Vatican City: A squall of fresh air with a distinct Latin American feel tore through the Vatican on the election of Pope Francis, a passionate Argentine whose defense of the downtrodden has stirred hearts across the world.
On his return to the continent this week with a trip to Catholic majority Chile and Peru, Francis will not only speak his native Spanish but also a vibrant spiritual and cultural language common to all.
“I feel free, nothing scares me,” the pontiff once said, despite shouldering the burden of leading the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics, nearly half of whom live in the Americas.
It was a typically American expression according to fellow Argentine, Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, who has known Francis for decades.
“North and South America are both societies with European origins that have realized they need independence. The idea of freedom is the cornerstone of the Americas,” the philosophy professor told AFP.
The first pope to address the United States congress has “a strong sense of human dignity and freedom,” he says.
But while one of the Americas has prospered, the other has become increasingly impoverished.
“The pope is very sensitive to the issue of social justice — a more Latin than North American theme, hence the interest he has for the ‘peripheries’ in difficulty,” Sorondo said, referring to Francis’s support for those on the margins.
The Archbishop of Buenos Aires was virtually an unknown when he was elected on March 13, 2013, becoming the first pope to choose the name Francis — a homage to St. Francis of Assisi, who dedicated his life to the poor.
The Argentine hails from a family of Italian immigrants and became “a sort of link between the Old World and the New World,” says Giovanni Maria Vian, editor of the Vatican’s L’Osservatore Romano newspaper.
However, “the dramatic history of Argentina at the end of the 20th century is what shapes his personal trajectory,” he says in the preface to a book called “Francis, the American pope.”
In 2007, Jorge Bergoglio was elected by his fellow bishops in Aparecida in Brazil to draw up the final document of the Latin American Episcopal Council, which can be read as a guide to many of the themes dearest to him.
Bergoglio stressed the ills of a “scandalous inequality which wounds personal dignity,” a theme which “clearly guides his actions at the head of the church today,” Vatican specialist Nicolas Seneze writes in “The Words of the Pope.”
The Aparecida conference “prioritized the poor,” Sarondo said.
“The pope is very critical of capitalism which sacrifices human rights — a typical stance of the Latin American episcopate,” he added.
While Polish pope John Paul II had denounced “wild capitalism,” Francis has taken more concrete steps, such as calling for “a poor church for the poor” and turning down a luxurious papal apartment for a humble hotel room, he said.
Bergoglio was an active pastor, taking the bus around Buenos Aires and heading without a second thought into slums in Latin America to comfort the poor.
His experience of the Argentine economic crisis has also shaped his idea of “the misery of big cities,” which fatally attract poor farmers from the countryside in search of a better life, stripping them of their culture.
His vision was strongly influenced by the “theology of the people,” the Argentine, non-violent version of the South American Liberation theology — a strain without the focus on the Marxist class struggle.
And since his arrival in Rome, the pope has created new Latin American cardinals, saying “they bring with them the air of new churches and of a history of faith and of blood.”
In doing so, he is also reshaping in his image the conclave of cardinals that will elect his successor.