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Argentina’s Cardinal Bergoglio Is First South American, First Jesuit Pontiff

March 13, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
The election of Pope Francis marked two firsts for the papal office: he is both the first South American and the first Jesuit pope. For more on the historic selection and what it reflects about the current state of the Catholic Church, Gwen Ifill talks with Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter.

GWEN IFILL: Pope Francis will be formally installed on Tuesday. Vice President Joe Biden will lead the U.S. delegation.

We get more now on the historic selection of Pope Francis from Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter.


MICHAEL SEAN WINTERS, National Catholic Reporter: Good to be here.

GWEN IFILL: The first obvious question is, who is he?

MICHAEL SEAN WINTERS: Some of us are all scrambling. I think he was a surprise choice in part because of his age.

What we have learned is he’s a very simple and A humble man who, when he became the archbishop of Buenos Aires, chose not to live in the big mansion, but got a small apartment. He takes public transportation and did away with the limousine. He’s obviously doctrinally conservative. And I think you will see — none of the candidates were what we in America would consider doctrinal liberals.

And most importantly he’s from Latin America, and for the last 50 years the issue that the Latin American bishops have been dealing with is what does the preferential option for the poor mean and trying to wrestle with that on — theologically, but also practically?

Is it going to be just words, or is it really going to galvanize the church to care for the poor?

GWEN IFILL: Was it also important that the pope come from an area of the world where there is growth, population growth in the church?


I think this gets to the heart of the Gospel, which is good news for the poor. And I think sometimes in America and in Western Europe, we’re simply too affluent to really hear it anymore in the way it was intended. But, in Africa, Latin America, where there are desperately poor people, for them it is still good news.

GWEN IFILL: But he has no Roman experience, as it’s known, that is, work inside the Vatican. He didn’t come from that experience. Does that put him at a disadvantage at all?

MICHAEL SEAN WINTERS: And this is the danger is obviously he — although he’s been on several congregations as a cardinal, so he might know his way around, he’s never worked in Rome.

And the danger is that the old guard will say, you know, we’re not going to tell you where the bathroom is unless you do what we want. So we will see. But he’s a very strong leader in Buenos Aires, has a reputation as a decisive man, and I suspect has a mandate from the cardinals to clean up some of the messes that are there.

GWEN IFILL: One of the things he said when he came out in the square today was — or on the balcony — was that he would be the new bishop of Rome. He specifically talked about the city of Rome. What was that about?

MICHAEL SEAN WINTERS: Again, this is our hope. And at this point it’s all speculation.

On too — there’s been so much centralization in the Catholic Church in Rome over the last 150 years. And I think bishops out trying to do their best don’t want to be considered just branch managers. The bishop of Rome is the pope, but that doesn’t mean you’re the bishop of the entire world. And too many pontiffs have acted in that way and been not giving local bishops the authority and the decision-making power that I think that they want. And, hopefully, he will pursue that kind of a decentralization of authority.

GWEN IFILL: Now, even though Pope Francis wasn’t the front-runner, if there is such a thing, since we don’t really know what goes on inside that conclave, he’s still considered or it’s been reported that he was the runner-up in 2005 to Pope Benedict.

MICHAEL SEAN WINTERS: It’s hard to interpret that.

One wonders — you know, those were 40 votes that he supposedly got in 2005 who were not voting for Joseph Ratzinger, and that may indicate a certain amount of change. I just — I want to caution. I think a lot of Americans think, oh, when they think of reform and change, they think we’re going to have women priests. That wasn’t a realistic expectation, given the cardinals who were in there.

I think what they mean by reform touched on other issues, partly reorganization of the Curia, its relationships with local bishops, and again, are we going to focus a little bit less maybe on the traditional Latin mass and a little bit more on caring for the poor?

GWEN IFILL: So this is not a pope or a papacy where we’re going to see any kind of change when it comes to things like abortion or …


GWEN IFILL: … gay marriage …


GWEN IFILL: … or adoption or any of those social issues that get us so worked up, especially in the United States?


And these are not issues in the Latin American church. When 50 percent of your people are living below the poverty line, shame on you if you’re worried about other issues like that. You have got to be very hands-on worried about feeding your people so they don’t go to bed hungry at night.

GWEN IFILL: He was quoted as saying not too long ago, “If the church remains closed in on itself, self-referential, it gets old.”

Does that hearken some sort of change that’s imminent?

MICHAEL SEAN WINTERS: You know, my worry is that the church sometimes does become very self-referential.

And when they talk about the new evangelization, they reduce it to like teaching bishops how to use Twitter. And it has to mean more than that. It’s curious he chose the name Francis. Francis actually faced a very corrupt church and a very degenerate culture in his day. And he changed it by kissing a leper.

GWEN IFILL: We’re talking about St. Francis of Assisi.

MICHAEL SEAN WINTERS: St. Francis, right.

And that’s how the church changes, that’s how the church reforms, is by becoming again the gospel church that reaches out to the poor and embraces them and loves them.

GWEN IFILL: We have to go back a little bit to this process and how he came to be pope. Was there anybody besides Americans — were there anyone besides Americans who thought an American would be pope?

MICHAEL SEAN WINTERS: There was evidently a strong candidacy for Cardinal O’Malley. It was being pushed by an African cardinal and a couple of …

GWEN IFILL: The Boston archbishop.

MICHAEL SEAN WINTERS: Yes, and a couple Latin American cardinals who were big fans of Cardinal O’Malley.

We will find out within the next couple of weeks, get estimations and guesses about what the vote totals were. But I think that was a real — there was a real buzz there. That wasn’t just the media.


Michael Sean Winters of National Catholic Reporter, thank you so much.