BUENOS AIRES -- As an undocumented immigrant, Olga Cortez spent a decade toiling in sweat shops, hiding from the law and wondering if her three children were ever going to have a future in this city. So when the man in a black cassock and carrying a small valise got off the bus and walked into the soup kitchen, she found it hard to believe.
“When he opened up his bag he had that tall hat in it,” said Cortez from Bolivia. It was the hat Catholic cardinals wear, and the man wearing it was Argentina’s most powerful religious leader: Jorge Mario Bergoglio. He was there to baptize her daughters.
Bergoglio, 76, became Pope Francis last week in an event that has thrilled the hemisphere and raised questions about his role in Argentina’s troubled past. During his first days as pope, Bergoglio’s humor-filled homilies and stubborn austerity — he refused to ride in the papal limousine, wear a gold cross or traditional red slippers — have surprised many. But in Buenos Aires, people are used to seeing the dry-witted cardinal riding the subway, preaching in slums and ministering to the country’s marginalized.
Bergoglio’s youngest sister, María Elena Bergoglio, 65, said she always called him “His Holiness” in jest, but no one expected him to become the world’s most eminent Catholic.
“He’s always been so modest,” she said.
When she saw him on the balcony of the Vatican on Wednesday as thousands screamed “Long live the Pope!” she was stunned. “I thought ‘You poor wretch, God has pulled a fast one on you.’ ”
Bergoglio became archbishop of Buenos Aires in 1998 and was named cardinal in 2001. The presidential palace can be seen from the steps of the city’s cathedral, and Bergoglio’s sermons often seemed aimed at the couple inside, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and her late husband and predecessor Néstor. Bergoglio preached about the dangers of concentrating power and weakening democratic institutions, and he quietly backed efforts to block Kirchner allies in state races. Néstor Kirchner, who died in 2010, accused then-Cardinal Bergoglio of being the true “leader of the opposition.”
But Bergoglio dedicated much of his time to those without a voice. In 2008, he began collaborating with Fundación Alameda, a charity that rescues victims of human trafficking pressed into labor as prostitutes and sweatshop workers. Alameda staff said Bergoglio would often come in the dead of night to help women escaping violent brothel owners find shelter. He also threw his support behind controversial whistleblowers who claimed the police and powerful politicians were involved in the sex trade. In 2011, he held Mass in front of a sweatshop that had burned down five years earlier, killing seven people. During that sidewalk ceremony, he blasted the justice system for never pressing charges.
“In this Buenos Aires, which is so vain and proud, we still have slaves,” Bergoglio said. “Everything can be fixed in Buenos Aires with a bribe; we’re bribing our souls, and bribes cover everything.”
Cortez, 37, met Bergoglio at Alameda and asked him to baptize her daughters. He told her to choose the time and place.
“He said the church should go to where it’s needed, instead of the people having to go to the church,” she explained. When Cortez said she would like to hold the ceremony at the foundation’s bottom floor, which doubles as a soup-kitchen, and that the godfather was an atheist and the godmother was Jewish, he didn’t balk.
“He didn’t care who we were or where we were from,” Cortez said. “That’s what was special about him.”
Bergoglio was born in Buenos Aires on Dec. 17, 1936, to an Italian father and an Argentine mother. The eldest of five children, he “was just a regular kid,” said his sister, María Elena. He liked to listen to their father’s Italian opera and tango records, and play soccer with friends.
The Bergoglios were regular churchgoers, and their father made his children recite the Rosary everyday when he got home from his accounting job. But if Sundays were sacred, it was because that was the day that the San Lorenzo soccer club played.
Even so, Bergoglio joined the priesthood at 21, shortly after receiving a degree as a chemical technician. It was around the same time that doctors removed one of his lungs after finding a cyst, María Elena said.
After studying in Chile and Spain, and being ordained in 1969, he returned to Argentina in 1972 and was appointed leader of his Jesuit community the following year. It was a dark time in Argentina. From 1976 to 1983, the country was ruled by a military dictatorship that sparked the infamous “Dirty War.” As many as 30,000 people are thought to have died during that period, as the military hauled off “subversives.” The Catholic Church is accused of turning a blind eye to the abuses.
In May 1976, the military detained two Jesuit priests, Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics, amid suspicions they were collaborating with guerrillas. The two men were interrogated for five days and then held blindfolded and shackled for five months before being released, Jalics has said.
Horacio Verbitsky, an author and ally of President Kirchner, maintains that Bergoglio “handed over” the two priests. Others say Bergoglio left them exposed when their mission was shut down two months before their kidnapping.
In 2011, Bergoglio was questioned for four hours behind closed doors about the case. On Saturday, El Clarín newspaper released extracts from that testimony. In it, Bergoglio said he warned the two men that their lives were in danger and that they needed to leave the neighborhood. Once they were detained, he said he met with the military twice to win their release.
Luís Zamora, a human rights lawyer, was among those who questioned Bergoglio at the time. Zamora said Bergoglio’s answers were “evasive and not convincing at all. And he had 20 years to prepare for this.”
“Bergoglio may not have had the power to save lives or keep people from being tortured,” Zamora said, “but he also can’t say that he didn’t know what was happening … I am certain that Bergoglio lied.”
Yorio died in 2000, but on Friday, Jalics, who lives in Germany, released a statement saying that he had no knowledge of Bergoglio’s role at the time but did discuss the issue with him years later. “I am reconciled with the events and, on my part, consider the matter to be closed,” he said.
Others say Bergoglio’s sin is his silence. Estela de Carlotto, 82, is the head of the iconic Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, which has demanded an accounting of what happened to babies stolen from pregnant mothers at military detention sites. She said Bergoglio has refused to open church records that might help shine a light on Dirty War atrocities and perhaps even find missing children.
“As an institution, we have a complaint, and it’s that he never, even when he was the most powerful man in the church, talked about the disappeared,” Carlotto said. “He never called us to see what we needed.”
Bergoglio is also credited with protecting, and perhaps even saving, several people during the period. Human rights lawyer Alicia Oliveira told El Nacional newspaper on Friday that when the military issued an arrest warrant for her, Bergoglio offered her protection and regularly smuggled her into a school so she could see her child. He also gave his own identification papers and religious garb to a man so he could sneak across the border, she said.
Argentine Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Pérez Esquivel said very few priests at the time actively challenged the military.
“I don’t think Jorge Bergoglio was an accomplice to the dictatorship,” he wrote on his website. “But I think he did lack the courage to join our fight for human rights during the most challenging of times.”
For some, the Dirty War debate is as much about politics as human rights.
Bergoglio’s relationship with the current administration “went from being cold in the beginning to outright confrontational later,” said Enrique López, a priest who has worked with Bergoglio for years. He called the Dirty War claims “a poorly planned media operation, because everyone knows where it’s coming from.”
Sergio Berenzstein, a political analyst, said the allegations are “totally exaggerated and politically motivated.”
“What we do know is that he tried to protect priests and sent those under his care to areas where there were less disappearances and torture,” he said. “For some that means he was cooperating with the dictatorship and to others, it means he was saving lives.”
For the moment, Argentina is embracing its hometown hero — the first pope ever to come from the Americas. Kirchner is traveling to Rome for his ascension ceremony Tuesday. The nation has declared a holiday and is erecting a massive screen in downtown Buenos Aires for locals to watch the event. That’s an honor usually reserved for Argentine World Cup finals. Bergoglio’s beloved San Lorenzo soccer team is adding a halo to their jersey.
Many here think Bergoglio might come to Argentina in July, when he’s already scheduled to visit Brazil for World Youth Day.
Cortez said she’s holding out hope that he might even visit the Alameda Foundation and its soup-kitchen.
“It would be great if he gave Mass here,” she said. “But we might have to do it outside. I don’t think everyone would fit in the building.”
Miami Herald special correspondent Daniel Politi contributed to this report.
The original article referred to a hat that “only” cardinals wear. Popes and bishops also wear the mitre.