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A holy and humble servant of his flock

VATICAN CITY

The man who will move into the 10-room papal residence inside the vaulted gates of the Holy See has been living in a simple, austere apartment across from the Cathedral of Buenos Aires.

In a city with a taste for luxury and status, he frequently prepares his own meals and abandoned the limousine of his high office to hop on el micro -- Argentine slang for the bus.

A staunch conservative and devout Jesuit in Latin America's most socially progressive nation, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, is the product of an almost Solomon-esque choice by the princes of the church.

The 76-year-old hails from a country and a continent where the once powerful voice of the church is increasingly falling flat, losing ground -- as it is in Europe -- to a tide of more permissive and pragmatic faiths and fast-rising secularism.

He gives voice to a church whose center of global gravity is shifting increasing south. But the first pope from Latin America is also a cultural bridge between two worlds -- the son of Italian immigrants in a country where a massive influx earned Argentina a reputation as the New World colony Italy never had.

Italian heritage hailed

For many Italians, his heritage makes him the next best thing to the return of an Italian pope.

As cardinal, Bergoglio was a fierce critic of socially progressive trends, including gay marriage, representing a continuity of Benedict XVI's conservative doctrine.

Yet his other attributes -- as a champion of social justice and the poor who spoke out against the evils of globalization during the Argentine economic meltdown of 2000 -- made him a difficult target for progressives to attack.

He has accused fellow church leaders of hypocrisy and forgetting that Jesus Christ bathed lepers and ate with prostitutes.

"Jesus teaches us another way: Go out. Go out and share your testimony. Go out and interact with your brothers. Go out and share. Go out and ask. Become the Word in body as well as spirit," Bergoglio told Argentina's priests last year.

He also represents a flashback to an old-school view of the Catholic leaders as humble, soft-spoken clerics who walked among their flock and led by example.

"He knows how to take a municipal bus. When he became a local ordinary of Buenos Aires, he moved from a large impressive home to a modest dwelling. He has a sense of social justice, but he can be seen as quite conservative doctrinally," said the Rev. Robert Pelton, the director of Latin American Church Concerns at the University of Notre Dame.

A 'simple person'

"He's a simple person," Pelton said. "The fact is that he has a straightforwardness and simplicity that is quite unusual in public figures of our time."

Bergoglio became a priest at 32, nearly a decade after losing a lung to a respiratory illness and quitting his chemistry studies. Despite his late start, he was leading the local Jesuit community within four years, holding the post of provincial of the Argentine Jesuits from 1973 to 1979.

After six years as provincial, he held several academic posts and pursued further study in Germany. He was appointed auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires in 1992 and archbishop in 1998.

Bergoglio's legacy as cardinal includes his efforts to repair the reputation of a church that lost many followers by failing to openly challenge Argentina's murderous 1976-83 dictatorship. He also worked to recover the church's traditional political influence in society, but his outspoken criticism of President Cristina Kirchner couldn't stop her government from legalizing socially liberal measures that are anathema to the church, from same-sex marriages and adoptions by gays to free contraceptives for all.

Bergoglio himself felt most comfortable taking a very low profile, and his personal style has been the antithesis of Vatican splendor.

"It's a very curious thing: When bishops meet, he always wants to sit in the back rows. This sense of humility is very well seen in Rome," said Bergoglio's authorized biographer, Sergio Rubin.

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