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In Argentina, Pope Francis' Legacy Is Complex


Catholics eager for change have embraced Pope Francis. He's charmed and impressed people of all faiths with his simple gestures. But he's a man with a complicated path.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio was a young priest in Argentina when a military dictatorship seized power there and brutalized many, including liberal priests. Alma Guillermoprieto, a veteran journalist, has written an admiring but clear-eyed portrait of the Pope. Her article, called "Francis's Holy War," appears in Matter, a new online magazine. She joins us from Bogota, Colombia. Thanks so much for being with us.

ALMA GUILLERMOPRIETO: Thank you so much, Scott.

SIMON: Let me put this bluntly. In the 1970s, Argentina was in the grip of what was called the Dirty War. People being disappeared. Which side was man now known as Pope Francis on?

GUILLERMOPRIETO: I think he was on the wrong side. I think he didn't understand the consequences of what the junta meant to do when it came to power. He had been very involved as a young man in politics. He was interested in communism.

But then he turned really to the right. He was an admirer of Juan Domingo Peron, the soft man of Argentina - to put it somehow. And he joined or was on the margins of a right-wing peronist group. And there were a lot of his priests who were very much on the left-wing side. And what happened is that he essentially failed to protect two of his most radical priests by demanding essentially that these priests leave the Jesuit order.

SIMON: And yet there are guerrillas who say he helped them hide or even escape.

GUILLERMOPRIETO: Yes. And I'm on the side that believes that Jorge Mario Bergoglio, as head of the Jesuit order, did not actually turn in his priests so that they could be disappeared. I'm on the side that believes that he expelled them from the order because he was sick of them. And that then they were picked up by the military junta.

And he did everything in his power then to get them out. And in fact, they were freed. And they did survive whereas so many other priests didn't.

SIMON: So that explains why some people are still angry at him and some people are still grateful to him.

GUILLERMOPRIETO: Yes. He's always been like that, I think. Throughout his life, he has made people furious at him and other people utterly devoted to him. And you can see that even happening a little bit now.

SIMON: I am struck by a phrase you quote from him where he says (quote) "God worked in me through those mistakes."

GUILLERMOPRIETO: Yeah. One of the things I was very struck by on this whole reporting trip is that one does move in a world of faith - and deep deep passionate faith. I think what he means is that these terrible moments of his life caused him enormous suffering - 40 years of suffering - and then turned him into a more compassionate, charitable and above all forgiving, merciful person.

SIMON: Alma Guillermoprieto. Her article, "Francis's Holy War," can be found in Matter magazine at www.medium.com. Thanks so much for being with us.

GUILLERMOPRIETO: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.