It was perhaps inevitable that the election of Pope Francis should generate English tabloid headlines about the hand of God. Few ironic puns resonate more among footy-mad Protestant English folk convinced of the cultural superiority of our island race than this phrase, immortalised by Diego Maradona following his disputed goal against England in the Mexico World Cup of 1986.
In case any of us may have forgotten, this was a goal that Maradona clearly handled into the net, and which the referee allowed, much to the enduring outrage of at least two generations of English fans. And yet events this week have challenged the stereotype that much of the world has of Argentina as an arrogant, self-obsessed but ultimately flawed nation, as personified by Maradona – a drug addict and cheat who squandered his reputation as the most brilliant player in the history of football.
On Tuesday, while the conclave met for the first time to try to decide who should be Pope Benedict’s successor, there was no immediate white smoke, but a benign spirit of sorts hovered just across the Mediterranean. In FC Barcelona’s stadium, an Argentinian called Lionel Messi inspired his team to a historic Champions League performance, scoring two of the four goals against AC Milan, not with his hand but with sublime creativity of pace, vision and foot.
We can look back on that match as the confirmation that currently the best player in the world is both Argentinian and one whose conduct on and off the pitch is a shining example to kids around the world. It was an omen that even better news was on the way for Argentina, a nation best known for its history of power-mad politicians and bloody generals, as well as the unpredictability of its star players.
Stunned as the initial silence might have been in St Peter’s Square, the election as Pope Francis of Jorge Bergoglio from Buenos Aires has not only brought Argentina centre stage but done so in a way that could be transformative for the country, and thus how the rest of the world views it.
One of five children, the Buenos Aires-born son of a working-class railway worker from Turin and an unemployed mother, Pope Francis has his roots in the Italian immigrant community that over the past 100 years has formed the backbone of Argentina’s evolution as a modern if failed state. And yet here is a Jesuit who belies the caricature many Argentinian anti-Catholics and some Catholics themselves have of bishops corrupted by status, and aloof from the real sufferings of the world, to which some of them may have contributed. He has proved that he is keenly aware of the inequalities and skewed politics of his own country, and prepared not only to speak out against inequality but also to practise what he preaches in a very challenging social and political environment.
While media-shy, his public sermons holding the state responsible for thousands of Argentinians emigrating and a huge capital flight, and the excessive consumerism of the rich and powerful, have put him at loggerheads with Argentina’s demagogic civilian President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. So, too, has his criticism on moral grounds of her pro-abortion and gay marriage laws, arguing that children have a right to be raised by a father and mother.
And yet for all his apparent orthodoxy of doctrine on certain issues, he has a pragmatic view on contraception, believing that it can be permissible to prevent disease. And, unlike some other cardinals, he has not been tarnished with any allegations related to sexual abuse.
But it is his frugal lifestyle and his selfless engagement with the poor that account for his popularity among many ordinary Argentinians. They contrast his humble style with that of an aspiring and populist President who is surrounded by a closed court of sycophantic officials and aides, and is egged on in her militancy by the pro-government newspaper, TV and radio channels she happily exploits for her own interests.
Certainly, the coverage this week of the controversy surrounding Pope Francis’s alleged role during Argentina’s so-called Dirty War following the 1976 coup, during which thousands were kidnapped and killed, has barely dented the overwhelmingly positive image a majority of Argentinians have of him. They have a growing sense now of Pope Francis as a true messenger of God whose world standing will help to curb the political ambitions of President Kirchner, who has been planning to change the constitution so that she can run for a third term in 2015.
This optimism has been bolstered by the fact that those defending Pope Francis have included respected and politically independent individuals such as the human rights activist and Nobel peace prize-winner Adolfo Perez Esquivel, who has strongly challenged the accusations made against Pope Francis of complicity in the Dirty War made by allies of President Kirchner.
Moreover, Argentinians I have spoken to in recent days feel that this first Latin American Pope, who has taken the name of the humblest of saints, can change not only their sense of how one should come out on top, but can do it in a way that can win universal respect. For in his apparent determination to take on and transform the Vatican-entrenched bureaucracy and power brokers, Pope Francis is also sending a clear signal to endemically corrupt courts around the world, not least in the Casa Rosada, that the age we live in demands spiritual along with political and social renewal.
This was a week, three decades after Argentina backed its bloody junta’s military occupation of the Falklands Islands, that the indefatigable President Kirchner dismissed “as a parody of squatters who illegally live in an occupied territory” the islanders who overwhelmingly voted to remain British. But it was a week, too, when Argentinians were reminded of a sermon Pope Francis gave back in 2010 in a service in Buenos Aires Cathedral boycotted by President Kirchner, when he urged his countrymen: “True patriotism is a gift, true nationhood something that deserves a different civil and spiritual climate to that which we have been used to and which allows us to overcome our permanent state of confrontation.”
There were not a few Argentinians crying out “we’ve won” this week, but for a rare moment in their history their triumphalism was shared widely beyond its borders – and deservedly so.
Jimmy Burns is a journalist and author. His books include ‘The Hand of God’ and ‘The Land that Lost its Heroes: How Argentina Lost the Falklands War’