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Pope Francis Was 'Runner Up' At Previous Conclave


We're going to learn more, now, about the background of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the new Pope Francis. As we've said, he's the first pope from the Americas, and the first Jesuit pope. Matthew Bunson is senior correspondent of the weekly Catholic newspaper called "Our Sunday Visitor." Matthew, welcome to the program.

MATTHEW BUNSON: It's great to be with you.

CORNISH: And I gather you've been preparing for this moment, writing books about all the candidates in case they become pope.



CORNISH: I don't even know what that task must be like. Did you have this one at the ready - or was it a surprise to you, too?

BUNSON: I did, if for no other reason than eight years ago, Cardinal Bergoglio, generally considered the - I hate to use the term "runner-up" to then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in that particular conclave. So since that time, he has been, really, still a figure in the church. And clearly, the cardinals in the conclave, especially in the days leading up to the conclave, were very impressed with him and turned to him as the figure, I think, that they have chosen for this particular moment in history.

CORNISH: We mentioned Pope Francis being a Jesuit, which is something new for the papacy.


CORNISH: What has been the role for Jesuits in Argentina or within the Vatican?

BUNSON: Yeah. Well, the Jesuits, of course, are the largest religious order in the church. They historically have been filled with the greatest minds; certainly, theologically. They have traditionally run schools and held positions of great prominence, theologically. Jorge Mario Bergoglio, certainly - now Pope Francis - stands well within that tradition. He is a chemist by training. He has taught theology and philosophy. But he's also taught literature and psychology, which points - I think - to the generally well-rounded way that the Jesuits approach education.

CORNISH: And how closely aligned was he with Pope Benedict?

BUNSON: Solidly, in fact; it will come as a surprise to a lot of people. There's always - sometimes an assumption that someone from outside of Europe will not necessarily hold positions that are consonant with those of Pope Benedict. When we actually read what Cardinal Bergoglio - now Pope Francis - has said over the years, we find great similarities theologically, especially in the areas of Catholic culture; the culture of life, to use the Catholic position for it; and on the new evangelization.

He recognizes the crisis of secularism and relativism and materialism in Latin America so that even as a pastor, a residential archbishop in Buenos Aires, he has a wealth of experience in confronting the very things that Pope Benedict XVI warned about, and worked over the eight years, to try to bring to an end; or at least to ameliorate, with regards to civilization - Christian civilization, and reigniting the fires of Christian faith in the West.

CORNISH: Now, looking deeper into his history, I understand that Cardinal Bergoglio has been criticized for his stance during a rather dark period in Argentina's history, known as the Dirty War. What are those criticisms?

BUNSON: Yes. The criticisms really - originates when he was in charge of the Jesuits back in the 1970s; largely whether or not he had too close an association with the military regime. He has been accused, for example, of colluding in the deaths of several Jesuits. This has been rumored for some time now. Others...

CORNISH: And he has denied it. We should mention that.

BUNSON: He has denied it, indeed. In fact, it was not that long ago dismissed as old slander, in the daily newspaper "La Nacion," in Argentina. Those who were there at the time - setting aside the horrific effects of almost 30,000 dead, 13,000 - perhaps 30,000 dead, especially the disappeared ones, as they're called; that at the time, as a Jesuit provincial, he tried to work behind the scenes to negotiate the release for these particular priests.And as an auxiliary bishop in Buenos Aires, he supported the apology given by the Argentinean bishops for the silence of far, far too many church leaders in the face of the military regime.

CORNISH: And we'll be hearing more about this pope in the coming days. Matthew Bunson - he's senior correspondent of the weekly Catholic newspaper called "Our Sunday Visitor." He was speaking to us from Fort Wayne, Indiana. Thank you, Matthew.

BUNSON: It's a pleasure to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.