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March 14. 2013 12:28AM

Pope Francis: Pray for me

VATICAN CITY - The man who will move into the 10-room papal residence inside the vaulted gates of the Holy See lives in a simple, austere apartment across from the Cathedral of Buenos Aires. In a city with a taste for luxury and status, he frequently prepares his own meals and abandoned the limousine of his high office to hop on el micro - Argentine slang for the bus.

A staunch conservative and devout Jesuit in Latin America's most socially progressive nation, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, is the product of an almost Solomon-esque choice by the princes of the church.

The 76-year-old hails from a country and a continent where the once powerful voice of the church is increasingly falling flat, losing ground - as it is in Europe - to a tide of more permissive and pragmatic faiths and to fast-rising secularism.

But the first Latin American Pope also represents a cultural bridge between two worlds - the son of Italian immigrants in a country regarded by some as the New World colony Italy never had. For many Italians, his heritage makes him the next best thing to the return of an Italian pope.

Bergoglio remains a fierce critic of socially progressive trends including gay marriage, representing a continuity of Benedict XVI's conservative doctrine. Though questioned for some of his actions during Argentina's Dirty War, he may also be a target hard for progressives to hit. In recent decades, he has emerged as a champion of social justice and the poor who spoke out against the evils of globalization and has slammed the "demonic effects of the imperialism of money."

His papal name honors St. Francis of Assisi, the son of wealthy merchants who abandoned all for a life of poverty in the path of Jesus Christ.

He represents a flashback to an old-school view of the Catholic leaders as humble, soft-spoken clerics who walked among their flock and led by example - albeit also one who has used the Internet as a tool to reach lapsed Catholics.

"He knows how to take a municipal bus. When he became a local ordinary of Buenos Aires, he moved from a large impressive home to a modest dwelling. He has a sense of social justice, but he can be seen as quite conservative doctrinally," said the Rev. Robert Pelton, CSC, the director of Latin American Church Concerns at the University of Notre Dame.

In his global introduction from the balcony of St. Peter's, he addressed the crowd in Italian, one of three languages he fluently speaks. He presented himself as soft and plain spoken, humble, even quaint - directing his comments seemingly to the citizens of his new city, Rome, more than to the 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide.

"And now let us begin this journey, the Bishop and people, this journey of the Church of Rome which presides in charity over all the Churches, a journey of brotherhood in love, of mutual trust," he said. "Let us always pray for one another. Let us pray for the whole world that there might be a great sense of brotherhood. My hope is that this journey of the Church that we begin today, together with help of my Cardinal Vicar, be fruitful for the evangelization of this beautiful city."

Before imparting his first blessing as the new Bishop of Rome, Francis I asked the faithful to pray for him, as he bowed his head in silence.

Born in Buenos Aires on Dec. 17, 1936, Bergoglio was raised in a struggling middle class home of a railroad worker and housewife. He was ordained a priest in 1969.

He rose fast. In 1992, John Paul II named him assistant bishop in Buenos Aires, then made him Archbishop five years later.

He served on a number of Vatican commissions and in 2005 is widely believed to have come in second to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger - now the Pope emeritus - to succeed John Paul II.


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