A champion of
the voiceless

From a childhood in Buenos Aires to
an international symbol of tolerance:
the extraordinary journey of Pope Francis

On Sunday, February 3, 2019, Pope Francis arrives in Abu Dhabi on a historic visit - the first by a pontiff to the Arabian Peninsula - as a guest of the UAE leadership.

The next day, he will be received by Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, before attending a private meeting of the Muslim Council of Elders at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and the interfaith Global Meeting of Human Fraternity at the Founder's Memorial.

The occasion thousands of Catholics in the UAE have been eagerly anticipating happens on Tuesday, February 5: a Mass in Abu Dhabi celebrated by the Pope in the presence of 135,000 faithful.

Watch the Pope's message to the UAE:

Here, The National charts the path that took a young Argentinian to the priesthood and eventually the Vatican as a pope who, perhaps more than any predecessor, has embraced all opportunities to bring a message of peace and reconciliation to other faiths in his words and in his actions.

It was a cold March evening when the crowd in St Peter’s Square caught a glimpse of the smoke rising from the Sistine Chapel chimney. Before long, the black smoke had turned to white – signalling the beginning of a new pontificate.

The Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio had been named the 266th pope of the Roman Catholic Church. The crowd of faithful went wild.

Born in Buenos Aires on December 17, 1936, Jorge was raised by Italian immigrant parents. The eldest of five siblings, he was the epitome of the young Argentinian man: light-hearted, charming and an avid fan of tango and the San Lorenzo football club. 

His father, Mario Bergoglio, had left his native Piedmont in northern Italy for Latin America in 1929, fleeing the rise to power of Benito Mussolini. He met his future wife Regina in Buenos Aires and together they had five children: Jorge, Oscar, Marta, Alberto and Maria Elena.

The Bergoglios were a typically middle class Argentine family. Mario worked as an accountant for the country’s railways, while Regina headed the household and raised their five children. In 2013, after Bergoglio's election, Maria Elena – the only other sibling still alive – described her older brother as a joker.

Pope Francis with his mother Maria Regina Sivori and his father Mario Jose Bergoglio, pictured in 1958 in Buenos Aires. AFP

“It was the duty of the Conclave to give Rome a bishop,” the newly elected Pope Francis said from the Vatican balcony on March 13, 2013. “It seems that my brother cardinals have gone to the ends of the Earth to get one, but here we are.” Humour would soon become a trait the world would associate him with.

The future pope graduated college with a chemical technician diploma. He went on to run tests in laboratories, among other jobs, including working as a bouncer at a nightclub and a janitor. His true calling, however, lay elsewhere. On December 13, 1969, just shy of turning 33, he was ordained as a priest.

Pope Francis pictured in 1973 when he was Priest Jorge Mario Bergoglio. He was ordained in December, 1969. AFP

Between 1973 and 1979, Jorge headed the country’s Jesuit community – officially known as the Society of Jesus. These were years of social and political unrest, following a violent right-wing coup in 1976, the overthrow of President Isabel Peron and the rise to power of dictator Jorge Rafael Videla.

As with other US-sponsored right-wing coups sweeping through Latin America in the 70s, the Catholic Church was not outspokenly contrary to the violent shift in power. So much so that in 2000 the Argentine Catholic Church made a public apology for failing to take a stand against the junta.

This has, in the past, cast a shadow over the image of Pope Francis as a fierce advocate of human rights. The Pontiff has vehemently denied allegations that he facilitated covert operations against progressive priests, saying instead that he risked his life to help them flee military death squads. In 1983 democracy was restored and Argentina began a long road toward normalcy.

Over the following two decades the future pontiff steadily scaled the ranks. In 1992, he became auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires, then metropolitan archbishop six years later.

During this time, says Christopher Lowney, author of Pope Francis: Why he leads the way he leads, Archbishop Bergoglio maintained a modest routine, starting his day at 5.30am to do his fellow priests’ laundry.

Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio posing with a San Lorenzo football shirt, the team he supports in Buenos Aires, in 2011. AFP

In 2001, he was made cardinal by Pope John Paul II. Despite his status, Cardinal Bergoglio continued to reside in a small apartment instead of the elegant suburban home he was offered. The newspaper La Nacion reported in 2013 that the cardinal’s day-to-day life remained characterised by austerity. For years, he committed to keeping a low profile, taking the subway and the bus to get around Buenos Aires.

Crowds gather at St Peter's Square after Francis was elected pope. Getty Images

Crowds gather at St Peter's Square after Francis was elected pope. Getty Images

Pope Francis with his mother Maria Regina Sivori and his father Mario Jose Bergoglio, pictured in 1958 in Buenos Aires. AFP

Pope Francis with his mother Maria Regina Sivori and his father Mario Jose Bergoglio, pictured in 1958 in Buenos Aires. AFP

Pope Francis pictured in 1973 when he was Priest Jorge Mario Bergoglio. He was ordained in December, 1969. AFP

Pope Francis pictured in 1973 when he was Priest Jorge Mario Bergoglio. He was ordained in December, 1969. AFP

Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio posing with a San Lorenzo football shirt, the team he supports in Buenos Aires, in 2011. AFP

Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio posing with a San Lorenzo football shirt, the team he supports in Buenos Aires, in 2011. AFP

Priest Bergoglio serves a meal in Buenos Aires in this undated photo. AFP

Priest Bergoglio serves a meal in Buenos Aires in this undated photo. AFP

Picture taken in 1998 of the then bishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio officiating mass at a shanty town in Buenos Aires. AFP

Picture taken in 1998 of the then bishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio officiating mass at a shanty town in Buenos Aires. AFP

Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio attends the special mass at St Peter's Basilica in the Vatican City in 2005. AFP

Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio attends the special mass at St Peter's Basilica in the Vatican City in 2005. AFP

Ignatius of Loyola, who cofounded the Jesuit movement in 1540, wanted his followers to be humble because Jesus was characterised by humility.  

Priest Bergoglio serves a meal in Buenos Aires in this undated photo. AFP

The Jesuit rule book, writes Mr Lowney, decries excessive personal ambition as a community’s ultimate evil and even instructs followers never to seek a high office in the Church.

In light of this, after finishing as the runner-up in the 2005 conclave, Cardinal Bergoglio returned to Argentina to devote his time to the poor instead of staying in Rome to build his network.

In February 2013, Pope Benedict XVI cited advanced age and retired from his papacy. On March 13, amid a cheering crowd of tens of thousands, Cardinal Protodeacon Jean-Louis Tauran announced “Habemus Papam!” – “we have a pope!".

According to Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of South Africa, when Bergoglio was asked if he would accept his election, he said: "Although I am a sinner, I accept."

Despite his dedication to traditional Catholic values, Pope Francis dispensed with some traditions.

Within minutes of his election, he chose not to wear the red cape – the mozzetta – appearing instead in a white cassock. He also chose to make his own phone calls, and used a bus instead of the papal limousine.

Picture taken in 1998 of the then bishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio officiating mass at a shanty town in Buenos Aires. AFP

In six years, he has revolutionised the Vatican’s finances. He has changed the way the Church makes decisions, re-empowering synods of bishops.

His new clerical appointments have embodied a pastoral rather than an ideological approach.

He urged Christians to take in Muslim refugees, and himself housed them in the Vatican to send a message of inclusiveness.

He has paid a price for living up to his name – the word pontiff means bridge builder.

Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio attends the special mass at St Peter's Basilica in the Vatican City in 2005. AFP

His dialogue with Islam has brought criticism from theological conservatives as well as Christians living in beleaguered places such as Iraq, where one Christian minority leader described Pope Francis’s approach as “naive and short-sighted”.

But he has persevered. He is not afraid to speak out in defence of Islam. But nor is he afraid to defend the minority status of Christians in the Middle East.

From tackling abuse scandals to engaging with politics and environmental issues, Pope Francis has been a pioneer in more ways than one, including being the first pope to visit the Gulf.

Pope Francis waves to the crowd at the University of Nairobi, Kenya, on November 26, 2015. AFP

The pontiff is scheduled to touch down in Abu Dhabi on February 3, and will remain in the UAE until February 5.

The country’s estimated one million Christians of all denominations are excited.

“The response at the street level from both Muslims and Christians in the UAE is simply unbridled excitement and enthusiasm,” Canon Andy Thompson of St Andrew’s Anglican Church in Abu Dhabi told The National.

“Pope Francis is deeply admired and loved by many for his commitment to live an authentic Christian lifestyle despite the trappings of power and the perceived wealth of his office.”  

Pope Francis exchanges gifts during a visit to the Ecumenical Institute of Bossey, Switzerland, on June 21, 2018. AFP

In 2018, a documentary written and directed by Wim Wenders and co-produced by the Vatican gave the world a window into the Pontiff’s life.

Following Pope Francis on his journeys around the world it focused on his work of reform and his answers to today’s global questions, including “death, social justice, immigration, ecology, wealth inequality, materialism and the role of the family”.

After six years as head of the Church, the world has come to recognise the Pope as a champion of human rights and tolerance.

In light of the UAE’s Year of Tolerance, it is expected the pontiff will touch on these topics with his Emirati hosts.

Pope Francis kisses a sick child before a canonisation mass for Joseph Vaz in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on January 14, 2015. AFP

“In the alarming global trends towards nationalism, populism and sectarianism, the UAE provides a strategic pushback against intolerance,” said Mr Thompson.

“It is within this context we hope the papal visit will lend impetus to a positive discourse which I pray will reverberate across the Middle East region and beyond.”

- With contributions by Paul Vallely, author of Pope Francis: the Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism, published by Bloomsbury

Pope Francis waves to the crowd at the University of Nairobi, Kenya, on November 26, 2015. AFP

Pope Francis waves to the crowd at the University of Nairobi, Kenya, on November 26, 2015. AFP

Pope Francis exchanges gifts during a visit to the Ecumenical Institute of Bossey, Switzerland, on June 21, 2018. AFP

Pope Francis exchanges gifts during a visit to the Ecumenical Institute of Bossey, Switzerland, on June 21, 2018. AFP

Pope Francis kisses a sick child before a canonisation mass for Joseph Vaz in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on January 14, 2015. AFP

Pope Francis kisses a sick child before a canonisation mass for Joseph Vaz in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on January 14, 2015. AFP

Pope Francis meets migrants in Lesbos, Greece, on April 16, 2016. Getty Images

Pope Francis meets migrants in Lesbos, Greece, on April 16, 2016. Getty Images

What’s in a name? The story behind Saint Francis of Assisi 

“Don’t forget the poor.” These were the words Brazil’s Cardinal Claudio Hummes said to Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio upon realising his Argentinian friend was going to be elected pope. This, the Pope said later, inspired his pontifical name: Francis, a saint from the central Italian town of Assisi.

“The man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation," Pope Francis said three days after his election by his fellow cardinals.

Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone – nicknamed Francesco, or Francis, by his father – was born in the 12th century in the Italian city of Assisi. The son of a wealthy silk merchant and a French mother, Francis was raised in affluence.

He was indulged as a boy, dreamed of becoming a knight and wanted for nothing.

It was not until 1205 – after Assisi’s lost battle against the neighbouring city of Perugia and a year spent in captivity – that young Francis turned to God. According to biographers, he was praying inside St Damian’s chapel when he heard a voice: 'Go, Francis, and repair my house, which as you see is falling into ruin.'

In a moment of rapture, he stole and sold a bundle of his father’s expensive silk. With it, he restored the chapel and began a life of poverty.

According to biographers, Francis later came to realise that God had meant for him to restore the Catholic Church, rather than its abandoned buildings. He set out to fix both. 

Francis renounced his family and their wealth and set off to restore the dilapidated chapels peppered across the Umbrian hills. His favourite, Porziuncola, became the starting point of the Franciscan movement. The simple building was later enclosed by the much grander Basilica of Saint Mary of the Angels, the seventh largest Christian church.

Up until his death in 1226, Francis and his followers preached in a number of towns in a bid to restore what they believed were Christianity’s true ideals – rooted in poverty and simplicity. He died in the autumn at the age of 44, covered in a shabby cloth. He was canonised only two years later by Pope Gregory IX.

Reverend Thomas Rosica, a Vatican spokesman, said of Pope Francis in 2013 that he was honouring "a saint that transcends the Catholic Church and is loved by all people, a saint who reached out for simplicity … poverty and care for the poor”. It was the first time that a pope had chosen the name Francis.

One of his first acts of modesty was shunning the Vatican apartment for a more simple location. And over the past six years he has repeatedly spoken out against materialism, calling on the rich to live a simpler life.

His teachings have proven to be closer to those of a saint and indeed those of Jesus – who was born in a stable and raised by a carpenter father – than some who came before him.

aint Francis receiving the Stigmata. Getty Images

Key moments in the 266th papacy

Almost six years into his papacy, Pope Francis has cemented some of the Roman Catholic Church’s traditions while updating others.   

These are only some of the highlights since his election in March 2013.

Snubbing the bulletproof ‘Popemobile’

Pope Francis arrives in St Peter's Square in a Hyundai Popemobile in 2015. Getty Images

Pope Francis arrives in St Peter's Square in a Hyundai Popemobile in 2015. Getty Images

Francis wasted no time in making changes to papal protocol. In 2013, he declined to use the bulletproof vehicle used by his predecessors. The new pontiff called the glass-clad car a “sardine can” and opted instead for an open-topped vehicle when driving past crowds and a small Ford Focus for use in his own time. The first official open-air Popemobile was used in 1976. It was fitted with bulletproof glass after the attempted assassination of Pope John II in 1981.

Holy Thursday: Washing female inmates’ feet

Pope Francis washes the feet of young offenders during a mass at a youth prison in Rome. Osservatore Roman / AFP

Pope Francis washes the feet of young offenders during a mass at a youth prison in Rome. Osservatore Roman / AFP

In 2013, for the first time in the history of the Catholic Church’s traditional feet-washing ritual during Holy Week at Easter, women were included in the Holy Thursday rite. Pope Francis washed the feet of 12 prisoners. He has since washed the feet of refugees.

Pope Francis visits the Philippines

Millions of Filipinos attend mass at Rizal Park during the pope's visit to Manila on January 18, 2015. AFP

Millions of Filipinos attend mass at Rizal Park during the pope's visit to Manila on January 18, 2015. AFP

This four-day trip in January 2015 was the largest papal event in history, with an estimated seven million faithful attending the final mass. The pontiff travelled to the Philippines in a show of support for the victims of Typhoon Haiyan, a devastating cyclone that killed an estimated 6,300 people. This was a massive event in a country where over 80 per cent of the population is Catholic, representing one of the world’s largest communities of the Christian denomination.

Communion controversy

In April 2016, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) was published – an apostolic exhortation in which the pope addressed the institution of marriage and family. Amid reflections on familial love and the importance of marital union, one chapter was quick to stand out. In chapter eight – Accompanying, Discerning and Integrating Weakness – Francis caused a stir by suggesting that divorcees may be allowed to receive communion under certain circumstances. Three years earlier, the newly elected Pope had already agitated doctrinally conservative Catholics when he wrote“The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”

A 21st century Pope

The Pope on Twitter.

The Pope on Twitter.

Under the username @Pontifex, the Pope has a following of 17.9 million people on Twitter on his English-language account alone. Twitter is a portal for him and the Church’s 1.3 billion followers to interact. Other accounts are in Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, German, French, Latin, Polish and Arabic. The Vatican recently launched an app called Click to Pray to encourage people to engage in prayer.

Sexual abuse controversy

Pope Francis attends the Festival of Families at Croke Park Stadium in Dublin on August 25, 2018. AFP

Pope Francis attends the Festival of Families at Croke Park Stadium in Dublin on August 25, 2018. AFP

In August 2018, Pope Francis travelled to Ireland, one of the flashpoints in the Catholic Church’s decades-old sexual abuse scandal. Both of his predecessors have been accused of failing to protect victims. In an attempt to atone for the crimes of some members of the Church, the pontiff made a powerful plea for forgiveness. The crowd met his repentance with applause. He has committed to continue to work to heal the wounds of this controversy during his papacy.

A visit to Jordan

Pope Francis blesses the crowd before celebrating a mass at the Amman stadium in the Jordanian capital on May 24, 2014. AFP

Pope Francis blesses the crowd before celebrating a mass at the Amman stadium in the Jordanian capital on May 24, 2014. AFP

Pope Francis took his first steps in setting out a new vision of outreach to other faiths almost five years ago when he visited Jordan, Jerusalem and the West Bank.

He became the fourth pontiff to visit Jordan, 50 years after Pope Paul VI’s historic visit to the kingdom. The country has many Biblical sites and a strong Christian population with roots in the earliest days of the faith.

Pope John Paul II became the first pontiff to enter an Islamic holy site in 2001 when he gave an address at the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, Syria, urging Muslims and Christians to forgive each other for past wrongs and mark the dawn of the new millennium as representatives of their respective religions, and not as “adversaries”.

Pope John Paul ll waves to crowds of people on May 5, 2001 as his car passes through an old street in Damascus, Syria. Photo by Salah Malkawi / Newsmakers

Pope John Paul ll waves to crowds of people on May 5, 2001 as his car passes through an old street in Damascus, Syria. Photo by Salah Malkawi / Newsmakers

His successor Pope Benedict XVI delivered a speech at the King Hussein Mosque in Amman in 2009 in which he highlighted common values in Christianity and Islam, such as loving your neighbour and the rejection of political violence in the name of religion.

Although he billed his Holy Land visit in May 2014 as “strictly a religious pilgrimage”, Pope Francis used it to build on the message of his predecessors, signalling it was time for Christians and Muslims to move beyond the phase of mutual understanding and into an age of co-operation.

Pope Francis made papal history by being accompanied to Jordan by a rabbi and an imam, friends from Buenos Aires.

It was the first time a pope made an official visit accompanied by representatives of other faiths. The visit sent a clear message: different faiths are partners for the Church in facing the world’s crises.

“Pope Francis has set new goals of dialogue, to work together with other faiths and collaborate to find solutions to the problems facing the entire world that affect people of all faiths,” said Father Rifat Bader, director of the Catholic Centre for Media Studies in Amman, who helped co-ordinate the pontiff’s Jordan visit.

Pope Francis urged all, Christians and Muslims alike, to end the war in Syria, which had then been raging for three years.

At the Royal Palace in Amman with King Abdullah II. AFP

At the Royal Palace in Amman with King Abdullah II. AFP

“Ending wars, serving the poor and the marginalised, protecting refugees, and saving the environment require collaboration across all the world’s peoples, and that is Pope Francis’s message and mission,” Father Bader said.

To this end, Pope Francis made refugees the focus of his 2014 visit. The pontiff met Syrian and Iraqi refugees in Amman, and later embraced and blessed refugees again at the Baptism Site of Jesus on the banks of the River Jordan. The vast majority of the refugees were Muslim.

“It was a message that all the children of this world of all faiths, not just the children of the Church, are our responsibility to protect,” said Father Nabil Haddad, a Jordanian Melkite Catholic priest and co-founder of the Jordanian Interfaith Co-existence Research Center.

The pontiff addressed the refugee crisis directly at a time that over a million Syrians had crossed into Jordan and the mass migrations to Europe were just beginning. 

“I urge the international community not to leave Jordan, who is so welcoming and courageous, alone in the task of meeting the humanitarian emergency caused by the arrival of so great a number of refugees,” Pope Francis said. 

Jordanian officials and the Royal Court called Pope Francis’s call to action “vital” in rallying the international community around the kingdom, which faced billions of dollars in costs hosting Syrian refugees.

Another lasting impact of Pope Francis’s tour was the choice of venue for his pilgrimage.

Visiting Bethany, a site on the eastern bank of the River Jordan where some Christians believe Jesus was baptised. AFP

Visiting Bethany, a site on the eastern bank of the River Jordan where some Christians believe Jesus was baptised. AFP

He chose the Jordanian baptism site of Bethany Beyond the Jordan on the east bank of the River Jordan, rather than Qasr Yahud, the rival site promoted by Israel a few metres across the river in the occupied West Bank.

Archaeologists and the UN believe the Jordanian site to be where John the Baptist kept his ministry and where Jesus was baptised, but it had long been in the shadow of Qasr Yahud due to Israel’s relentless marketing.

Pope John Paull II had visited the Jordanian site in 2000 as part of a jubilee tour, signalling the Vatican’s blessing, but Pope Francis made the site the focal point of his 2014 visit, holding a mass in the then under-construction Latin Church and praying on the banks of the river.

With the Pope being driven by King Abdullah II to the river bank, and then delivering a sermon with the world’s media following, all eyes across the globe were on Bethany Beyond the Jordan.

The Pope at the Amman stadium for mass. AFP

The Pope at the Amman stadium for mass. AFP

“The Pope and the Vatican sent the message that Jordan is the Holy Land, and we must all pilgrimage to the land where Jesus was baptised which is a land of peace that not only retains its Christian and Arab heritage, but is a model of harmony,” said Father Haddad, who will also be taking part in next month’s “Human Fraternity Meeting” in Abu Dhabi.

On the streets of Amman, five years on, the change in dialogue by Francis has resonated.

“When he speaks of supporting Jordan to host refugees and working together to end wars, Pope Francis made us feel that we are partners, not just subjects, and it is a message I wish others in the West would listen to,” said Mohammed Oudeh, 45, a shopkeeper.  

“The Pope’s visit was an important sign of solidarity for Arab Christians, who although respected in Jordan continue to be threatened elsewhere in the region,” said Mariam, 50, a Christian.

Church observers said Pope Francis would continue the calls for interfaith partnership and solidarity when he visits Abu Dhabi, using the theme “Make Me a Channel of Your Peace” to invite all to take part in peaceful dialogue and co-operation to solve the world’s conflicts and challenges.

“The UAE’s experience sends a message to other Gulf countries and the world that you can be safe and prosperous when you respect all segments of your society, without any discrimination based on a religious or ethnic basis,” said Father Bader.

Father Haddad said: “In addition to the message of love, peace and harmony, I believe the Pope will also use his visit to urge that countries within and near the Gulf, including Iran, remember that accepting each other in the fraternity of humanity is the responsibility of all.”

- Taylor Luck, Amman

Further reading

Read more on the Pope in the UAE
How the UAE's relationship with the Vatican has strengthened
Islam and Christianity: a long, complex and crucial relationship
The story of the Roman Catholic Church in the UAE
Mass, ticket information and all you need to know about the papal visit

Credits

Writing: Sofia Barbarani; Taylor Luck
Editing: Joe Jenkins; Michael Coetzee
Producer: Stephen Nelmes
Picture editor: Jake Badger
Video: Karma Gurung
Graphics: Ramon Penas Jr
Photographs: Getty Images; AFP Photo; Reuters; Salah Malkawi / Newsmakers

Copyright The National, Abu Dhabi 2019