A few short
weeks ago, the Archbishop of Buenos Aires was riding the
subway to work like any other Porteño. But on Wednesday 13 March,
Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope Francis I,
the first Jesuit pontiff and the first pope from Latin America – and the world suddenly
became transfixed with 76-year-old cardinal’s career.
Though he’s now taken up residence in Vatican City, there’s no clearer
window into Bergoglio’s cultural background and down-to-earth lifestyle than a
stroll through Buenos Aires to the places where the Argentine priest worked,
slept, chopped vegetables, read Borges and enjoyed the occasional fútbol match.
The former archbishop
presided over Mass at the city’s 19th-century Neoclassical Catedral Metropolitana on the
famous Plaza de Mayo, a church perhaps best known for housing the mausoleum of General
San Martín, the liberator of Argentina, Chile and Peru from Spain. When
Bergoglio was pronounced the new pope on Wednesday, a celebratory Mass was held
and the plaza was flooded with revellers and critics, international media and
vendors of Argentine flags and choripan
Bergoglio was born on 17 December 1936 in the middle-class Buenos Aires neighbourhood
of Flores, known for its Italianate architecture and a famous tango song
José de Flores. He was the child of immigrants from Italy:
Mario, a former railroad worker, and Regina, a homemaker. As you walk
the streets of his former neighbourhood, it’s interesting to note that the area
was not originally considered part of the city of Buenos Aires: it was a leafy
suburb where many of the city’s most illustrious citizens, including
controversial 19th-century governor Juan Manuel de Rosas, had their
country homes. Many of these weekend getaways still exist, contributing to the
barrio’s unique architectural landscape.
Before he became a priest, the young Bergoglio had a girlfriend – and,
according to the profile by Argentine journalists Francesca Ambrogetti and Sergio Rubin in their
2010 book The
Jesuit – he liked to dance tango. Try your own hand at the
dance form in some of Buenos
Aires’ old-fashioned milongas (tango halls), such as Flores’ Salón El Pial.
Bergoglio lived alone in a simple apartment on the second floor of the Curia
building, adjacent to the Catedral
Metropolitana in the downtown neighbourhood of San Nicolás. According to Bon
Appetit magazine and Argentine newspaper La Nacion, he prepared his own meals – primarily fruit, salad, chicken and the
occasional glass of wine. He also reportedly enjoyed listening to opera and
reading novels by Fyodor Dostoevsky and Argentine master Jorge Luis Borges. Today, visitors to
this part of town are charmed by the neighbourhood’s Parisian-style
architecture and bares notables (notable bars and cafes), including the famous Café Tortoni, Buenos Aires’ oldest
café, founded by French immigrants in 1858.
Asociación Mutual Israelita
When AMIA, a Jewish community centre in
the Balvanera neighbourhood, suffered a brutal terrorist bombing in July 1994 –
one of the worst anti-Semitic attacks in Latin American history – Bergoglio was
quick to respond, earning praise for his leadership from the community’s
religious leaders. Today, the neighbourhood is a magnet for seamstresses who
scour the barrio’s fabric shops for materials, and foodies seeking Jewish cuisine
in the neighbourhood’s ethnic restaurants, such as traditional Kosher eatery Sucath David, locally famous for brisket
and melt-in-your-mouth pastrami.
Centro Cultural Recoleta
The archbishop made art world headlines in 2004 when he demanded the closure of
an exhibition installed at Centro
Cultural Recoleta (CCR) a well-known cultural centre in the upscale
Recoleta neighbourhood. The works, by the famous Argentine plastic artist León
Ferrari, depicted Christ and the Virgin Mary in a blender, a toaster and a
frying pan. Today, visitors to the CCR should look for excellent rotating (and
free) exhibits by Latin American artists, plus film festivals, photography
workshops and contemporary tango-acrobat performances on the terrace.
Subte (Subway) Línea D
Last week, Buenos Aires’ subway was in the local news for a significant ticket price
hike. This week, the same subway has made international news – because the humble
Archbishop always insisted on riding only on Subte (mostly the D line) and colectivo (city bus), rather
than having a driver or taking a taxi.
Like many Argentines before him, Bergoglio is passionate about fútbol. The pope is a fan of the San Lorenzo team, based in the
central Buenos Aires neighbourhood of Almagro – in 2008 he offered to conduct a
special Mass for the team’s 100-year anniversary and claims he
never misses a match. For tickets and information, log onto the San Lorenzo website or contact Tangol, a Buenos
Aires travel agency specialising in fútbol excursions.