Just a year ago on this page I was writing about Pope Benedict XVI’s elder brother Georg and how, while ostensibly discreet and loyal to his celebrated sibling, he contrived at the same time to make him look too old and bumbling for the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church. In a book, My Brother, the Pope, this old priest from Bavaria said that his younger brother had never wanted the job, was too physically frail for it, and found it a tremendous strain. Georg Ratzinger must now be feeling somewhat vindicated, but at the time he was ‘off message’, for the Vatican was insistent that the pope was on excellent form.
People in high office whose authority demands dignity are often embarrassed by their siblings, as several American presidents have found. And it is beginning to look as if Pope Francis I may have such a problem with his well-meaning sister, Maria Elena Bergoglio, who is 12 years his junior. Despite his age (76) and the fact that he has only one lung, she does not suggest that he isn’t fit enough to be pope. On the contrary, she has said he has ‘no physical limitations’. But then, as evidence of his vigour, she told the Daily Telegraph that he enjoyed dancing the tango. Well, really! She may have meant only in his youth before he embarked on a career in the priesthood; or so one must charitably assume, for it would be hard to imagine a more inappropriate activity for a pope.
The tango is an almost absurdly erotic dance, developed in the slums and brothels of Argentina before spreading like wildfire around the world. Georges Clemenceau, France’s first world war prime minister, said of it, ‘One only sees faces that are bored and bottoms that are enjoying themselves.’ On another occasion, he was reported as saying that ‘in my day, we only did that lying down’. In any case, it fairly boggles the mind to imagine anyone destined for the papacy dancing it at any stage in his life.
However, it is clear that the Pope’s sister is right. In an interview published three years ago, the then Cardinal Bergoglio said of the tango, ‘I like it a lot. It’s something that comes from within me.’ He showed great knowledge of the tango’s history and of its most famous performers, especially mentioning Ada Falcón, an Argentine tango singer and actress of great wealth and celebrity who, 60 years before her death in 2002, suddenly gave up a life of luxury and romantic turbulence to live in seclusion in Buenos Aires. She would then only leave her house to attend Mass dressed entirely in black, apart from a white turban and white gloves. She later moved to an isolated convent in the country where she became a ‘tertiary nun’, a lay adherent of a religious order, and lived out her life as a pauper.
The Pope, of course, chose the name Francis in honour of St Francis of Assisi, whose life may be compared in some respects to that of Ada Falcón. They were both flamboyant lovers of luxury (St Francis a fan of the troubadours, perhaps the tango singers of his day) before they gave up everything to embrace poverty. The Pope himself was born poor and has said he wants the Catholic Church to be ‘a poor Church for the poor’. He has also said he chose the name Francis because St Francis represented poverty. So his love of the tango may be a symptom of his sympathy with the poor and with their pleasures. It certainly suggests that, for all his doctrinal orthodoxy, his condemnation of gay marriage and so on, he is no puritan, and he is not shockable.
One may anticipate, therefore, that this Pope will be compassionate and slow to condemn, especially as he was once himself an enthusiastic tango-dancer. And it is to his great credit that he still loves the tango and does not regard it as a youthful aberration from which Christ has rescued him. This is the strongest sign yet that we are about to experience a new kind of pontificate.