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New pope's views bind simplicity with 'complexity'

Friday - 3/15/2013, 6:08am  ET

In this 2008 photo, Argentina's Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, second from left, travels on the subway in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Bergoglio, named pope on Wednesday, March 13, 2013, was known for taking the subway and mingling with the poor of Buenos Aires while archbishop. Bergoglio chose the name Pope Francis and is the first pope ever from the Americas. (AP Photo/Pablo Leguizamon)

Associated Press

VATICAN CITY (AP) -- At gatherings of Latin American bishops, then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was often a star speaker about economic inequities in a profit-driven world. He also has used the forums to warn fellow church leaders about drifting from core Catholic values and teachings.

The twin messages are now expected to frame the beginning of the papacy of Pope Francis: Reinforcing the Vatican's views on issues such as birth control and women's ordination that will disappoint reform-minded followers, yet showing an activist streak that could hearten others pushing for greater attention to problems that include poverty and international debt.

These broad ideological strokes -- drawn clearly over decades in the Argentine church -- will likely be accompanied by growing nuances and initiatives demanded by the modern papacy that requires diplomatic skill, managerial acumen and a degree of pastoral flair.

His emphasis on clerical simplicity and populism, including efforts to keep divorced Catholics and unmarried mothers in the church's fold, could raise alarms among staunch conservatives about a reorientation of Vatican priorities after eight years of strict guidance under Benedict XVI, who spent most of his Vatican career as the main doctrinal enforcer.

Through lesser-known gestures and comments in the past, the first Latin American pontiff also has shown an inclination to expand interfaith outreach to Islam and Judaism, and efforts to further close the nearly 1,000-year estrangement with the Orthodox churches. The pope's historical namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, is described in church lore as walking unarmed to meet an Islamic ruler during the 13th century Crusades in a gesture of respect and shared humanity.

In his first Mass on Thursday as pope, Francis reinforced his pastoral priorities and service during a brief homily in the Sistine Chapel that was simple and inclusive, calling on all Catholics to help "build" the church and "walk" with the faith. Without such collective spirit, he said the underpinnings grow weak.

"What happens when children build sand castles on the beach?" he told the congregation that included the cardinals who elected him. "It all comes down."

The pope then showed a sterner side by citing the words of French writer Leon Bloy, an agnostic who experienced a strong religious conversion before his death in 1917: "He who doesn't pray to the Lord prays to the devil."

"To focus on the new pope only as a traditionalist is wrong, as is only to focus on him as a champion for economic justice," said Ambrogio Piazzoni, a church historian and vice-prefect of the Vatican library. "He is both and much more. This will be a papacy of complexity."

A Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Thomas Rosica, described the initial period of any papacy as "days of surprise."

But core elements of Pope Francis' pontificate are already informed by his Jesuit order. Its nearly 500-year history has been marked by hostility from the Vatican over perceived disobedience and independent-minded theological interpretations, although in recent decades, there has been a growing sense of cooperation and common purpose.

The Jesuit ethos is built strongly around academic rigor and missionary service -- and since the 1960s an association with so-called liberation theology, a Latin American-inspired view that Jesus' teachings imbue followers with a duty to fight for social and economic justice.

Francis has disavowed liberation theology as a misguided strain of Catholic tenets. But that does not mean he also rejects the ultimate goal. His addresses and homilies often circle back to the need for the church to rivet its attention on issues of economic failings, including the growing divides between the comfortable and needy, and the pressures of Western-style capitalism.

Such views are likely to play an increasingly high profile in Vatican affairs -- and win praise from some liberal factions in the church -- in contrast to Benedict, who spoke about issues of poverty but without Francis' credibility and direct links to grassroots church initiatives.

At a meeting of Latin American bishops in 2007, the future pope called on the church to purge the "social sin" of chronic poverty and economic inequality.

Irish Cardinal Sean Brady, who is among the church leaders alleged to have covered up sex abuse scandals, called the selection of the Buenos Aires archbishop a "historic decision in a number of ways." It acknowledges the church's demographic shifts in which nearly 40 percent of Catholics live in Latin America, and it also picks a Jesuit for the first time.

Jesuits "are renowned for their teaching, servants of the pope, but also for the witness, certainly in our country, to the need to witness to the poor and caring for the weak and speaking for justice," Brady told reporters in Rome.

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