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Pope Francis: Simple image, complex past

Thursday - 3/14/2013, 12:54am  ET

Pope Francis flanked by Monsignor Guido Marini, master of liturgical ceremonies, waves to the crowd from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, Wednesday, March 13, 2013. Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, who chose the name of Francis is the 266th pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)
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BRIAN MURPHY
Associated Press

VATICAN CITY (AP) -- On the streets in Buenos Aires, the stories about the cardinal who would become the first pope from the Americas often include a very ordinary backdrop: The city bus during rush hour.

Tales are traded about chatting with Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio as he squeezed in with others for the commute to work. They sometimes talk about church affairs. Other times it could be about what he planned to cook for dinner in the simple downtown apartment he chose over an opulent church estate.

Or perhaps it was a mention of his affection for the tango, which he said he loved as a youth despite having one lung removed following an infection.

On the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica just after a rain shower Wednesday, wearing unadorned white robes, the new Pope Francis also appeared to strike the same tone of simplicity and pastoral humility for a church desperate to move past the tarnished era of abuse scandals and internal Vatican upheavals.

While the new pontiff is not without some political baggage, including questions over his role during a military dictatorship in Argentina in the 1970s, the selection of the 76-year-old Bergoglio reflected a series of history-making decisions by fellow cardinals who seemed determined to offer a suggestion of renewal to a church under pressures on many fronts.

"He is a real voice for the voiceless and vulnerable," said Kim Daniels, director of Catholic Voices USA, a pro-church group. "That is the message."

Pope Francis, the first from Latin America and the first from the Jesuit order, bowed to the crowds in St. Peter's Square and asked for their blessing in a hint of the humble style he cultivated while trying to modernize Argentina's conservative Roman Catholic Church and move past a messy legacy of alleged complicity during the rule of the military junta of 1976-83.

"Brothers and sisters, good evening," he said before making a reference to his roots in Latin America, which accounts for about 40 percent of the world's Roman Catholics.

Groups of supporters waved the white-and-blue Argentine flags in St. Peter's Square as Francis made his first public appearance as pope. Bergoglio reportedly had envoys urge Argentines not to fly to Rome to celebrate his papacy, but instead donate money to the poor.

In taking the name Francis, he drew connections to the 13th century St. Francis of Assisi, who saw his calling as trying to rebuild the simple spirit of the church and devote his life to missionary journeys. It also evokes references to Francis Xavier, one of the 16th century founders of the Jesuit order that is known for its scholarship and outreach.

Francis, the son of middle-class Italian immigrants, came close to becoming pope during the last conclave in 2005. He reportedly gained the second-highest vote total in several rounds of voting before he bowed out of the running before selection of Vatican insider Joseph Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict XVI.

By returning to Bergoglio, the conclave confounded speculation that it would turn to a younger candidate more attuned to younger elements in the church and with possibly more stamina for the rigors of the modern papacy with nearly nonstop obligations and frequent global travel. Francis appears in good health, but his age and possible limitations from his single lung raise questions about whether he can face the demands of the position.

Unlike many of the other papal contenders, Bergoglio never held a top post inside the Vatican administration, or curia. This outsider status could pose obstacles in attempts to reform the Vatican, which has been hit with embarrassing disclosures from leaked documents alleging financial cover-ups and internal feuds.

But the conclave appeared more swayed by Bergoglio's reputation for compassion on issues such as poverty and the effects of globalization, and his fealty to traditional church teachings such as opposition to birth control.

His overriding image, though, is built around his leaning toward austerity. The motto chosen for his archdiocese is "Miserando Atque Eligendo," or "Lowly but Chosen."

Even after he became Argentina's top church official in 2001, he never lived in the ornate church mansion where Pope John Paul II stayed when visiting the country, preferring a simple bed in a downtown building, warmed by a small stove on frigid weekends when the building turned off the heat. For years, he took public transportation around the city, and cooked his own meals.

He accused fellow church leaders of hypocrisy and forgetting that Jesus Christ bathed lepers and ate with prostitutes.

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