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How a low-profile priest transformed into Pope Francis

September 21, 2015 at 6:40 PM EDT

GWEN IFILL: After the pope leaves the nation’s capital, he continues to New York City and Philadelphia. In those cities, he is scheduled to meet with some of the poorest and the most powerless, delivering a message of inclusiveness that has snagged the attention of Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

Judy Woodruff brings us a portrait of the church’s first Latin American pope.

JUDY WOODRUFF: On March 13, 2013, a new pope was elected. Many were surprised to learn he is an Argentine, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the first pope from the Americas, first Jesuit, and first non-European in more than a millennium. His chosen name, Francis, honors Saint Francis of Assisi and his special concern for the poor.

POPE FRANCIS (through interpreter): How I would like a poor church for the poor.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Soon, the new pope’s message of change expanded to include others who had been marginalized: women, the divorced, homosexuals.

When queried about gays, he sent a clear sign of a new approach by asking a provocative question in return.

POPE FRANCIS (through interpreter): If someone is gay and seeks God and has goodwill, who am I to judge?

JUDY WOODRUFF: His statements on women’s roles also made headlines.

POPE FRANCIS (through interpreter): Women in the church are more important than bishops and priests. I think we are missing a theological explanation on this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But critics say not much has actually changed in terms of doctrine, for example, that women can never become priests.

MARIE DENNIS, Co-President, Pax Christi International: I don’t think that there is yet any signal that the deep, rich, important voice of women in the Catholic Church is going to be heard.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Marie Dennis is co-president of Pax Christi International, the Catholic peace and justice movement.

MARIE DENNIS: I am hopeful that Pope Francis will bring a change in the Catholic Church in terms of its relationship with the women in the church. But I’m concerned that, so far, that isn’t too evident.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Francis decentralized the hidebound church bureaucracy known as the Curia and accused its members of being careerist and of having spiritual Alzheimer’s.

He moved to clean up the notorious Vatican Bank, firing conservatives and promoting newcomers who share his vision. And he looked to make lasting change around the Vatican’s most shameful and deeply troubling wound, the child sex abuse scandal. American archbishops were forced to resign. A former church ambassador to the Dominican Republic was indicted. A new tribunal was created to investigate top-ranked churchmen.

Still, the efforts were criticized as too little, too late.

GARRY WILLS, Author, “The Future of the Catholic Church with Pope Francis”: I have liberal friends who think he should have come in and just changed the whole proceeding for priest abusers.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Garry Wills is the author of “The Future of the Catholic Church with Pope Francis.”

GARRY WILLS: He’s trying to do something along that line, but there’s nothing that would be adequate, except to fire all the bishops, because they were all complicit in the cover-up.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But if changes in policies have been slow to come, the new pope’s shift in tone and unique pastoral style has not.

Even so, little was known about the unassuming 76-year-old who had spent nearly his entire life in Argentina. An intrigued world wondered, who is Pope Francis?

GARRY WILLS: The secret to him is pretty open. He’s a Christian. He follows Jesus. He talks like Jesus. Jesus talked about the poor. And that’s all the pope is saying. Start with the poor.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Professor Stephen Schneck directs the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at Catholic University.

What do we need to know about this man, in the beginning?

STEPHEN SCHNECK, The Catholic University of America: He’s, you know, a second-generation immigrant. And I think the immigrant experience of Italians in Argentina was unique. And Argentine history was one of the shaping factors here.

It’s a different history than the United States, and, you know, the forces of political life and culture are different than the United States.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Born in Buenos Aires, the eldest son of an Italian immigrant accountant, the pope-to-be graduated secondary school with a chemical technician’s diploma and worked in a lab, as a janitor sweeping floors, and even as a nightclub bouncer, before joining the Jesuits.

Biographer Sergio Rubin:

SERGIO RUBIN, Author, “Pope Francis: Conversations with Jorge Bergoglio” (through interpreter): In just six years, he went from being a priest in a small convent in a province to being archbishop of Buenos Aires and future cardinal primate of Argentina. His career has been meteoric.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In his Argentina, he was known as the slum…

STEPHEN SCHNECK: As the slum bishop, yes.


STEPHEN SCHNECK: Well, because that’s where he — that’s where the center of his gravity was for his time as archbishop.

JUDY WOODRUFF: He quadrupled the number of priests in the slums, lived in a small apartment, rode public transportation and cooked his own meals.

GARRY WILLS: He said, the mark of the shepherd is you have got the smell of the sheep. You have to go out and not only teach, but listen to the people of God. And he said, my ideal of a pastor was a priest I knew who knew who the name of every dog in the slum.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In 2001, Bergoglio was made a cardinal by Pope John Paul II. After John Paul’s death four years later, Cardinal Bergoglio was reportedly a front-runner to replace him, until he asked his peers to vote instead for Joseph Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict XVI.

He wasn’t putting himself forward?

STEPHEN SCHNECK: He wasn’t putting himself forward, but just the reverse.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In the years that followed, Bergoglio remained deliberately low-profile. But once he became pope, Francis signaled he was different, with early gestures, such as washing the feet of prison inmates and those with disabilities.

MAN: Coming to America. Pope Francis will be heading to Philadelphia.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The pope’s first ever visit to the U.S. will include a rare trip to speak to a joint session of Congress, following an invitation from House Speaker John Boehner.

The speaker released this video in anticipation of the papal visit:

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), Speaker of the House: There’s a lot of interest in what the pope is saying, his outreach to the poor, the fact that, you know, people ought to be more religious. He’s got some other positions that are a bit more controversial, but it’s the pope.

GARRY WILLS: What he will want to do is heal. He’s not a bomb-thrower, and he will not come to insult anybody.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But Francis has not been shy about taking on controversial political issues. Most notably, he has spoken out about climate change and the negative impact of global capitalism.

His recent encyclical highlighted humanity’s role in global warming and he urged leaders to act.

POPE FRANCIS (through interpreter): This home of ours is being ruined. And that damages everyone, especially the poor.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The encyclical calls for radical changes to the global economic system. So does Canadian activist Naomi Klein, whose bestseller “This Changes Everything” blames capitalism for ruining the Earth, and led her to joining the pope’s team of advisers.

NAOMI KLEIN, Author: And I think that the encyclical is just kind of a truth bomb. Like, it’s just — it just has the force of coming from a place that isn’t about appeasing public opinion, but is just about trying to tell powerful truths. And when people, when powerful people start telling powerful truths, it’s contagious.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It is his identification with the poor that most differentiates Pope Francis. His remarks on inequality and the excesses of modern capitalism have been forceful, and he has attacked supply-side economics, policies that call for tax cuts for the rich, as a near-sacrilegious heresy.

STEPHEN SCHNECK: For him, these are primarily moral issues. He is, in fact, speaking as a pastor when he is reminding us of the moral cost of our economy, of the profound moral dimension of caring for creation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Most recently, Francis called upon Catholic parishes and religious communities to take in refugees who are pouring out of the Middle East. Who is Pope Francis? To a great extent, he remains an image we create for ourselves.

STEPHEN SCHNECK: Pope Francis is the conscience for this age of the world.

NAOMI KLEIN: He is a man in a hurry.

MARIE DENNIS: Pope Francis is a breath of fresh air.

GARRY WILLS: I think of him as kind of the Joan Rivers: Can we talk?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Whatever the pope has to say during this visit to the United States, one thing seems certain: He is already a transformative figure.

And, finally, it’s way too early to ask this question. What’s his legacy likely to be?

STEPHEN SCHNECK: What he has done, I think, is he has transformed the Catholic attitude towards the world. He’s calling us to the margins and to the marginalized. And that is, of course, the oldest Christian message.

GWEN IFILL: You can follow all our coverage of the pope’s U.S. visit online at