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Argentina considers homegrown Pope

Kaitlyn Rabach | Thursday, March 21, 2013

Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected as the new pope on March 13 and Catholics around the world are rejoicing at the news of this pontiff – especially in his home country, Argentina. Rachel Tomas Morgan, assistant director of Notre Dame’s Center for Social Concerns, took in this historic moment from Buenos Aires, Argentina.

“We were sitting in a café [in Buenos Aires] and all of a sudden a news flash came on saying there was white smoke,” Morgan said. “Argentina is predominately Catholic, but they are mostly ‘cultural Catholics’. Just knowing the pope would be announced was important news for Argentines as a whole, but when Cardinal Bergoglio was announced we all stood there in disbelief. We had to take time to process it.”

Morgan said prior to the announcement there was no real sense from the community that this Argentine cardinal was a potential candidate for the papacy.
“We talked to waiters, servers and taxi drivers and no one really anticipated this would happen,” Morgan said. “This then resulted in groups of people standing wide-eyed in front of the TV in utter shock and disbelief.

“We all could not believe this was unfolding before our eyes. One woman even started crying next to me,” she said.

Morgan said when she walked out of the café, church bells were ringing in the neighborhood and crowds rushed to the Plaza de Mayo and the cathedral. The plaza has historical and political significance for Argentines, according to Morgan.

“It is a very prominent place and has historically been the center for rallies and political movements,” she said. “It continues to be a place where Argentines hold their demonstrations. After the announcement it was natural that people began to congregate there.”

Morgan said Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner quickly aligned herself as a close ally of the newly-named pope, publicly commenting on it at a previously scheduled event.

“Obviously with the announcement of the pope she took the opportunity to express joy for the new pope,” Morgan said. “At the same time she aligned herself with Pope Francis, saying she too cares about the poor in much the same ways the new pope does. This comment has been made with some critique.”  
In the days following the papal announcement, Morgan said Argentines’ opinions about the new pontiff “varied across the spectrum”.

“About 75 percent of Argentines are Catholic, but only about 10 percent actively practice Catholicism,” Morgan said. “This leads to a variety of different opinions.
“Some Argentines had very strong opinions about Bergoglio and his new role in the church and there were others who simply did not care,” she said.

Morgan said after the official announcement and celebration, the world, including Argentines, came away with a more comprehensive picture of the type of man Pope Francis is.

“Information emerged giving us a fuller picture of who this man might be,” Morgan said. “We learned more about his role in the church and politics of Argentina.  We were beginning to see information that critiqued the pope.”

Morgan said there were two images presented of the new pope as a leader during Argentina’s political upheaval.

“An image of a humble man concerned with working with the poor in the slums emerged,” Morgan said. “This image talked about him cooking his own food, loving soccer and taking the bus to work.

“At the same time we were hearing some really strong critiques of the pope from human rights leaders in Argentina,” she said. “These leaders were criticizing his leadership during the years of 1976-1983.”

Morgan had the opportunity to meet with students, staff and faculty from local universities in Buenos Aires and said the students had mixed reactions to the pope’s leadership while the country was in turmoil during the ‘Dirty War.’

“Some university students we spoke with said he didn’t do enough during these dark times, but that he was not complicit or directly involved,” Morgan said.

Morgan said the older faculty and staff members emphasized the importance of context in the pope’s critiques. She said one faculty member offered a good interpretation of Bergoglio’s decision to not openly confront the military during this time.

“This faculty member talked about some of the criticisms around Bergoglio,” Morgan said. “He added [that] most Argentines did not openly confront the military either and at the time, Bergoglio was a young leader and new to the political scene.

“This faculty member was not excusing Bergoglio’s actions, but rather working to put his actions in context with what was going on throughout Latin America at the time. In other parts of Latin America, church leaders were being killed for openly confronting the political situation. This paints a more complicated picture.”

Regardless of the image Argentines associate with the new pontiff, Morgan said everyone she spoke with expressed joy and hope for this Argentine cardinal named pope.

“I got the sense from some university students, faculty [and] staff we met with, and from other Argentines, that people are really curious and hopeful for what this all means,” Morgan said. “Argentines are not only curious for what this means for their country, but also the world and church as a whole. They shared with us hope this historic moment can help revitalize the Church.”