From Humble Roots, Argentinean Cardinal Rises to Lead the Catholic World

A humble Jesuit from Argentina was chosen by his peers to be the next leader of the more than one billion Catholics around the world. 

In the process, Pope Francis has become the first Latin American pope ever. In another first, he is also the first Jesuit to assume the papacy.

Former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, 76, was widely speculated to have been the runner-up for pope during the 2005 conclave following Pope John Paul II's death. This time it came as a surprise.

Archbishop of Buenos Aires since 1998, the now pope was known for his low-key style and his closeness to the people — his parishioners call him just “Father Jorge.”

I don’t think you’ll find a pope more committed to pastoral security, committed to the poor and concerned about social justice.

- Patrick McNamara, director of communications for the Catholic League in New York

Bergoglio has been praised for his humility and commitment to the poor in Argentina. The name Francis for the pope is supposed to be in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, who was the apostle of the poor.

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“He’s extremely humble,” said Mario Paredes, Presidential liaison for the Roman Catholic Ministries American Bible Society. “He takes the subway everyday to work.”

His age does cause some worry among Catholic experts, who expected a younger pope following the retirement of Benedict XVI.

“I was surprised in the sense that he’s 76 years of age,” Paredes said. “I thought they would have chosen someone younger, just because of the physical reason.”

Months after the 2005 conclave chose Pope Benedict XVI, an anonymous cardinal broke his vow of secrecy and published a diary describing the voting details from within the Sistine Chapel. According to the diary, Bergoglio was the only serious contender to then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, receiving up to 40 votes in the third round of voting, which was just over the threshold to stall the voting if his supporters wanted to.

But the diary explained that Bergoglio made it clear he might not have accepted the job.  Still, word of a Latin American candidate as a serious contender renewed optimism that the church would select the world's first Hispanic pope sooner rather than later.

“It’s a testament to the esteem that his fellow cardinals have for him,” said Patrick McNamara, director of communications for the Catholic League in New York. “I don’t think you’ll find a pope more committed to pastoral security, committed to the poor and concerned about social justice.”

Pope Francis is considered a social conservative and someone who mimics Pope John Paul II's ideology. According to John Allen Jr., veteran journalist John Allen, a specialist on the Vatican, Bergoglio is seen as a genuine intellectual whose simplicity and humility could become a hallmark of his papacy.

Everyday Catholics gravitate to Bergoglio in a similar manner as they did with John Paul II.  Bergoglio lived a frugal lifestyle, sharing a small apartment and cooking dinner for himself every night. Born in 1936, he is the grandson of Italian immigrants and he studied theology in Germany.

A true Argentinean, the country’s trademark music, tango, is said to be a favorite of his, according to his friends.

He is a fighter for social justice but a conservative in theology, and follows the Communion & Liberation, a conservative doctrine movement that grew under Pope John Paul II. Bergoglio was held in high regard for his leading role in helping console Argentineans during the country's economic crisis in 2002.

After four years as a priest, he became the head of all Jesuits in Argentina. After studying in Germany, he became bishop of Buenos Aires in 1992 and archbishop in 1998. He was proclaimed cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 2001. He served in the Synod of Bishops and currently serves as the Ordinary for Eastern rite faithful in Argentina.

To some, his appointment may come as a surprise given his age. Some observers and Vatican experts believe the church was looking for someone that could fulfill the position longer than Benedict, who was 78 when he became pope.

Another dark spot in his résumé was the church’s involvement in Argentina's Dirty War in the 1970s. The church in Argentina has acknowledged it did not challenge the military's anti-leftist repression during the 1970's, a bloody period that saw an estimated 30,000 people disappear, including dozens of Catholic clergy. At the time, Cardinal Bergoglio was the head Jesuit in the country and was accused of complicity in the death of two Jesuit priests murdered by the military junta, a charge which he has vehemently denied.

Andrew O'Reilly and Elizabeth Llorente contributed to this report.

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Bryan Llenas currently serves as a New York-based correspondent for Fox News Channel (FNC). Click here for more information on Bryan Llenas. Follow him on Twitter @BryanLlenas.