Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Rome & Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires Cathedral
Photo by longhorndave
            In 1979, my grandfather wrote the first English-language biography of the new Polish pope, and he entitled it ‘The Man From Cracow’. The new pope of 2013 is, then, the man from Buenos Aires. “It seems my brother cardinals have gone to the ends of the earth” to find a pontiff, Pope Francis said on Rome’s most famous balcony last night. When I first flew into Buenos Aires, it did indeed look like that – a city on the far edge of the Atlantic, surrounded by a vast South American plain, lapped by the brown waters of the Rio de la Plata delta.
Those who write on South America’s troubled 20th century will have their own perspectives on what the election yesterday of the cardinal-archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (b.1936), as pope means. For a historian of the early modern church, however, this feels like a moment when two great legacies of the 16th century have finally struck home in Rome. The 16th century was of course the period in which the Roman church, after tentative beginnings with new dioceses in the Mid-Atlantic isles in the 15th century, went truly global. Throughout the brutal Spanish conquest of South America, the conquistadores were followed by Catholic missionaries, who baptised the subjects of the defeated Aztec, Inca and Maya rulers in their millions. Buenos Aires, on the southern, coastal fringes of that Spanish continental empire, was founded in the 1530s, and in 1620 Pedro Carranza was named the very first bishop of the diocese of Rio de la Plata.
The sixteenth century also saw the birth of what is perhaps the Catholic Church’s most famous religious order, the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits. Founded by the Spanish ex-solider Ignatius Loyola, and officially launched with a papal bull of 1540, the Jesuits specialised from the outset in mission work – in Protestant areas of Europe, in what they saw as the un-evangelised rural heartlands of Catholic Europe, in Japan, China, and of course the Americas. They were particularly active in the areas we now call Paraguay and Argentina, setting up networks of missions deep in the interior, founding the Jesuit college of Cordoba in 1611. In over half a millennium of high-profile activity, the Society of Jesus, this distinctive product of the 16C Roman church, never produced a pope.
So, when on Tuesday an archbishop of Buenos Aires and a Jesuit is enthroned as bishop of Rome, we need to look to the 16th century to grasp the long-term trajectories which have led Cardinal Bergoglio to the papacy. His church has never recovered the religious monopoly in Western and Central Europe which it lost with the 16C Reformation, but the story of this particular papacy begins in 16C Spanish America. We can only guess what Pedro Carranza, as he began the construction of Buenos Aires’ first cathedral by the brown river in the 1620s, or Argentina’s only beato, the Mapuche Ceferino Namancura, a pious teenager who died of tuberculosis in Rome in 1905, would have made of the idea of a pope from Argentina. However, for Christianity, which itself came to Rome from the imperial margins, a pope from the periphery of Spain’s pioneering global empire seems a historically apt choice.

The man from Buenos Aires
Photo by Catholic Church England & Wales