BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) – On his first anniversary as pontiff Thursday, Pope Francis defended "slum priests" from the accusation their advocacy for the downtrodden reflects a different, leftist church that is remote from conservative Vatican values.
"The work of the priests in the slums of Buenos Aires is not ideological, it's apostolic, and therefore forms part of the same church. Those who think that it's another church don't understand how they work in the slums. The important thing is the work," Francis insisted in an interview made public Thursday.
As Argentina's top Roman Catholic leader before he was elected pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio assigned many priests to parishes in the crowded slums that grew up around the capital. His support made him a cherished figure among the very poor who felt marginalized, especially during the bloody 1960s and '70s, when military dictatorships ruled the South American country.
"Francis is a slum pope. It's not a cliche. He was quite involved in this slum before he was elected pope," said Eduardo Najera, who directs the community radio station FM Bajo Flores that broadcasts from the Villa 1-11-14 slum across from the San Lorenzo soccer stadium, where the pope's favorite team plays.
The station interviewed the pope two weeks earlier at his residence in the Vatican, and the dialogue was played for the first time in public Thursday on a huge screen before a crowd gathering inside the slum's gymnasium.
Francis was asked about Padre Carlos Mugica and other members of Argentina's Movement of Third World Priests, a branch of liberation theology, which the Vatican tried to stamp out for years. Mugica was labeled a communist subversive by the right, but he also spoke out against armed revolution before he was murdered in 1974.
"They were not communists. They were great priests who fought for life," insisted the pope, who has sought to rehabilitate church views of liberation theology, a Latin American-inspired approach in which priests advocate for the poor.
The interview was warmly received. Agustina Mendoza, who has lived nearly half her 63 years in the slum, said Bergoglio used to sit in her house, sharing herbal mate tea and eating "sopa Paraguaya," a hearty kind of cornbread. "I know he remembers my 'sopa Paraguaya.' His simplicity really stuck with me," she said.
"He used to be so serious. He never smiled. Now he's bonded with the entire world. Francis has met all expectations," she added.
Francis spent Thursday's anniversary in seclusion. The Vatican said he planned only prayer and meditation. But a tweet was sent from his official account saying, "Please pray for me."
The pope was asked why he has said that so often since the rainy night one year ago when he stepped onto the balcony at St. Peters and asked for the crowd's blessing.
"Because I need it," he answered. "What I need most is that the people of God support me."