Understanding Pope Francis: 10 Facts About 'The People's Pope'

With the Pope's highly anticipated arrival in the United States tomorrow, we're taking a look at the intriguing man behind the headlines.
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Pope Francis Photo

Pope Francis among the people in St. Peter's Square in 2013. (Photo: Edgar Jiménez from Porto, Portugal (Papa rock star) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons)

He's been referred to as the pope for all people, and it's true: Pope Francis, the highest figure in the Catholic Church, has both reached out to and generated interest from people of all religious traditions, the world over. His bold statements, such as “Who am I to judge?” regarding homosexuality, and decisive actions, including washing the feet of people of diverse cultures and faiths in a detention center during a Holy Thursday ceremony, say a lot about his beliefs and how he interprets church doctrine. 

Getting behind the headlines reveals a man who is even more intriguing, with the facts of his life pre-papacy offering context to help us understand the pontiff and his public face. Here are 10 things to know about Pope Francis. 

1.  The papacy brings Pope Francis full-circle, geographically speaking.

The seat of the papacy, of course, is Vatican City, a city-state that is essentially absorbed by Rome, Italy. The pope, who is from Argentina, was born to Italian immigrants and his given name is Jorge Bergoglio. His ascendancy to the papacy brings him back to his own family roots. 

His Italian origins haven't necessarily given him an advantage, however, when it comes to speaking Italian. Although he is considered fluent in the language and carries out his public duties almost entirely in Italian, the pope has said that he grew up listening to his father and maternal grandparents speak a dialect specific to the Italian region of Piedmont. Spanish is his own first language, and his German is proficient. 

2.  Before he was a priest, he was a chemical technician.

When Pope Francis issued his encyclical about the environment in the summer of 2015, Republican presidential candidates lined up to criticize him, with Rick Santorum telling a TV talk show host that the pope should “leave science to the scientists.” 

Clearly, Santorum didn't know what thousands of people, some standing ready to generate a clever Internet meme, knew: Pope Francis was well-versed in science. Before he made the decision to join the priesthood, he obtained a degree in chemical technology and worked as a chemical technician.   

3.  His mother wasn't thrilled about him joining the priesthood.

Initially, his mother didn't offer her blessing when her son decided to join the priesthood. In fact, she spent several years resisting the decision, never visiting him at seminary until he was actually ordained. A housewife who cared for Bergoglio and his four siblings, the mother of the future pope simply thought her son had made a rash decision to pursue a religious vocation. 

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Pope Francis as a young priest with his mother and father. 

4.  He has always rejected luxury. 

Several anecdotes about Pope Francis's humility and relative asceticism circulated quickly through the international press upon his election to the papacy by the conclave of cardinals. Among them: He returned to the guesthouse where he had been staying during the conclave to pay his bill. He eschewed the luxurious papal residence that has been the traditional home of the pope for more than a century, choosing instead to live in a comparatively spare apartment.

And he said he'd “just go with the guys on the bus” rather than being driven away from the conclave in a limousine by a private chauffeur. 

But his rejection of luxury is nothing new. Even as a priest and then bishop and cardinal in Argentina, Pope Francis—then Jorge Bergoglio—was known to take the subway and bus and to  live in more modest accommodations than the official residences reserved for him. He even cooked his own meals. 

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Before he became Pope, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was known to take the subway in Buenos Aires. 

5.  His priesthood was not without controversy. 

While admired the world over, not everyone loves Pope Francis uncritically. Some Argentineans, in particular, have harsh words for the pope, who they criticize for not having been more outspoken about Argentina's so-called Dirty War, a seven-year, dictator-led campaign against government dissidents. The Catholic Church was known to be complicit in propping up the dictatorship, and Bergoglio was the target of complaints from Dirty War survivors, family members of victims, and the general public, who believed he should have done more to prevent atrocities. In particular, they argue he should have intervened to act for the release of Francisco Jalics and Orlando Yorio, two priests who were kidnapped and held by the dictatorship for five months.

Pope Francis himself has said that he worked within the church to offer protection and intervention to as many priests as possible, even helping some leave the country during the dictatorship. More recently—earlier this year, in fact—he opened a Vatican inquiry into this particular chapter of church and Argentinean history, ordering that the church make available for public scrutiny its own archives about the war.

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Pope Francis will arrive in Washington D.C. on September 22, followed by visits to New York City and Philadelphia.

6.  Pope Francis has never been afraid of bold moves. . .

… and so far, his papacy proves it. From demoting and excommunicating members of the clergy who have broken their vows of poverty to implementing a sweeping reform with respect to the transparency of the Vatican's finances and confronting the Mafia (“Mafiosi are not in communion with God. They are excommunicated,” he declared in June 2014), Pope Francis has taken on controversial—and even dangerous—issues, confronting them boldly. 

7.  Interfaith outreach is nothing new to this pope.

Long before he ascended to the papacy, Pope Francis was interested in interfaith initiatives. Since becoming pope in 2013, Francis has reached out to people of many faiths—and of no faith—in acts that have been lauded by the press. But his openness toward interfaith dialogue and effort are nothing new to him. In fact, he authored a book, On Heaven and Earth, with Rabbi Abraham Skorka, who has become a close friend over the nearly 20 years they have known each other, and he has initiated and participated in many interfaith projects and programs. 

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Pope Francis embraces Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Omar Abboud, an Argentinean Muslim leader. The Pope invited the two religious leaders to accompany him on his trip to the Holy Land in May 2014, the first time a papal delegation included members of other faiths.

8.  Combating poverty has long been his pet project.

Since arriving at the Vatican, Pope Francis has put poor people at the center of his global agenda, and frequently makes headlines for offering tangible support to people in need. He has, for example installed showers in the Vatican for homeless people to use, and has been reported to regularly “sneak out” of the Vatican to visit the homeless at night. On his own birthday, he celebrated by distributing sleeping bags to 400 people who needed them. 

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Pope Francis on a January 2015 visit to a foundation that helps homeless children in Manila. (Photo: www.anak-tk.org)

The pope has also exhorted his flock to follow suit, saying “All of us, each day, are presented with the option of being Good Samaritans or indifferent passersby,” though he has also warned them against becoming “paternalistic protector[s],” which, he cautions, prevents people from growing. 

9.  Pope Francis's beatifications underscore his beliefs.

While only a handful of his beatifications has made big news, Pope Francis has conferred sainthood upon 42 individuals, with plans to beatify eight additional people by year's end. 

The people he has selected for beatification are wide-ranging in their origins, representing South Africa, Lebanon, Croatia, South Korea, and El Salvador, among many other countries. Unlike his predecessors, who tended to confer sainthood on individuals who were dead for at least a century, a significant number of the newer saints, including South African Benedict Daswa and Salvadoran archbishop Oscar Romero, died in the 20th-century in defense of their beliefs. The pope's choices of new saints seems to affirm the precedent of his papacy with respect to inclusivity and awareness of those who have often been forgotten or marginalized by the church.  

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Pope Francis appears on the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica after being elected by the papal conclave in 2013.

10.  Pope Francis won't hold forth from his bully pulpit forever.

The pontiff is currently 78 years old and though he is just two and a half years into his papacy, he has hinted that he doesn't plan to occupy the post ad infinitum. In an interview broadcast on the second anniversary of his election by the conclave, Pope Francis said “I have the feeling that my pontificate will be brief — four or five years, even two or three.” 

His health is reported to be good generally, but armchair doctors speculate that the removal of part of one of his lungs, an operation that occurred when he was a young man, may contribute to some health concerns, including fatigue and “mild health problems” that resulted in his canceling several public appearances in June 2014. Or it could be his punishing schedule. The pope rises at 4:30 every day and has a full agenda of activities, often including travel. In fact, his visit to Cuba and the United States this month. 

Pope Francis In His Own Words Photo

Cover for 'Pope Francis in His Own Words.' (Photo: New World Library)

Julie Schwietert Collazo is an award-winning bilingual journalist who covers Latin America and Latino communities in the U.S. for a wide variety of outlets. She is the author of Pope Francis in His Own Words.