Jorge Mario Bergoglio: from railway worker's son to Pope Francis

Although runner-up in the 2005 conclave that saw Ratzinger elected, few would have predicted that he would succeed him

The rise of Jorge Mario Bergoglio from railway worker's son to archbishop, then cardinal, and now to leader of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics has been a remarkable and historical one: first Latin American pope; first Jesuit pope; first Pope Francis.

Although he was judged the runner-up in the 2005 conclave that saw Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger elected Benedict XVI, few would have predicted that he would succeed him at all – let alone just eight years later.

Amid all the talk of an Italian pope to follow a German one and a Polish one – or even of an African pontiff to demonstrate the church's global commitment – Bergoglio seemed to drop off the radar. When rumours and speculation did touch on the prospect of a Latin American pope, all the talk was of Bergoglio's fellow Argentinian, Leonardo Sandri, or of Odilo Scherer, the archbishop of São Paulo.

Two things seemed to set him apart from contenders: his Jesuit background and his association with priests involved in liberation theology, a movement previously frowned upon by the Vatican.

"We live in the most unequal part of the world, which has grown the most, yet reduced misery the least," he said in 2007. "The unjust distribution of good persists, creating a situation of social sin that cries out to heaven and limits the possibilities of a fuller life for so many of our brothers."

But his dedication to social justice and commitment to alleviating poverty may now have counted in his favour – and much has been made of his humility and frugal lifestyle. Not only did he abjure the cardinal's residence in the Argentinian capital for a small apartment and reject a chauffeur-driven car to travel by bus, he also told hundreds of Argentinians not to waste their money on plane tickets to Rome to see him created a cardinal by John Paul II in 2001, urging them to give it instead to the poor.

Bergoglio was born in Buenos Aires on 17 December 1936, one of five children of an Italian railway worker and his wife. He became a Jesuit priest at the age of 32, nearly a decade after losing a lung due to respiratory illness and abandoning his chemistry studies. Despite his late start, he was leading the local Jesuit community within four years, holding the top post from 1973 to 1979. In 1998 he was appointed archbishop of Buenos Aires.

Unlike some of the other cardinals, he has been untarnished by the various scandals that have convulsed the Catholic church, and is thought to want to make reform of the curia – the church's governing body – a priority. He was a fierce opponent of Argentina's decision to legalise gay marriage in 2010, arguing children need to have the right to be raised and educated by a father and a mother.

But he takes a slightly more pragmatic view on contraception, believing that it can be permissible to prevent the spread of disease. He is ecumenical, believing in interfaith dialogue. Although he is considered orthodox on doctrine, he is apparently flexible on sexual doctrine and, in private, joked "they want to stick the whole world inside a condom".

In 2009 Bergoglio made headlines when he criticised the government of Néstor Kirchner, husband of current Argentinian president Cristina Fernández, claiming it was "immoral, illegitimate and unjust" to allow inequality to grow.

"Rather than preventing that, it seems they have opted for making inequalities even greater," he said. "Human rights are not only violated by terrorism, repression or assassination, but also by unfair economic structures that creates huge inequalities," he said at the time.

Despite his low global profile, however, he has not escaped personal controversy or scrutiny. Eight years ago the ghosts of Argentina's dirty war – during which 30,000 suspected leftists were kidnapped and killed – returned to haunt him when he was accused of complicity in the kidnapping in 1976 of two liberal Jesuit priests.

According to El Silencio (Silence) a 2005 book written by the Argentinian journalist Horacio Verbitsky, Bergoglio withdrew his order's protection of the two men after they refused to stop visiting the slums, which ultimately paved the way for their capture. Verbitsky's book is based on statements by Orlando Yorio, one of the kidnapped Jesuits, before he died of natural causes in 2000. Both of the abducted clergymen survived five months of imprisonment. The book also claims that senior Buenos Aires clerics were implicated in an attempt by the navy to hide political prisoners from human rights inspectors.

Bergoglio has denied all the allegations and insisted that he helped many dissidents during the dictatorship. But his denials have failed to satisfy many in a country still struggling to come to terms with the atrocities committed in its recent past. "History condemns him," Fortunato Mallimacci, the former dean of social sciences at the Universidad de Buenos Aires, once said. "It shows him to be opposed to all innovation in the church and above all, during the dictatorship, it shows he was very cosy with the military."

Last year, Argentina's bishops apologised for the church's failure to properly protect people during the dictatorship. Those who know him, however, believe he is a sober and caring man who could just be the pope to bring some much-needed equilibrium to a troubled Vatican.

"His character is in every way that of a moderate; he is absolutely capable of undertaking the necessary renovation without any leaps into the unknown," said Francesca Ambrogetti, one of his biographers. "He would be a balancing force. He shares the view that the church should have a missionary role, that gets out to meet people, that is active … a church that does not so much regulate the faith as promote and facilitate it."


Sam Jones and Mark Rice-Oxley

The GuardianTramp

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