Pope Francis listens to a speech during a special audience...

Pope Francis listens to a speech during a special audience he held for members of the FOCSIV Italian Catholic volunteers, at the Vatican on Dec. 4, 2014. Credit: AP / Andrew Medichini

Like his namesake saint from Assisi, Pope Francis likes to shock people to get his message across.

Francis of Assisi did it eight centuries ago by stunning others with his compassion for animals, by washing lepers, by turning the other cheek to violence, and by accepting a poverty so intense that it was known to make people who saw it break into tears.

Pope Francis' first surprise was to take the name of this charismatic saint whose simple lifestyle challenged the church of his day to reform. Then he washed the feet of women prisoners, including a Muslim, during his first Holy Thursday ritual as pontiff; resolutely dropped much papal pomp; and famously responded to an interviewer who had asked about gay priests in the Vatican: "Who am I to judge?"

He's been dubbed "the pope of surprises," and just what surprises Francis has in store for his visit this week to the United States remain to be seen. If he keeps following the path of St. Francis -- whose love of creation is at the heart of the pope's much-debated "Laudato Si" encyclical on the environment and economic justice -- it means he will speak forcefully in word and through dramatic symbolic gesture.

"I think his choice of name was extremely important," said the Rev. John O'Malley, a historian at Georgetown University and author of the upcoming book "Catholic History for Today's Church." "I think it really gave you a kind of preview of what his values are."

The pope is "Franciscan-hearted," said the Rev. Daniel P. Horan, author of "The Franciscan Heart of Thomas Merton." Like St. Francis, the pontiff has shown that love of the poor offers "a way of reacting against a valuation of people according to wealth and social status."

Francis, in substance and style, is the salt of the earth. It shows in the unexpected gestures he brings to his papacy -- carrying his own suitcase, admitting mistakes, sitting in the pews for Mass instead of presiding, giving interviews to reporters, encouraging debate among the bishops, embracing a man severely disfigured by tumors -- and can be traced to his formative years in Argentina.

Father was Italian immigrant

Jorge Mario Bergoglio was born in Buenos Aires on Dec. 17, 1936. His father was an accountant who emigrated from Italy as a boy. His mother was descended from Italian immigrants. Austin Ivereigh writes in his biography "The Great Reformer" that Jorge's grandmother, Rosa, was a great influence on him. She taught the future pope to pray and to seek the help of the saints and the Blessed Mother. She also was an activist who, in Italy, had given speeches for Catholic Action, an organization that the rising fascist movement sought to repress.

This combination of the traditional piety of the poor and religiously based social activism would grow in Bergoglio's life.

He entered the diocesan seminary in 1956 and two years later switched to study for the Jesuit order. Ordained in 1969, he was formed as a priest while bishops from around the globe met in the Second Vatican Council from 1962 to 1965, shattering many long-held notions about the Catholic Church.

O'Malley, who authored a highly regarded book on Vatican II, sees it as significant that, unlike his five predecessors as pope, Bergoglio did not participate directly in the council.

"I think it's better," he said. "I really feel that Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict, on some level, they were still fighting the battles of the council. They had baggage. Bergoglio does not have that baggage."

The council issued poetic, optimistic documents that aimed to read "the signs of the times" and update the church. But behind that soaring language was passionate and often bitter political debate that pitted progressive and traditionalist bishops against each other.

As Bergoglio studied in Argentina, O'Malley said, he learned about the council "in a way where he was able to see the general orientations of the council and what it was trying to do." The Jesuit order in particular championed the reforms of the council, especially the emphasis on social justice.

Becomes close friend of rabbi

One significant result O'Malley sees from the council came in Bergoglio's response as archbishop of Buenos Aires to a groundbreaking 1965 document on relations with non-Christian religions, known as Nostra Aetate -- Latin for "In our time."

"The council talks a lot about interreligious dialogue," O'Malley said. " . . . As archbishop, he holds ongoing public dialogue with Rabbi [Abraham] Skorka," developing a close friendship and appearing on television with him.

No other Catholic prelate had ever held such a detailed public dialogue with a rabbi, O'Malley said. Bergoglio developed close ties to a Muslim leader in Argentina, Omar Abboud, as well. Both accompanied him on his journey to the Holy Land last year, and he embraced them at the Western Wall.

But for all the hopefulness that infused the Jesuit order and the church in general in the years immediately after the Vatican Council, there also was much chaos.

Division within religious order

Bergoglio was ordained at a time when many Argentine Jesuits were leaving the order; his own seminary class was small. Fierce divisions grew between Jesuits who educated the elite and those who advocated for the poor. As Ivereigh writes, some priests served to soothe the consciences of violent socialist revolutionaries, while others did the same for military troops who tortured their leftist opponents.

Such conflicts were rending a continent where the dominant Catholic faith and politics had long been entwined.

In documents issued in 1968 in Medellin, Colombia, the bishops of Latin America called for the church to identify with the poor. Many people had the impression that the church was rich and hierarchical, they wrote, admitting that their own style of leadership had contributed to that: "The great buildings, the rectories and religious houses that are better than those of the neighbors, the often luxurious vehicles, the attire, inherited from other eras, have been some of those causes."

Against that background, it's not hard to see why Bergoglio would one day prefer mass transit as the cardinal-archbishop of Buenos Aires, or ride in a Ford Focus as pope and wear his simple black shoes instead of handmade red loafers.

The Medellin documents marked the sunrise of liberation theology, which highlights the many biblical passages that cry out for attention to the needs of the poor. So just as Bergoglio readied for the priesthood, the stage was set for volatile conflicts between military dictators and the bishops and priests who took up the theology of liberation, and between factions within the Latin American church.

What's so unusual about Bergoglio's story is that less than four years after his ordination as a priest -- and only three months after taking the final vows of his order in 1973 -- he was elected the superior of Argentina's Jesuits, landing him in the midst of their battles.

"I was only 36 years old. That was crazy," he said in a 2013 interview with the Rev. Antonio Spadaro that was published in America magazine and 14 other Jesuit journals. "I had to deal with difficult situations, and I made my decisions abruptly and by myself."

From 1976 to 1983, Argentina was consumed by a "dirty war" in which a military junta sought to purge the country of left-wing guerrillas. Casting a wide net of suspicion, death squads secretly killed -- often in gruesome ways -- at least 9,000 and as many as 30,000 people suspected as dissidents. Leftist priests and nuns were among the victims, but the institutional church in Argentina was silent -- unlike Catholic leaders in other Latin American countries, such as Brazil, who stood up to military authorities.

Two fellow Jesuits kidnapped

As Bergoglio saw it, he tried to depoliticize the Jesuits' activities and so protect his priests. His critics charged that these actions were in fact political.

Most controversial was his handling of two Jesuit padres, Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics, who were kidnapped by the military for five months in 1976 and tortured. Both men, who had taught the younger Bergoglio in the seminary, rejected his order to dissolve their community in a slum neighborhood. They either resigned the Jesuit order -- as Bergoglio said happened -- or were pushed out. The two priests remained in their community and were abducted by the military.

Eventually, they were released -- a rarity. But Yorio, who died in 2000, would contend that Bergoglio had betrayed them. Jalics reconciled with Bergoglio in 2000 and said in 2013 that his earlier suspicions about Bergoglio's role were unfounded.

Author Paul Vallely writes in his book "Pope Francis: The Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism" that it was beyond doubt that Bergoglio had done much to protect potential victims from the death squads. He risked his life by hiding them in Jesuit seminaries and retreat houses. At the same time, he worked with Jesuits who were close to the military in an effort to save Yorio and Jalics.

Nonetheless, Bergoglio's decisions in this period continue to be questioned, even by himself.

"My authoritarian and quick manner of making decisions led me to have serious problems and to be accused of being ultraconservative," he said in the Spadaro interview.

Left-wing opponents in the order viewed him as an enemy. That continued after 1980, when Bergoglio moved on to become rector of Colegio Máximo, the Jesuit college where he had studied. In the politicking that followed, Bergoglio was sent to Germany in 1986 to work on a theology doctorate.

He was intrigued by a Baroque-era painting in Augsburg of Mary undoing knots and became devoted to her under the title "Our Lady, Untier of Knots." It was an existing devotion that he has since done much to popularize.

He never completed the doctorate and returned to Argentina to teach. The tensions persisted and, in 1990, the order dispatched him from Buenos Aires to a residence in Córdoba, 400 miles away.

Blames his 'authoritarian way'

Spurned by the Jesuit order, he was desolate. "I lived a time of great interior crisis," he told Spadaro, acknowledging, "It was my authoritarian way of making decisions that created problems."

Still, his leadership role in the Jesuit order influenced him a great deal and helps to explain why he has shaken up the Vatican by encouraging public debate after years of papal efforts to limit it. The result of that was seen in October, when Francis encouraged bishops to speak freely during a synod in Vatican City that dealt with issues such as divorce and homosexuality.

O'Malley recalled that he and Bergoglio both participated in general meetings of the Jesuits, including one in 1983 in which a superior of the order, Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, was elected.

"Those are free-for-alls. You get there and people speak their mind," O'Malley said. "There are no-holds-barred. . . . I think that's the kind of the model he had for the synod."

Even as he seemed at a dead end in the Jesuit order, Bergoglio's leadership ability had caught the eye of Cardinal Antonio Quarracino of Buenos Aires. In 1992, he was appointed auxiliary bishop. Soon after, he began to administer the archdiocese. In 1997, he began the process of succeeding Quarracino when he was appointed as coadjutor archbishop, and the following year he became the archbishop of Buenos Aires. He was created a cardinal in 2001.

Raquel Cellario Pizzi, who ran a soup kitchen in Buenos Aires for the Catholic charity called Caritas, said Bergoglio's message in retreats he gave annually to the workers was that the way to help the poor was to be among them.

"That we have to go down to them, be with them, be one of them, not look on them from another level," she said. "We have to be how they are, the way they live . . . that they don't feel that they're less. . . . We can't feel that we're more than them."

She recalled how attentive Bergoglio was to the 400 or so people who attended the retreats.

"He'd wait for us, standing at the door, and he'd greet each and every one of us. He would shake our hands and give us a kiss," she said. " . . . He would come by bus or he would come by an old car, like he does now. I met him once on the subway."

He was very much the man people now see as pope, with one exception, she said. "He wasn't the happy-go-lucky guy you see now. He was very serious."

Francis' fondness for the people living at the margins is consistent with liberation theology -- and also reminiscent of Francis of Assisi.

"It is precisely toward the periphery that [St.] Francis directs himself," Leonardo Boff, a Brazilian who is one of the leading voices of liberation theology, wrote in his 1981 book "Francis of Assisi." He proposed St. Francis as a patron saint of liberation theology because of his identification with the poor.

Doesn't back all liberation theology

Bergoglio's relationship to liberation theology is not easy to define. He is influenced by it but clearly rejected any use of it to support violence or societal division. As pope, he has outlined foundational principles that seem at odds with liberation theology, especially in the earlier versions. Like St. Francis, he is averse to contentiousness; one of the pope's principles is that "unity prevails over conflict." Also like the saint, he has a distaste for intellectualized ideology, reflected in his declaration that "realities are more important than ideas."

But he is very much attuned to the core argument of liberation theology: that the "preferential option for the poor" is rooted in the Gospel and the Old Testament. This has become the teaching of the church, adopted by St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.

The same two pontiffs sought to end liberation theology's use of a Marxist lens -- the idea that history is a long struggle between classes that must lead to either revolution or ruin -- to analyze the causes of poverty and identify solutions. The Vatican condemned that approach in the 1980s.

But the form of liberation theology that took root in Argentina did not make use of Marxist analysis, according to Keith Lemna, a professor at St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology in Indiana who has studied Pope Francis and liberation theology.

He said that the theologians who inspired Bergoglio used social and economic analysis, too, grounding their work not in the language of Marxism but in Vatican II's model of the church as the People of God -- a shared communion, rather than competing factions divided by class.

"The perspective that they bring to the situation is a faith perspective, theologically formed from the start," he said. "And they also want to validate the religious expressions of the people, so they're really adamant that you have to recognize the importance of popular religious devotions."

The mixture of faith and social action -- the belief that "Jesus cures as well as saves" -- comes more naturally to Latin America than to the United States, where the tendency is to separate the two, said the Rev. Alejandro Crosthwaite, a Dominican theologian at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome who visited the United States last month to speak on Francis' teachings.

As a consequence, Bergoglio was quite involved in economic matters as archbishop of Buenos Aires. He reached out to people like businessman Alberto Pizzi, who, like his mother, Raquel, who worked in soup kitchens, met with the future pope as he pursued his social action agenda.

Urges good treatment

Pizzi, president of Kraft Foods' Argentine subsidiary from 2006 to 2012, said Bergoglio often invited business leaders to breakfast to encourage them to treat their workers well.

Over toast and coffee -- "it wasn't something fancy" -- he sought to ensure that retirement programs were funded and that employees were retained in times of economic stress, he said.

"He did it with everybody," Pizzi added. "Most of the companies would listen."

Pizzi said he understood that in the United States, some have argued that Pope Francis opposes capitalism.

"I don't think that's the case," Pizzi said. " . . . He's concerned about the dark side of capitalism. He always talked about responsible capitalism: a contract between employers and employees. Not everything has to do with the bottom line. You can make money, yes, but do it in a way that people can progress." He added: "I agree. If you do things right, you can have both things."

Crosthwaite said Bergoglio rejected liberation theology, especially when he was the Jesuit provincial, "but he is very much influenced by his milieu, by his context, although he himself is not a liberation theologian."

He sees this Latin American inspiration in the pope's encyclical "Laudato Si," which integrates a scientific, political and economic analysis of the causes of global warming with a theological and cultural understanding of it.

Crosthwaite noted the influence of the Latin American church's worldview in the pope's denunciation of a "throwaway culture" that treats the poor as dispensable.

"Everything he will look at, he will look at from that perspective," Crosthwaite said.

It's why the call for justice for the poor comes through so strongly in "Laudato Si."

Because religion is built on tradition, church leaders often look back to move ahead. And in looking back, Pope Francis found St. Francis -- the spirited, strong-willed, unpredictable performer who was so opposed to greed that he refused to allow his growing order to own anything or to let himself or his friars touch money.

"It is not easy to speak about money," Pope Francis has said, noting that his namesake saint once declared that "money is the devil's dung." Francis added: "Now the pope also repeats it: 'Money is the devil's dung'! When money becomes an idol, it commands the choices of man. And then it destroys man and condemns him."

Nearly 800 years after St. Francis' death, the pope built "Laudato Si" on the vision of the holy man "whose name I took as my guide and inspiration." He wrote that St. Francis, who would burst into song in praise of the sun, moon or "the smallest of animals," knew how to "take us to the heart of what it is to be human."

"What Pope Francis is saying is that love needs to be extended to creation," Crosthwaite said. "We need to widen our circle of love to include creation, and that he takes from Francis of Assisi."

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