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Adept at keeping out of trouble: Pope Francis at his inauguration (photo: Austrian Foreign Ministry CC BY-SA 2.0)

The objection to Cardinal Bergoglio’s election as pope in 2013 was, and is, not to his person but to his nationality. Anyone who comes from Argentina is bound to bring with him liabilities and dangers. The original settlers from Spain “solved” the indigenous Indian problem by exterminating them. The country then became a virtual British colony, capital and expertise from the UK financing its superb cattle-breeding estancias, building its excellent railway system and making it, thanks to the invention of refrigerated ships built in Britain, the largest meat-exporter globally in history. In the 1930s it was the ninth richest country in the world, and as large a focus of immigration (chiefly from Italy) as the United States.

Then came Perón. He never forgave the Jockey Club for turning him down: he, his appalling wife, and their insensate followers comprehensively wrecked the Argentine economy and all its constitutional institutions — a good example of the destructive power of anti-snobbery. The country has never recovered, oscillating between democracy and military rule, mired in bottomless corruption, and with a credit rating poisoned by endemic inflation. It is a tragedy without a mitigating feature, for the land is rich and the people, on the whole, intelligent and well-educated. Buenos Aires has the world’s biggest annual book fair, which attracts three million people, and its bohemian elegance is without rival in the southern hemisphere. But nearly all the Argentines also have a streak of noisy bellicosity which leads them to quarrel with their neighbours (and creditors), usually about trivial matters like the Falklands.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio, whose parents were part of the inter-war immigration from Italy and who was born in 1936, decided to become a Jesuit in 1958. He went through their arduous 15-year training programme, becoming a priest in 1969 and making his final vows in 1973. He took degrees in Chile, Spain and Buenos Aires, and must have been an outstanding student, for he progressed rapidly from novice-master to professor, rector of the chief Jesuit college, and, in 1973, only three months after he took his final vows, was made Provincial, or head, of the Argentine Jesuits, a post he held for six years.

As Provincial he gained a reputation for ruthlessness in cracking down on the tendency of the young Jesuits to follow too literally the “option for the poor” which the Society adopted as its contribution to the spirit of the Second Vatican Council. In 1976 there was a military coup, and the junta arrested, tortured, and in some cases killed priests who had moved too far to the Left. Bergoglio was much criticised for not always doing his utmost to protect Jesuits who had fallen foul of the junta, two in particular being often cited. Both were eventually released after pressure from the Vatican itself. One left the priesthood and never forgave Bergoglio; the other was reconciled after many years. After he ceased to be Provincial, Bergoglio’s career stalled during the 1980s, by no means unusual for a high-flying Jesuit, the Society having a practice of “cutting down to size” the climbers. He was eventually rescued by the hierarchy of the Church, being made an auxiliary bishop in 1992, and thereafter progressing to full bishop, archbishop and cardinal. He was fancied as papabile during the conclave that elected the German Benedict XVI, and finally got the tiara in 2013 when pressure to elect a Third World pope became irrestistible.

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