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Kagan McLeod for The National
Kagan McLeod for The National

Newsmaker: The Pope

The respected head of the Roman Catholic church has outdone all manner of pop culture and world news events to become the internet’s hottest topic in 2013, not to mention Time magazine’s Person of the Year, writes Colin Randall.

Among savvy members of Facebook’s global army of a billion-plus users, few eyebrows will have been raised at the presence of Nelson Mandela, the Philippines typhoon, Miley Cyrus and Britain’s royal baby in the social network’s top-10 topics of online chatter.

But ahead of them all was an elderly man of simple tastes but high office.

Nine months into the papacy, Pope Francis has become an unexpected phenomenon of social media. Facebook’s own researchers calculate that he has driven more conversations than anyone or anything else in 2013.

Facebook is not alone. The Global Language Monitor, which scrutinises online activity in English, has named him as the year’s most popular person on the internet. Now, Time magazine has made him its Person of the Year.

Elected in March, the 76-year-old leader of the Catholic Church owes this huge interest in large measure to his well-documented concern for the poor, the sick and the oppressed.

Pope Francis opted to reside in an official Vatican guesthouse – “comfortable, but by no means deluxe,” according to Mary Ann Glendon, a former US ambassador to the Holy See – rather than the papal apartments of the Apostolic Palace favoured by his predecessors. He has a long record of tending to the diseased and impoverished. His first pastoral visit outside of Rome took him to the Italian island of Lampedusa, where many illegal Muslim immigrants land from Africa after taking to dangerously rickety boats in search of new lives in Europe.

And he has shown a passionate desire to reach out to those of other faiths, in particular Muslims.

Among his first pronouncements was a call for more intense dialogue with Muslims. He also talked of taking deep satisfaction from the attendance of “so many civil and religious leaders from the Islamic world” at his installation mass.

To the Muslim community in the pope’s native Argentina, the outstretched hand of friendship came as little surprise. As the archbishop of Buenos Aires, he incurred sharp Vatican disapproval – and, reportedly, was close to being removed from his post – after criticising comments made in 2006 by the previous pope that were widely seen as hostile to Islam.

Quoting from a medieval document in a lecture at an old academic haunt, the University of Regensburg in Germany, Pope Benedict had repeated a description of the Prophet Mohammed as “evil and inhuman”. The remark outraged Muslims and also prompted the Argentinian archbishop to declare that such sentiments would “serve to destroy in 20 seconds the careful construction of a relationship with Islam that Pope John Paul II built over the last 20 years”.

Benedict later apologised for the offence caused. His staff pointed out that the words reflected not his own thoughts but the ”astoundingly harsh – to us surprisingly harsh” view of the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus, one of the last Christian rulers before the fall of Constantinople to the Muslim Ottoman Empire in 1453.

But the episode reinforced the admiration felt by senior Argentinian Muslims, representing an estimated 450,000 people, or one per cent of the total population, for the outspoken, open-minded and sympathetic archbishop destined to be Benedict’s successor.

Dr Sumer Noufouri, the secretary general of the Islamic Centre of the Argentine Republic, told the Buenos Aires Herald that his past actions made his election as pope, for Muslims, a source of “joy and expectation of strengthening dialogue between religions”.

Born Jorge Mario Bergoglio, exactly 77 years ago on Tuesday, in the Argentine capital’s district of Flores, Pope Francis was the eldest of five children of an Italian accountant who, according to one sibling, emigrated to South America in dismay at the rise of fascism in Italy.

He was relatively slow to embrace a life devoted to religion, pursuing technical studies that qualified him as a chemical technician, and also working briefly as a janitor and nightclub bouncer, before joining a Buenos Aires diocesan seminary.

While studying for the priesthood, he confronted a serious challenge to the commitment to celibacy that his vocation demanded.

In a Spanish book translated by the Catholic news website Aleteia, he is quoted as saying: “I was dazzled by a girl I met at an uncle’s wedding. I was surprised by her beauty, her intellectual brilliance ... and, well, I was bowled over for quite a while.

“I kept thinking and thinking about her. When I returned to the seminary after the wedding, I could not pray for over a week because, when I tried to do so, the girl appeared in my head. I had to rethink what I was doing.”

Although he found the strength to conquer his doubts, the young seminarian was left with mixed thoughts on the discipline of clerical celibacy, applied in most branches of the Catholic Church. In the same book, he conceded that married clerics in the Eastern tradition – Ukrainian, Russian or Greek Orthodox churches – are nevertheless “very good priests”. So those seeking reform in Roman Catholicism, he said, had “a certain pragmatism” on their side.

For now, he added, he preferred to keep the celibacy rule “because we have 10 centuries of good experiences rather than failures”, though future change was possible.

Having accepted the rule for himself, Bergoglio soon resumed an orderly career path as an academic and candidate for priesthood. In 1958, he became a novice in the Jesuit congregation of the Catholic Church. Then he studied humanities in Chile, graduated in philosophy in Argentina and taught literature and psychology. He was still working towards a theology degree when he was ordained in late 1969.

For the next 23 years, he combined teaching, preaching, senior Jesuit posts and further learning – including a spell in Ireland to learn English – before becoming the auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires in 1992, then archbishop six years later.

He also presented himself as a robust critic of church acquiescence in the so-called “Dirty War” waged against dissidents by Argentina’s military dictatorship of 1975 to 1983, when tens of thousands of people disappeared, were murdered or tortured by the regime. He stood up for a bishop who had been defrocked for opposing those who held power. And he talked of the church’s need to “put on garments of public penance for the sins committed” during the dictatorship.

Conversely, he was later embroiled in controversy of his own arising from that bleak period. A human-rights lawyer lodged a criminal complaint against him in 2005, effectively accusing him of neglect or worse in the case of two priests kidnapped nearly 30 years earlier.

One of the pair, Orlando Yorio, went to his grave claiming that Bergoglio “did nothing to free us, in fact just the opposite”. The other, Franz Jalics, waited until Bergoglio’s election as pope before stating that they had been implicated by a lay colleague arrested for guerrilla activities. He added, in a follow-up statement: “It is wrong to assert that our capture took place at the initiative of Father Bergoglio ... the fact is, Orlando Yorio and I were not denounced by [him].” The litigation alleging wrongdoing, portrayed on Bergoglio’s behalf as “old slander”, had already been dismissed. Yet questions about whether he knew of abuses by the dictatorship, and did enough to stop them, persist.

It may be that Pope Francis still has hearts to win over. Not every action he has taken – or failed to take – in the past will, to his remaining critics, seem to have been satisfactorily explained. But the broad acclaim that he has won in a modern, online age speaks for itself. His conservative outlook on a range of issues – including abortion and contraception – is balanced by the popular appeal of attacks on the ”tyranny” of ugly aspects of capitalism.

Like Facebook, the Catholic Church has more than a billion followers worldwide. When white puffs of smoke rose from the roof of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel on March 13, denoting that the new pontiff had been chosen, the world was unprepared for its new international face.

He later recalled that as his likely selection as pope became clear, he was hugged by the Brazilian cardinal Cláudio Hummes, who whispered in his ear: “Don’t forget the poor.”

His first decision as pontiff was a direct consequence of that message: he insisted that his papal name should be the one that floated at that moment through his mind: Francis, in honour of Saint Francis of Assisi.

“Those words came to me: the poor, the poor, “ he later told journalists. “Then, right away, thinking of the poor, I thought of Francis of Assisi ... For me, he is the man of poverty, the man of peace.”

The 266th pope, the first from the southern hemisphere, will earn himself a reverential place in history if he can live up to the guiding principles of his inspiration.

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