Buenos Aires: Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Muslim leader Omar Abboud.

A pope from the ends of the earth

“It seems that my brother Cardinals have gone almost to the ends of the earth to get [a pope] … but here we are.” – Pope Francis on the night of his election, March 13, 2013.

Argentina is a nation of incredible contrasts, which, to some extent, has always felt at odds with its own continent, to the point that some natives claim it’s a misplaced piece of Europe.

It has a rich colonial history, with its own missions, its own Indian lore, and even its own slave trading period. Argentina also lived through the military coups that reigned in Latin America for most of the 20th century, fueled by a fierce and sometimes savage class warfare throughout the 1970s and 80s which left thousands of “desaparecidos,” meaning people who disappeared.

Argentina is also a country of incredible wealth and sophistication, which exists cheek-by-jowl with shocking poverty and neglect. For instance, it’s the world’s third-leading soy producer and, less than a decade ago, also a beef exporter, yet it has scores of children dying of hunger.

Francis talked about that contrast in his anniversary interview: “I’m scandalized by the [Buenos Aires neighborhood] of Puerto Madero. It’s beautiful, with enormous buildings and 36 restaurants that rip you off — and, right next door, a slum.”

By far, the most celebrated and also enigmatic political movement the country ever produced is “Peronism,” technically known asJusticialismo, and named for the legendary Argentine politicianJuan Domingo Perón.

Outside of Argentina, Peronism is sometimes perceived as a share-the-wealth form of demagoguery that subsidizes favored trade unions and fosters a cult of personality around Perón’s equally famous wife Evita. For others, it’s a merger between nationalism and the quest for social justice in a society once dominated by oligarchic elites.

Perón himself gave the movement “three flags:” social justice, economic independence, and political sovereignty – all of which have been endlessly interpreted, reinterpreted, and spun by all sides in the decades since.

Roberto Bosca, an Argentine historian, says Peronism is hard to explain because it’s not a concrete thing.

“It has authoritarian elements, but it’s not authoritarian,” he told Crux. “It has populist elements and also fascist ones, without being fascism.”

Bosca, who did his doctoral thesis on Peronism and the Argentine Catholic hierarchy, says he believes it’s erroneous to label Francis a Peronist, although “he has many aspects that are in tune with the Peronist doctrine, and has a leadership personality similar to Perón’s.”

Argentinian journalist Armando Rubén Puente agrees, saying that Bergoglio was never a Peronist. He describes Francis as a politician in the “classic” sense, from the concept of the “polis,” or “city.” Speaking to the Spanish paper La Gaceta, Puente said this is evident in the fact that in Argentina, Bergoglio would talk to everyone.

“The union leaders who would never set foot in the Church called him Jorgito when answering his phone calls,” he said.

Many observers say it’s hard to explain Peronism because the world is accustomed to bipartisan politics that make it easy to speak of liberal and conservatives, but Argentina’s two leading political parties are almost impossible to pin down.

Peronism and Radicalism (the second Argentinian political party), are both, in some ways, center-right and center-left at the same time, and both have components of nationalistic conservativism and international liberalism.

What pretty much everyone agrees on, however, is that at the core of Peronism is a strong populist instinct, appealing directly to ordinary people over the heads of the elites and the traditional power-brokers.

Perhaps that’s what Francis had in mind back in November 2013, when conservative American pundit Rush Limbaugh called him a Marxist and he replied that if anything, he’s more allied with Peronism.

At least in that sense, Francis truly is a classic Peronist — straddling left and right, taking the mind of the masses far more seriously than ideological purity.

A Latin American pope

“Do you feel responsible for being the voice of Latin America?”

“Yes, but not in a programmatic way. It simply comes out, as a result of our Latin American experience.” – Pope Francis to Mexican journalist Valentina Alazraki, March 2015

According to Argentinian Rev. Mariano Fazio, the No. 2 official in the Catholic organization Opus Dei, political labels aren’t appropriate to understanding Francis because “in Latin America, you can be both pro-life and from the left, something that’s almost unthinkable in the United States.”

“I think that the pope is helping show that the Church isn’t progressive or conservative,” Fazio said to Crux.

Fazio’s approval is itself another example of the pontiff’s hybrid appeal, since Opus Dei is typically seen as fairly conservative and thus an unlikely ally of a pope often seen as fairly progressive.

Fazio worked closely with Bergoglio in a 2007 meeting of Latin American bishops in Aparecida, Brazil. He said that despite the traditional Catholic belief that a pope belongs to the universal Church from the moment of his election, Francis has hardly jettisoned his Latin American heritage.

His open, informal, “Latin culture” style, Fazio said, has helped the pontiff build a bridge of dialogue with the world.

British Catholic writer Austen Ivereigh, author of the papal biography The Great Reformer, told Crux that Francis has opened a new era in which the touchstone for the universal Church is now Latin America rather than Europe.

“In Latin America, the liberal-conservative division is restricted to small elites; the Church’s main reference point is the mass of people, who are generally poor and respectful of Church teaching,” Ivereigh said.

“The Church in Latin America sees itself as defending the interests, values, and culture of the ‘people’ against neo-colonial interests,” he said, suggesting that same instinct is clear in history’s first Latin American pope.

As an example, Ivereigh said that when Francis speaks out against attempts to promote contraception in the developing world, his argument is not framed in terms of authority versus autonomy — which, Ivereigh said, is a classic “First World” dichotomy — but in terms of the rights of the poor against attempts to impose a certain ideology by the rich.

Galli said the single best way to understand the pope’s Latin American gene is a meeting of the continent’s bishops in Aparecida, Brazil, in 2007. Bergoglio was elected by his fellow prelates to chair the committee that produced its final document.

The importance of that gathering to the future pope is reflected in the fact that the meeting was headed by Chilean Cardinal Francisco Javier Errázuriz, and Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga was a member of the drafting team. Both are now part of a group of nine cardinals that advises the pope.

Galli summarizes Aparecida as an invitation to a permanent continental mission: “To bring Christ to all, with an overflow of thankfulness and joy, from Mexico to Ushuaia,” he said.

That same theme was the heart of Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), a November 2013 document widely described as the Magna Carta of Francis’ papacy. In it, Francis calls for a “missionary option,” meaning that the Church’s ways of doing things should be suitably designed for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her own self-preservation.

Scannone believes that the influence of Latin American theology in history’s first pope from the global south is particularly visible in Francis’ desire for a “poor Church for the poor.”

Scannone, who was one of the pope’s seminary professors, is the mind behind “theology of the people.”

He believes that Francis’ understanding of popular spirituality and mysticism, as well as his strong emphasis on the Church as the “Faithful People of God,” are based on the pontiff’s Latin American roots.

Part of what that means, he said, is that Francis instinctively rejects any distinction between social activism on behalf of the poor and the Church’s traditional doctrine or liturgy, since the poor are generally the most strongly devoted to both Church teaching and pious devotions.

If you care for the poor, in other words, you also have to care about their faith.

A Jesuit Pope

“I wanted something more. But I did not know what. I entered the diocesan seminary. I liked the Dominicans, and I had Dominican friends. But then I chose the Society of Jesus.” – Pope Francis to Italian Rev. Antonio Spadaro, Sept. 2013

Formally known as the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits are the largest religious men’s order in the Catholic Church, with almost 17,000 members worldwide. They’re known for many things, but perhaps especially their missionary zeal, which a half-century ago allowed the Catholic Church to reach the Far East, Africa, and the Americas.

Jesuit spirituality also emphasizes a deeply personal encounter with God, as opposed to relying entirely on formula or pre-fabricated practices.

“It’s easy to see that he’s Christocentric, he’s always saying that faith and Christian life come from the personal encounter with God,” said Galli, a fellow Jesuit.

Galli said that this duality expresses the identity Francis sees in a Christian: a missionary disciple, centered in Christ but open to others. That, too, he said, explains why people may have difficulty understanding whether Francis is a man of a tradition or a reformer. In reality, Galli believes, he’s both.

“Discipleship centers, mission opens,” he said.

According to Galli, “some members of the Church see it as Noah’s ark that can save them from the world. They don’t see that the Church is Peter’s boat, being led by Christ to save the world.”

A third element of the “Jesuit gene” in Francis is his spiritual discernment. The pope’s daily wake-up call comes at 4:30 a.m., and he spends the first hours of his morning praying until he celebrates Mass at 7 a.m. He prays again in the afternoon, for an hour, before dinner.

The pontiff himself has said these moments of prayer are when he makes most of his important decisions.

“My choices, including those related to the day-to-day aspects of life such as the use of a modest car, are related to a spiritual discernment that responds to a need that arises from looking at things, at people, and from reading the signs of the times,” Francis told Spadaro.

There you have it: In reply to the question of whether Francis is a liberal or a conservative, the correct answer is that he’s a porteñopopulist, a Latin American pastor, and a Jesuit man of both discipleship and mission.

That may be tough to grasp — for that matter, tough even to define — but it has the virtue of being how Francis views himself.

What remains to be seen is how a pontiff with that profile will play in the world’s most notoriously polarized political culture. At issue is whether Francis will be sucked into the usual American divisions or, somehow, miraculously, manage to transcend them.


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