His Holiness Pope Francis, whose original name was Jorge Mario Bergoglio was born on December 17, 1936 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He is the first pope from South America, and the first from the Jesuit order.
Bergoglio was the son of Italian immigrants to Argentina. After studying in high school to become a chemical technician, he worked briefly in the food-processing industry but felt called to the church. When he was about 21 years old, he suffered a severe bout of pneumonia that led to the removal of part of his right lung. He entered the Jesuit novitiate in 1958 and then turned to academics, studying humanities in Santiago, Chile, and earning a licentiate (equivalent to a master’s degree) in philosophy in Buenos Aires province. After graduation he taught literature and psychology in high school while pursuing a degree in theology. He was ordained a priest in 1969, took his final vows in the Jesuit order in 1973, and subsequently served as superior (head) of the Jesuit province of Argentina (1973–79).
Bergoglio’s tenure as head of the country’s Jesuits coincided with the military coup in Argentina (1976) led by Lieut. Gen. Jorge Rafael Videla. In the 1980s Bergoglio served as a seminary teacher and rector and pursued graduate studies in theology in Germany. In 1992 he was appointed an auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires. He was named archbishop of Buenos Aires (a post he held until his election to the papacy) in 1998 and was consecrated a cardinal in 2001. During the economic crisis in Argentina beginning in the late 1990s, which culminated in 2002 in the rapid devaluation of the country’s currency, Bergoglio acquired a public reputation for humility, living in a simple downtown apartment rather than in the archbishop’s residence and traveling by public transportation or by foot rather than in a chauffeured limousine. He became an outspoken advocate for the poor and an able politician, deftly promoting the church’s position on social matters in meetings with government officials.
In February 2013 Pope Benedict XVI resigned, citing old age and health concerns. Bergoglio was elected on the fifth ballot and chose the name Francis, in honour of St. Francis of Assisi, who lived a life of humble service to the poor, and also recalling St. Francis Xavier (1506–52), a founding member of the Jesuits.
Pope Francis took charge of a church at a crossroads. In the early 21st century Roman Catholics constituted more than one-sixth of the world’s population, many of them in Latin America and Africa. Yet scandals, particularly the clergy sexual-abuse scandals that first arose in the 1980s and ’90s, had undermined the church’s stature, particularly in the United States and Europe. He also took the unprecedented step in 2013 of appointing a council of eight cardinals to advise him on church policy. His remark in that year that Christ had “redeemed all of us,” even non-Catholics, were broadly interpreted by the media as a message of outreach and goodwill toward atheists and agnostics, though a Vatican spokesman later claimed that Francis had been misinterpreted.
A central dimension of Francis’s papacy was championing the poor and oppressed, and from the start he promoted a broad ministry that aimed to include not only non-Catholic Christians but even non-Christians. He drew traditionalists’ ire soon after taking office when he washed the feet of two young women, including a Muslim, in a juvenile detention centre during the traditional Maundy Thursday reenactment of Jesus’ washing of the feet of the Twelve Apostles. (Church tradition held that women could not participate in the ceremony because the Apostles were men.)
In November 2013 he issued Evangelii Gaudium ("The Joy of the Gospel"), an apostolic exhortation in which he denounced economic inequality and called upon the church to embrace its global diversity. In June 2015 Francis issued Laudato si’ ("Praise be to you"), the first encyclical of his papacy. Laudato si’ proclaimed that environmental degradation was “a moral issue” spurred by greed and unchecked capitalism, which caused human beings to lose sight of the relationships that bound them together and to neglect Earth, their "common home." Three months after issuing Laudato si’, Francis made his first visit to the United States, where he became the first pope to address the U.S. Congress. In April 2016 Francis issued his second exhortation, Amoris laetitia ("The Joy of Love"), a wide-ranging pronouncement on family issues. In August 2018 Francis revised the catechism of the Catholic Church to fully reject the death penalty. In February 2019 Francis became the first pope ever to visit the Arabian Peninsula, the birthplace of Islam, in a trip meant to promote religious fraternity and peace. In October 2020 Francis issued Fratelli Tutti an enclyclical letter on fraternity and social friendship as a way to build a more just and peaceful world.