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Pope Francis’ pontificate hit its first roadbump with allegations that the future pope was complicit with Argentinia’s military regime and its “dirty war” more than 30 years ago.

The Vatican reacted with unusual vehemence in rejecting those claims, citing statements from human rights activists and fellow Jesuits.

“The accusations refer to the time before Jorge Mario Bergoglio became bishop [of Buenos Aires], when he was Provincial Superior of the Jesuits in Argentina and accuse him of not having protected two priests who were kidnapped,” the Vatican spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, told reporters Friday.

“This was never a concrete or credible accusation in his regard. He was questioned by an Argentinian court as someone aware of the situation but never as a defendant. He has, in documented form, denied any accusations,” he said.

“Instead, there have been many declarations demonstrating how much Bergoglio did to protect many persons at the time of the military dictatorship. Bergoglio’s role, once he became bishop, in promoting a request for forgiveness of the Church in Argentina for not having done enough at the time of the dictatorship is also well-known,” Father Lombardi said.

In an inquest into those years, Cardinal Bergoglio testified in 2010 that he had asked for the release of two Jesuits kidnapped by the military and held for several months. He said he had helped hide others from the military or escape the country.

One of those two Jesuits told reporters in Germany that he had long ago reconciled with Bergoglio.

For the Vatican, this was old news. The same accusations surfaced in 2005, when Cardinal Bergoglio’s name circulated as a potential candidate in the conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI.

Father Lombardi went on to say that the repetition of these allegations was motivated by anticlericalism.

“The accusations pertain to a use of historical-sociological analysis of the dictatorship period made years ago by anticlerical elements to attack the Church. They must be firmly rejected,” he said.

That seemed a bit of an odd note, and unnecessary. Why not simply stick to the facts instead of casting this an ideological battle?

More than 20,000 political opponents of the military regime in Argentina “disappeared” and were believed to have been killed by the regime.

  • John Thavis

A new pontificate is judged chiefly on gestures, words and decisions.

Through his gestures, Pope Francis has already won the hearts of many inside and outside the church. Wearing his old black shoes, riding the bus and paying his pensione bill immediately announced a new and simpler style of papacy.

In a world that communicates largely in images, this is no small matter. “Jesus was born in a manger” is sometimes heard sarcastically by visitors to the Vatican’s rather opulent chambers, and a pope who dials down the extravagance will have a positive reception.

On Thursday, we heard some of the first words from Pope Francis, in a homily to the cardinals who elected him the 266th pontiff. The words were challenging, and gave a clue to the kind of “reforms” Francis may have in mind. (It was interesting that the pope set aside a draft text prepared in advance for this occasion, and preferred to speak off-the-cuff.)

His basic point was that a church that doesn’t remain true to the message of “Christ on the cross” risks drifting into a worldly way of thinking that ultimately leads nowhere.

A church that builds structures without the firm foundation of faith, he said, is like “children on the beach when they build sandcastles: everything is swept away.” Without professing Christ, the church would become merely a “charitable NGO.”

He then quoted Léon Bloy, a French agnostic who converted to Catholicism: “Anyone who does not pray to the Lord prays to the devil.”

“When we do not profess Jesus Christ, we profess the worldliness of the devil, a demonic worldliness,” the pope said.

And more: “When we profess Christ without the Cross, we are not disciples of the Lord, we are worldly: we may be bishops, priests, cardinals, popes, but not disciples of the Lord.”

These are words – the devil! – that may strike listeners as severe. Some may even see an implication that anything outside the church is beyond salvation.

I think what the pope was signaling was something different. I think he was speaking above all to the cardinals in the room, and letting them know that the church reforms he has in mind are not going to be coming out of a management manual, but will be motivated by the most radical demands of the Gospel.

‘We are brothers’

Today the pope gave a very different kind of talk, when he met with cardinals – both electors in the conclave and those over the age of 80. He had a text but departed from it often, speaking in a conversational style.

He kept emphasizing that “we are brothers” and a “community of friends” – perhaps a signal of how he views collegiality.

And he talked frankly about the fact that this was, after all, a gathering of a pretty elderly group.

“Dear brothers, maybe half of us are in old age. Old age is the seat of the wisdom of life. We have the wisdom of having walked through life like Simeon and Anna at the temple. Let us give this wisdom to the youth, like good wine, that with age becomes even better.”

Pope Francis also acknowledged the generally sympathetic international reaction to his election.

“I felt the affection of the universal church,” and even from people who do not share the Catholic faith, he said. “From every corner of the earth I felt prayers for the new pope.”

He indicated he would try to build on that affection, and he encouraged the cardinals to do the same. “Let’s never give to pessimism, to that bitterness that the devil offers us every day.” (Yes, “the devil” again.)

Neither of these first two talks was exactly a “state of the church” address, or an outline of what he sees as his priorities. Maybe we’ll get that at his installation Mass next week, maybe not. Pope Francis appears to be a man of few words, and as someone told me today, he likes short liturgies.

Waiting for first appointments

The new pope’s first major decisions will probably be his appointments, in particular that of secretary of state. He clearly needs someone in that position who knows the Roman Curia well enough to navigate its tricky currents, and make reforms without too much collateral damage.

One Italian who might fit the bill is Archbishop Claudio Celli, who heads the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. A seasoned diplomat who was stationed in Argentina (and who knew then-Father Bergoglio) during the years of the military dictatorship, Celli later worked as a top foreign affairs official in the Secretariat of State, handling Chinese and East European affairs, among others.

Later, he was for years secretary of the Vatican’s investment and accounting office. As president of the communications council, he has pushed for a greater Vatican presence in social media and helped launch the pope’s Twitter account.

The pope’s advice to Argentine Catholics

The Vatican today confirmed that the night of his election, Pope Francis suggested to Argentine Catholics that instead of making the very expensive trip to Rome for his inaugural Mass next week, they stay home and make an offering to the poor.

That’s very much in line with the pope’s attitude and actions as an archbishop in Buenos Aires (though it probably did not endear the new pontiff with Rome’s tourist and pilgrim industry.)

One of the first things a new pope hears is, “Holy Father, it’s always done this way.”

In his first 24 hours in office, Pope Francis has already given indications that he may not be intimidated by those words, as he creates his own style of being pope.

That was clear from the moment he put on his papal robes, donning the simple white cassock but declining to wear the ermine-trimmed red cape known as the mozzetta, which was left hanging on the wardrobe in the Room of Tears.

To Vatican officials who offered him an elaborate gold pectoral cross to wear around the neck, he said he’d prefer to keep his very simple cross that he’s worn as a bishop. He accepted the congratulations of cardinals not seated on a traditional throne-like chair, but standing up and greeting them one by one.

After his blessing last night to the crowd in St. Peter’s Square and to the world, Vatican aides told the pope a limousine was waiting to take him to his temporary quarters in the Vatican’s residence building. The new pope said he’d rather take the bus back with the cardinals – and he did.

This morning, the pope’s first act was to leave the Vatican for an impromptu visit to the Basilica of Saint Mary Major in central Rome. No doubt someone told him: “But Holy Father, we need time to plan these visits very carefully.” He wisely didn’t listen. Yes, his presence snarled traffic and caused a major stir, but the Romans loved it.

Instead of taking the main car in the papal fleet, a Mercedes with the “SCV 1” license plate, he rode in a more modest sedan.

On the way inside the basilica, he stopped to wave to high school students across the street. After praying before a popular icon of Mary, he told confessors at the church to “be merciful, the souls of the faithful need your mercy.”

Then he stopped personally at a clerical guest house where he had been staying in recent days, a few steps from Piazza Navona, to pick up his suitcases and “pay his bill,” as he told cardinals the night before. One can presume his Vatican handlers offered to send someone else on this humdrum task, but Pope Francis did it his way.

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