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Argentine Faithful Hope Pope Francis Can Reform Vatican Transparency

March 14, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Pope Francis is the first pontiff to hail from Argentina. He's also a huge soccer fan. For more on the pope's South American roots and his home country's reaction to the papal election, as well as the intersection of religion, populism and politics there, Jeffrey Brown talks with Hugh Bronstein of Reuters from Buenos Aires.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Outside of Rome, perhaps no group was more excited about the choice for pope than Catholics in Argentina.

A short time ago, I talked with Hugh Bronstein of Reuters in Buenos Aires.

Hugh Bronstein, welcome.

So, 24 hours later, what’s been the reaction there in Argentina?

HUGH BRONSTEIN, Reuters: Well, at first, it was stunned silence. Then it gave way very quickly to jubilation.

The faithful in Argentina really believe that this is the right pope to do what needs to be done at the Vatican, to improve transparency and get back to the Gospels.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, there’s been much attention to the new pope’s simple lifestyle, his work with the poor. How has that manifested itself in his life and work in Argentina?

HUGH BRONSTEIN: Well, this is a soccer-crazy country.

And when it came out yesterday that he is a card-carrying rank-and-file fan of San Lorenzo, one of the top five teams here in Argentina, people went nuts. Twitter went wild. And it came out as well that he has a very unassuming kind of a lifestyle. His apartment is very close to the neighborhood where the headquarters of San Lorenzo is.

He takes the bus to work, if not the subway. On the bus and on the subway, if the team did well the night before, he talks with his friends, his fellow commuters, if you will, about the triumphs or the disappointments of the San Lorenzo football team. That puts him in very good stead here in Argentina.

JEFFREY BROWN: His appointment as pope also re-raised some long, ongoing questions about the role of the church, about his own stance during the years of the military dictatorship, the so-called dirty war of the 1970s.

What is known and what has been debated and looked at there?

HUGH BRONSTEIN: Well, that’s a very serious concern.

So far, I can tell you that there is no smoking gun that really stands up when you take away the politics. A book was written called “The Silence” about his performance during the dictatorship. The accusation postulated in the book is that he didn’t properly protect two Jesuit priests who were ministering in the poor neighborhoods and basically allowed them to be taken away and imprisoned by the dictatorship.

His allies contest that — that version. There will be very deep investigations into that period, but so far no smoking gun.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Pope Francis is described as theologically conservative. And I gather you have seen this in Argentina in his disputes more recently, for example, with recent governments, including the current president.

Tell us how that has played out. What kind of issues?

HUGH BRONSTEIN: Sure.

This is a progressive country. It’s a Catholic country, but it’s a progressive country as well. The president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, sent a letter of congratulations to the pope yesterday. It was only two sentences long. This is the first pope to be elected outside of Europe in 1,300 years, the first from Latin America, the first Jesuit, the first from Argentina. One would have thought that maybe three sentences would have been merited under the circumstances.

But it was two rather frosty sentences, which says a lot about the rather distant relationship that she has had in her six years in power with the pope. He spearheaded the opposition to her bill which became law in 2010 legalizing gay marriage. And there’s been — there’s been a distant relationship ever since then.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, briefly, Hugh, if you could, finally, how does that play out? You started to talk a little bit about Argentina. It’s a Catholic country, but more liberal socially. How does the — what is the role of the church there these days? How is it seen?

HUGH BRONSTEIN: Well, if you ask the average Argentine are you Catholic, the answer is absolutely yes. But not that many people go church here? They don’t go to mass on Sundays. You don’t see huge crowds at mass.

Other countries in Latin America, Colombia, Mexico, Central America, are countries where you see a much bigger presence day to day of the Catholic Church. So keep in mind, this is the land of Evita. This is a place, this is a country a little bit of populism goes a long way. And the fact that he’s taking the subway to work, the fact that he’s a rank-and-file soccer fan is going to bridge the gap.

And it shows a certain amount of political skill on his part that he knows that he’s in a country that is Catholic, but is one of the most progressive countries in Latin America. And so he’s doing what he can to bridge the gap, and that’s what he’s known for.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Hugh Bronstein of Reuters in Buenos Aires, thank you very much.

HUGH BRONSTEIN: Thank you.