BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (CNS) — Oscar Justo, 60, begs for bills and coins from a perch next to St. Joseph Parish in Barrio de Flores, the neighborhood where Pope Francis was born.
As Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, Pope Francis passed by often, walking from the bus stop or surfacing from a nearby subway station. But he always took time to greet Justo, offer a blessing and provide a few pesos.
“He always gave me something … sometimes 100 pesos ($20),” said Justo, 60, who lost both legs in a railway accident.
Such stories of kindness abound in Buenos Aires, where Pope Francis was archbishop for 15 years, until being elected pope March 13. Portenos, as locals here are known, came to know Pope Francis as an unpretentious prelate, who took public transit, showed preoccupation for the poor and challenged the authorities.
The new pope is mostly portrayed as a pope for the poor and common people. But a more complex picture — as a priest, administrator and soccer fanatic — comes from Argentina, where vendors now peddle his pictures and posters, and where Peronists — the political movement founded by former President Juan Peron and his second wife, Eva Peron — have blanketed Buenos Aires with posters proclaiming him one of their own.
He ascended in the church, something attributed to his force of personality and ability to remember names and faces.
“He has a prodigious memory,” said Father Andres Aguerre, Jesuit vice provincial in Argentina. “You tell him your birthday once and he remembers.”
In the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires, Pope Francis adopted the attitude that the church belongs in the street. He built chapels and missions in poor areas and sent seminarians to serve them.
He spoke out often against injustice, such as the treatment of migrant workers from neighboring countries and those lured into the sex trade, and against social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.
He criticized the late President Nestor Kirchner and President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who succeeded her husband in 2007, and their way of doing politics — by building patronage groups, instead of alleviating poverty, he alleged. They responded by going to other churches instead of the cathedral for important ceremonies.
“They went off to the provinces … where there was a more friendly church,” said Jose Maria Poirier, director of the Catholic magazine El Criterio, who has interviewed Pope Francis frequently over the years.
“Here in Buenos Aires, he was a man politically at odds with the government, very much loved by the poor and members of the opposition. … But, fundamentally, he’s a pastor and political man,” he said.
“Bergoglio is very demanding . … He demanded a lot of discipline and obedience. He also considered himself a privileged interpreter of St. Ignatius of Loyola, and this caused controversy,” said Poirier. “Half (of the Jesuits) liked him a lot, but half wanted nothing to do with him.”
Gabriel Castelli, a member of the board of directors at the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina, said the new pope “always had the ability to say what he thinks.”
He put a priority on providing attention to his priests. He had a cellphone reserved just for his nearly 4,000 diocesan priests, and each morning he reserved one hour to take their calls.
“He was very committed to his priests, which is difficult with such a large archdiocese,” Castelli said.
Many in the church, like Poirier, speak of his administrative skills in Buenos Aires.
“He’s not an intellectual (like Pope Benedict), rather a man of government, with great political and administrative abilities,” Poirier said.
Priests had to keep their parishes in order, Poirier said.
He said Pope Francis preferred the shanties to high society; he never dined out or went to parties; he cooked for himself and read voraciously. He especially liked Latin American literature and Fyodor Dostoyevsky novels. He did not use a computer or email and listened to games of his favorite soccer team, San Lorenzo, on the radio.
Barrio de Flores is a working class neighborhood. The new pope’s father was a railway worker, his mother a homemaker. As a youth, the pope studied in public schools, which included technical certification as a chemist.
He returned often to the barrio, to St. Joseph Parish, where he was scheduled to celebrate Mass on Palm Sunday.
At St. Joseph, parishioners shared memories.
“He always carried his own bags,” recalled Zaira Sanchez, 72.
After Mass, “People would wait outside and he would bless all of them and talk to them,” before leaving on public transit, she said.
He took time for causes, too — such as Fundacion Alameda, which sought support from Pope Francis for its work against the exploitation of migrants working in Argentina. It also works to prevent migrant women from being lured into the sex trade.
The foundation’s director, Olga Cruz, knew the then-cardinal previously — he baptized both her children, who were not infants, after she asked him personally.
“He said it would be an honor,” recalled Cruz, a native of Bolivia.
Pope Francis embraced the migrants’ cause, making public statements and celebrating Mass for the foundation.
“He told me, ‘Don’t be afraid’ … that I can confront this,” Cruz told Catholic News Service.
Cruz also recalled him coming at a moment’s notice to provide spiritual and moral support for women rescued from the sex trade, who were sometimes sheltered in parishes.
Parishioners at St. Joseph showed mixed emotions about Pope Francis having to leave Argentina for a higher calling.
“Once he got to know you, he knew you for life,” said St. Joseph parishioner Gloria Koen, 73. “Unfortunately, we had to share him with the world.”
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