By Juan M.C. Oliver 

Juan Oliver

Juan Oliver

On March 13, as Cardinal Tauran named the new pope, I posted on Facebook, “It´s Bergoglio!” An old friend and wag immediately posted back, “Is that a wine or an olive oil?”

With everyone else I started trying to find out more about the new pope. Yet the image of wine and oil stayed with me since, for one thing, wine and oil are featured in the biblical story of the Good Samaritan — of how an outsider was the only one to care for a wounded man left on the street, pouring wine and oil on his wounds, not his priest, not his deacon, not his compatriots.

The Roman Catholic Church lies wounded by the side of the street. For too long its Curia, the Roman bureaucratic administration has passed by it and looked the other way, living in a culture of closets, secrecy and intrigue, sworn to omertá — the mafia’s code of silence. It’s a very sick puppy.

The outsiders who might come to the help of a wounded church are kept at bay systematically. In the last 30 years over 150 top notch theologians have been silenced, nuns are kept in their place, when not investigated, and Dignity, the association of Catholic LGBT people, can no longer meet in Catholic churches.

Can we expect the new pope to be the Samaritan? Will Francis be a bracing, cleansing wine, washing the filthy wounds? Will he be the oil that softens tissues and prevents scars?

The media make much of his manners: humble, modest, and quick to take buses, cooking his own meals and sending home his personal cleaning ladies. But these are optics. We have to look at the pattern of his decisions in the past in order to get any sense of what he might do — and not do — as pope. In the process we might learn something about the difference between the optics of compassion and true socioeconomic change.

Bergoglio the young Jesuit 

On March 11, 1958, Bergoglio joined the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). He was 22. He was ordained priest in 1969, and by 1972 was master of novices, in charge of the education and spiritual formation of new Jesuits. These were intoxicating, heady times, afire with the reforms of Vatican II (1962-1965). In 1965 the Jesuits had elected as their Superior General Fr. Pedro Arrupe, who from the start, was committed to working with and for the poor.

Additionally, CELAM, the Latin American Conference of Bishops, meeting in Medellín, Colombia in 1968, issued ground-breaking documents calling the Latin American church to a preferential option for the poor. Soon the Jesuits, after centuries of educating the children of the rich and meddling in conservative politics, usually against liberalizing movements, joined the movement.

In 1971 Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez published A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics and Salvation. In it Gutierrez’ condemned oppression and injustice against the poor and asserted that true knowledge of God (orthodoxy) is to do justice (orthopraxis) on their behalf.  A key concept in Liberation theology is God’s preferential option for the poor, as revealed in the Bible and therefore as a necessary mark of the true Church. God is revealed as having a preference for those people who are “insignificant,” “marginalized,” “unimportant,” “needy,” “despised” and “defenseless.” The Jesuits´ 32nd General Congregation in 1975 committed Jesuits to work and identify with the plight of the poor everywhere. This was a very bold move, with roots as early as 1965 and Pedro Arrupe´s election as Superior General.

The 1970s all over Latin America were a violent time, as dictatorships clamped down on church leaders that they, and later, John Paul II and the Reagan administration, considered communist revolutionaries. Some, no doubt, were, but by no means all. Pedro Arrupe had to balance the progressive attitudes of young Jesuits, afire with liberation theology with a cautious — one could say paranoid — Roman Curia.

Bergoglio the Superior (1973-79) 

In 1973 Bergoglio was made Provincial Superior for Argentina. The Jesuits there were bankrupt and had to sell properties — the most important of which was the Universidad del Salvador. Some have accused Bergoglio of leaving it in the hands of Guardia de Hierro militants (a right wing Peronist youth organization with which he sympathized) who went on a witch-hunt for “leftist” students and faculty.

From 1976 to 1983 during “The Dirty War,” Argentina was ruled by a ruthless military dictatorship, which “disappeared” 30,000 citizens. After his term as Provincial Superior expired, in 1980, Bergoglio became the rector (i.e., president and dean) of the Colegio Máximo de San Miguel, in Buenos Aires — the great Jesuit seminary which he had attended, and led until 1986. In this period the Society of Jesus in Argentina changed from progressive to conservative, if not retrograde.Uruguayan Jesuits stopped sending their seminarians to San Miguel.

Some may be tempted to think that Francis’ conservatism was guided by obedience to Pope John Paul II, but the evidence shows that he was already a conservative before that papal election in 1978.

John Paul II

With the election of a Polish, fiercely anti-communist pope in 1978, the Jesuits and Arrupe were under a political persecution led by a pope who thought Jesuits were opposed to his concept of a Catholic reconquest of the world and were too “undisciplined.” Moreover, in 1981 Arrupe suffered a stroke and the pope asked for his resignation, assigning Paolo Dezza (the conservative Jesuit and runner up to Arrupe in 1965!) as papal delegate in charge of the Jesuits. For the first time in 400 years the Jesuits did not elect their own Superior, and John Paul II had full control of the Society of Jesus.

The same year Ronald Reagan began his presidency and almost immediately the United States, for the first time ever, opened an embassy at the Vatican, which proceeded to use its bank (the Institute for Works of Religion) to finance the Solidarinozc movement in Poland, starting the eventual fall of the Soviet Union.

In 1983 Martin A. Lee wrote in Mother Jones, regarding the CIA’s possible role in the election of John Paul II and the repression of liberation theology:

“Part of the problem was the use of the term “Marxist analysis” by some liberation theologians, when they sought to show how the wealthy used their economic and political power to keep the masses down. The word “Marxist,” of course, drove John Paul crazy. Meanwhile, the Latin American establishment labeled as Communist anyone who wanted economic justice and political power for workers. Even many decent but cautious people feared that strikes and demonstrations would lead to violence. What is “prudent” can divide people of good will.”[1]

In 1984 and again in 1986, through then Cardinal Ratzinger, John Paul II officially condemned aspects of liberation theology.

Bergoglio in exile 

Between 1990 and 1992, the Jesuit Provincial Superior sent Bergoglio on a “spiritual retreat” to serve as a confessor and spiritual director to the Jesuit community in Córdoba, in central Argentina.  No one knows whether this was a sabbatical or a punishment. His exile from prominence was over in 1992 when he the pope named him Auxiliary Bishop of Buenos Aires to Archbishop Quarrancino. In 1998, he became Archbishop after Quarrancino´s death. In 2000, according to a report in L’espresso, Bergoglio “asked the entire Church in Argentina to put on garments of public penance for the sins committed during the years of the dictatorship.” 

Bergoglio the Cardinal 2001-2013 

If Bergoglio was quiet regarding the military Junta, he did not hold back speaking up against the Kirchner government’s support of abortion rights, free contraception, marriage equality and the privatization of governmental industries. He was a staunch opponent of neoliberal economics.  But then, the Kirchners were not arresting and torturing people.

Bergoglio the Pope

From all of the above it appears that Pope Francis’ commitment to the poor goes back to his very early years as a Jesuit, and to the Jesuits´ commitment to justice starting in the mid 60s, following the Second Vatican Council. This commitment is evident in his personal living out of God’s preferential option for the poor, as he has opted, again and again, for their company rather than that of the rich and powerful, and has advocated for them whenever possible.

What is not so clear is whether Pope Francis´ commitment to the poor includes a readiness to take on the “system,” i.e. the social, political and economic interests that actually create poverty, suffering and death.  Of course, any attempt of his to do this earlier would have been tagged as “Marxism” by the Vatican, and like so many luminaries of liberation theology, he would have been censured, if not silenced.

It will be fascinating to see to what extent Jorge Maria Bergoglio recovers his voice — and his will — as Pope Francis. For this, we will have to keep a close look on his coming decisions: who to appoint Secretary of State, what to do regarding Vatican records concerning sexual abuse, and how to deal with perpetrators at all levels, and above all, how to reform the Curia. For without that, all the rest will be impossible. But who knows; he just might, like the Samaritan, bring wine to wash the sins of the church, and oil to soothe it.

But I would not expect him to be concerned about why there is such misery in the world, much less how socioeconomic “powers that be” creates it.

Still, perhaps Pope Francis will turn out like another conservative bishop whose appointment shocked even his friends: St. Oscar Romero, Archbishop of El Salvador, martyr.

Until his retirement to Santa Fe in 2008, Dr. Juan Oliver was the director of the Hispanic/Latino Program and adjunct professor of Liturgics at The General Seminary in New York City.

He holds the M.Div., from the Church Divinity School of the Pacific and the M.F.A. in painting and drawing from the University of New Mexico. He earned the Ph.D. in Liturgical Studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley with his dissertation, “The Look of Common Prayer: The Anglican Liturgical Place in Anglo-American Culture,” which explored how a local vision of the Reign of God might be the main theological criterion for evaluating worship spaces. 

Dr. Oliver has published widely on worship, Hispanic ministry, and the full welcome of gay and lesbian persons in the Episcopal Church. His most recent project on Hispanic ministry, “Ripe Fields: The Promise and Challenge of Hispanic Ministry” (New York: Church Publishing) was published in 2009. He is a member of The Associated Parishes for Liturgy and Mission, as whose president he served from 1997 to 2001. At St. Bede´s, Santa Fe, he has since 2009, developed a growing Spanish speaking congregation which celebrates the Eucharist as a full meal open to all.


[1] Martin A. Smith “Their Will Be Done.”  Mother Jones, July/August 1983.


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