Born Jorge Mario Bergoglio in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Francis is the first Jesuit pope as well as the first pope to come from South America.
Drawing clues from Francis’s Jesuit past, his down-to-earth lifestyle and chosen papal moniker -- which summons images of Catholic heroes such as St. Francis of Assisi -- Prince Albert Bishop Albert Thévenot believed that Francis would devote much of his attention to addressing poverty around the world.
“I think he’s going to go in a line that is going to help us become more aware of the millions of people and the large percentage of our people who are poor, and how we should solve the problem of poverty, solve the problem of disease among these poor countries -- how perhaps governments or corporations should stop exploiting … developing countries, especially in South America or Africa or even India,” Thévenot said. “I think that’s the line he wants us to be in.
“This globalization thing has its advantages, but has also some disadvantages in which corporations have more power than government. I think we have to rectify that, and I think what he wants to do is to bring what is true and just to our world.
“We can’t forget those many poor people who live in poverty -- not because they want it, but because their political situation, the economic situation has put it such, and maybe it’s because our corporations are exploiting these people.”
Francis is the first Pope to have come from the Jesuits, formally known as the Society of Jesus.
Founded in the 16th century by St. Ignatius of Loyola, the Jesuits are known for their missionary efforts, education work, intellectual and cultural pursuits as well as their promotion of social justice.
Perhaps even more significant is Francis’s status as the first non-European pontiff since Pope Gregory III in the eighth century. Reflecting the increasingly global reach of the Church, South America is now home to a greater proportion of the world’s Catholics than any other continent.
“I think the Church is looking … elsewhere to find leaders,” Thévenot said.
“We’re not focusing on just Europe or Italy. We’re focused on the Church itself across the world, who can better serve it, and I think that’s a beautiful step forward, that we see the horizon beyond Europe of the Church being present -- and that it comes from Latin America, where we have most of the Catholics in the world, I think that’s also very significant.”
The appointment of Francis as the new Pope has not come without controversy.
Critics have charged that as a superior in the Society of Jesus of Argentina during the 1970s, Bergoglio failed to oppose the military junta of Jorge Rafael Videla, who seized power in a 1976 coup and was later prosecuted for widespread human rights abuses and crimes against humanity.
Bergoglio was named in a 2005 lawsuit alleging his unspecified involvement in the abductions of two Jesuit priests, Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics, who were jailed for their work in poor neighbourhoods and accused Bergoglio of effectively handing them over to the regime by failing to tell it he endorsed the priests’ work.
Thévenot noted that the men were freed after Bergoglio took action behind the scenes to save them by persuading Videla’s family priest to call in sick so he could say Mass in the dictator’s home.
The future pope took the opportunity to privately appeal to Videla for mercy.
“I think we have to understand what kind of situation he was (in),” the bishop said.
“He was caught in a dictatorship, a dictatorship that declared themselves Catholics. We have many people who declare themselves very Catholic, but I tell you, they are not working with the Church. They are working maybe against the Church.
“So even these dictatorships that have come in countries, they say they’re working for the people, but are they really working for the people? Sometimes they’re more working for themselves and they sometimes want the Church to be on their side, because maybe the people at that time -- at that time -- were very much followers of the Church.
I think what has touched them most, and what touched me the most, is his simplicity, his openness to the people and wanting to be with the people. - Bishop Albert Thévenot
“And so if the Church is for it, then we have to also be for it, and if you are fighting against it, it’s as if you’re a rebel. It’s as if you’re a militia against the government.”
Thévenot added, “I think we have to look (at) the journey of the person and how he changed from then, and how that experience has helped him maybe to change his views on things, and maybe that’s why he is so attractive to the poor -- because of that experience.”
Pope Francis’s modest lifestyle has certainly impressed many Catholics, as photos have surfaced of Francis riding the subway in Buenos Aires.
While Thévenot’s initial reaction to the new pope was surprise at his age -- at 76, Francis is only two years younger than his predecessor Benedict XVI was when he became Pope -- Francis’s appearance of good health quickly put him at ease.
Among members of the Prince Albert diocese, reaction to the choice has been overwhelmingly positive.
“I think there’s a lot of excitement and happiness,” Thévenot said. “Yesterday as we watched it on TV and after the white smoke came out and we had the new pope, I got a few phone calls from family and friends. I met people last night and they’re all excited with this new person.
“I think what has touched them most, and what touched me the most, is his simplicity, his openness to the people and wanting to be with the people. He’s a person that would ride around in his bike around the city … and he travelled by bus and he did his own cooking and he lived in his own house.”
Despite his enthusiasm, Thévenot was careful about making any concrete predictions.
“What’s he going to do? We’re going to see. How is he going to do it? We’re going to see … But he will be a humble person.”