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BUENOS AIRES – The last time Father Jorge Bergoglio was at the Vatican to be anointed with a new title, the man who would become Pope Francis reveled in the anonymity he will never again know.
It was Feb. 21, 2001, and the Argentinian priest and his aide Guillermo Marcó were headed from their quarters to the ceremony at which Bergoglio would be named a Cardinal. When Marcó seemed concerned that Bergoglio’s bright red robe made them conspicuous, the priest known for his lack of pretense shrugged it off.
“Don’t worry about it,” Marcó recalled the future pontiff saying as they ducked into a coffee shop. “In Rome you could walk with a banana on your head and no one would say anything.”
As Pope Francis, the unassuming cleric who rode the subway in Buenos Aires and rejected the Cardinal’s lavish suburban quarters will draw crowds wherever he goes. Where he once washed the feet of AIDS sufferers, shared tea and pastries with destitute war veterans and traveled to the city’s slums to comfort the poor and forgotten, Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, must convey his common touch to the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics from afar.
Those who served and worshipped with Bergoglio in Argentina speak lovingly of a warm and humble man whose fierce devotion to the church’s traditional values shines through in deeds more than words. They expect Pope Francis’ gentle, yet uncompromising nature to be a powerful force in the promotion of the faith’s long-held tenets.
Father Gustavo Irrazábal, who has known Bergoglio since 1992, describes him as modest, austere and deeply spiritual. The new pope embraces the church’s conservative social values, but places great emphasis on compassion, and tolerance and understanding of other faiths, according to him.
“He is a much loved figure,” said Irrazábal. “He is also very open to inter-religious dialogues, and has strong ties with Jewish and Islamic figures here in Argentina.”
Bergoglio has been a fixture in the places in Buenos Aires where he felt the people needed him - hospitals, hospices and ghettos, washing the feet of AIDS victims and drug addicts during Holy Week.
Bergoglio’s sympathy for the poor gained him popularity across every strata of society. Opposite Buenos Aires’ Municipal Cathedral is the permanent protest camp of a group of Falklands - Malvinas war veterans shunned and marginalized by society. To them, Bergoglio is a hero.
“The first day I met him was four years ago when he brought us a dozen pastries,” said group member Jorge Zamudio. “Since then, he has always come to drink mate (Argentine tea) with us.
“We called him today to congratulate him, and he took the time to talk to us, even though he must have the whole world calling him,” Zamudio said. “He has a huge heart.”
Since Pope Francis’ election, a feeling of excitement has run through the streets of Buenos Aires. As news spread that the new Pope would be a Latin American, cars honked their horns at each other in celebration – a ritual usually reserved for when Argentina wins a soccer match – and a thousand people gathered outside the Municipal Cathedral to show their support for the Jesuit spiritual leader.
Marcelo Alvrutin Suarez, 64, took part in Wednesday’s celebrations and has attended the Cardinal’s Mass in the cathedral for many years.
“As an Argentine and as a Catholic, the fact that the Pope is Argentine is a huge joy,” Suarez said. “Bergoglio is known here in Buenos Aires as a humble man, who is dedicated to God and his service to Jesus.”
Florencia Sanchez Hirsch, a 29 year-old devout Catholic, said the world will enjoy getting to know a man who can bear such awesome spiritual responsibility while remaining down to earth.
“For me the new Pope’s humility is unusual for someone so high up in the church,” Hirsch said. “I think that’s something that we need more of,” she said.
As a priest, Bergoglio ventured into the slums of Buenos Aires unattended by bodyguards.
“We used to get the bus, and we would talk to the people and sit with them in their homes,” remembered Father Sebastian Garcia. “Some people consider these places dangerous but he always went without protection. No one even thought of robbing him, they felt his presence and they respected him.”
Such stories are common among those who knew Bergoglio when he was simply another priest trying to spread the gospel, comfort troubled souls and serve his fellow man.
“He was like anyone else, he cooked for everyone, washed the plates and did the shopping,” recalled Armando Saire, an actor who during his adolescence was a member of the religious order “Noviciados de la Compañía de Jesús,” of which Bergoglio was the director. “He wasn’t just a figure to confess to, he was a friend who I could trust with my life.”
In his homeland, the faithful has long believed in the leadership and humility of the new pontiff.
“One day, just after Pope Benedict XVI was elected, a woman came up to him after mass and said ‘For the Argentines, you are the Pope,’” said Garcia. “He smiled, touched her shoulders and said ‘Pray for me,’ before walking away.”