On the edge of Buenos Aires is a nothing little street called Pasaje C, a shot of dried mud leading into a slum from what passes for a main road, the garbage-strewn Mariano Acosta. There is a church, the Immaculate Virgin, toward the end of the pasaje—Spanish for passage—where, on one occasion, the local priest and a number of frightened residents took refuge deep in the sanctuary when rival drug gangs opened fire. Beyond the church, Pasaje C branches into the rest of the parish: more rutted mud and cracked concrete form Pasajes A to K. Brick chips from the hasty construction of squatter housing coagulate along what ought to be sidewalks. The word asesino—murderer—is scrawled in spray-paint on the sooty wall of a burned-out house, which was torched just days before in retaliation for yet another shooting. Packs of dogs sprawl beneath wrecked cars. Children wander heedless of traffic, because nothing can gather speed on these jagged roads. But even Pasaje C can lead to Rome.
As Cardinal and Archbishop of Buenos Aires, a metropolis of some 13.5 million souls, Jorge Mario Bergoglio made room in his schedule every year for a pastoral visit to this place of squalor and sorrow. He would walk to the subway station nearest to the Metropolitan Cathedral, whose pillars and dome fit easily into the center of Argentine power. Traveling alone, he would transfer onto a graffiti-blasted tram to Mariano Acosta, reaching where the subways do not go. He finished the journey on foot, moving heavily in his bulky black orthopedic shoes along Pasaje C. On other days, there were other journeys to barrios throughout the city—so many in need of so much, but none too poor or too filthy for a visit from this itinerant prince of the church. Reza por mí, he asked almost everyone he met. Pray for me.
When, on March 13, Bergoglio inherited the throne of St. Peter—keeper of the keys to the kingdom of heaven—he made the same request of the world. Pray for me. His letter of retirement, a requirement of all bishops 75 and older, was already on file in a Vatican office, awaiting approval. Friends in Argentina had perceived him to be slowing down, like a spent force. In an instant, he was a new man, calling himself Francis after the humble saint from Assisi. As Pope, he was suddenly the sovereign of Vatican City and head of an institution so sprawling—with about enough followers to populate China—so steeped in order, so snarled by bureaucracy, so vast in its charity, so weighted by its scandals, so polarizing to those who study its teachings, so mysterious to those who don’t, that the gap between him and the daily miseries of the world’s poor might finally have seemed unbridgeable. Until the 266th Supreme Pontiff walked off in those clunky shoes to pay his hotel bill.
The papacy is mysterious and magical: it turns a septuagenarian into a superstar while revealing almost nothing about the man himself. And it raises hopes in every corner of the world—hopes that can never be fulfilled, for they are irreconcilable. The elderly traditionalist who pines for the old Latin Mass and the devout young woman who wishes she could be a priest both have hopes. The ambitious monsignor in the Vatican Curia and the evangelizing deacon in a remote Filipino village both have hopes. No Pope can make them all happy at once.
But what makes this Pope so important is the speed with which he has captured the imaginations of millions who had given up on hoping for the church at all. People weary of the endless parsing of sexual ethics, the buck-passing infighting over lines of authority when all the while (to borrow from Milton), “the hungry Sheep look up, and are not fed.” In a matter of months, Francis has elevated the healing mission of the church—the church as servant and comforter of hurting people in an often harsh world—above the doctrinal police work so important to his recent predecessors. John Paul II and Benedict XVI were professors of theology. Francis is a former janitor, nightclub bouncer, chemical technician and literature teacher.
And behind his self-effacing facade, he is a very canny operator. He makes masterly use of 21st century tools to perform his 1st century office. He is photographed washing the feet of female convicts, posing for selfies with young visitors to the Vatican, embracing a man with a deformed face. He is quoted saying of women who consider abortion because of poverty or rape, “Who can remain unmoved before such painful situations?” Of gay people: “If a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge.” To divorced and remarried Catholics who are, by rule, forbidden from taking Communion, he says that this crucial rite “is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”
Through these conscious and skillful evocations of moments in the ministry of Jesus, as recounted in the Gospels, this new Pope may have found a way out of the 20th century culture wars, which have left the church moribund in much of Western Europe and on the defensive from Dublin to Los Angeles. But the paradox of the papacy is that each new man’s success is burdened by the astonishing successes of Popes past. The weight of history, of doctrines and dogmas woven intricately century by century, genius by genius, is both the source and the limitation of papal power. It radiates from every statue, crypt and hand-painted vellum text in Rome—and in churches, libraries, hospitals, universities and museums around the globe. A Pope sets his own course only if he can conform it to paths already chosen.
And so Francis signals great change while giving the same answers to the uncomfortable questions. On the question of female priests: “We need to work harder to develop a profound theology of the woman.” Which means: no. No to abortion, because an individual life begins at conception. No to gay marriage, because the male-female bond is established by God. “The teaching of the church … is clear,” he has said, “and I am a son of the church, but”—and here he adds his prayer for himself—“it is not necessary to talk about those issues all the time.”
If that prayer should be answered, if somehow by his own vivid example Francis could bring the church into a new relationship with its critics and dissidents—agreeing to disagree about issues that divide them while cooperating in the urgent mission of spreading mercy—he might unleash untold good. “Argue less, accomplish more” could be a healing motto for our times. We have a glut of problems to tackle. Francis says by example, Stop bickering and roll up your sleeves. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good—an important thing for the world to hear, especially from a man who holds an office deemed infallible.
A Changing Papacy
This papacy begins with a name. Jorge Bergoglio is the first Pope to choose as his namesake Francis of Assisi, the 13th century patron saint of the poor. The choice, coming after 14 Clements, 16 Benedicts and 21 Johns, is clearly and pointedly personal. The 13th century Francis turned to the ministry when, as legend has it, he heard a voice calling to him from a crucifix to repair God’s house. He left his prosperous silk-merchant family to live with the poor. He was a peacemaker, the first Catholic leader to travel to Egypt to try to end the Crusades. He placed mercy at the core of his life.
From that name follows much of Francis’ agenda. While the Catholic Church envisioned by Benedict XVI was one of tightly calibrated spiritual prescriptions, Francis told Father Antonio Spadaro, editor of the Jesuit magazine Civiltà Cattolica, in an interview published at the end of September, that he sees “the church as a field hospital after battle.” His vision is of a pastoral—not a doctrinaire—church, and that will shift the Holy See’s energies away from demanding long-distance homage and toward ministry to and embrace of the poor, the spiritually broken and the lonely. He expanded on this idea in a 288-section apostolic exhortation called “Evangelii Gaudium,” or “The Joy of the Gospel.” “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security,” he wrote. He made it clear that he does not just want talk—he wants actual transformation.
He has halted the habit of granting priests the honorific title of monsignor as a way to stem careerism in the ranks and put the focus instead on pastoring. He told a gathering of his diplomats that he wanted them to identify candidates for bishop in their home countries who are, he said, “gentle, patient and merciful, animated by inner poverty, the freedom of the Lord and also by outward simplicity and austerity of life.” To Francis, poverty isn’t simply about charity; it’s also about justice. The church, by extension, should not reflect Rome; it should mirror the poor.
Which helps explain why he has turned the once obscure Vatican Almoner, an agency that has been around for about 800 years and is often reserved for an aging Catholic diplomat, over to the dynamic 50-year-old Polish Archbishop Konrad Krajewski and told him to make it the Holy See’s new front porch. “You can sell your desk,” Francis told Krajewski. “You don’t need it. You need to get out of the Vatican. Don’t wait for people to come ringing. You need to go out and look for the poor.” The Archbishop hands out small amounts to the needy, including a recent gift of 1,600 phone cards to immigrant survivors of a capsized boat so they could call family back in Eritrea. Francis often gives Krajewski stacks of letters with his instructions to help the people who have written to him and asked for aid. In what sounds like a necessary precaution, the Vatican recently issued a denial after Krajewski hinted that Francis himself sometimes slips out of the Vatican dressed as an ordinary priest to hand out alms.
Francis also moved early to tame the mess that is the Vatican Bank, an institution even U.S. Treasury officials privately say is corrupted. Soon after he was elected, he named a special commission to investigate the bank, which in turn handed the matter off to an independent firm for an audit. Francis also issued initiatives to counter money laundering and increase the monitoring of the Vatican’s finances. In October, the bank disclosed an annual report for the first time in its 125-year history.
And if personnel is policy, Francis has been particularly busy, shaking up the Curia with his preference for new faces over old ones. In a move that signifies he means business, he tossed Benedict’s Secretary of State, Tarcisio Bertone, and named ambassador to Venezuela Archbishop Pietro Parolin, the youngest man to hold the post since Eugenio Pacelli, who went on to become Pope Pius XII in 1939.
In April, Francis tapped a boarding party of eight like-minded bishops from around the world to meet with him several times a year to comb through difficult problems, a move that diffused some of the traditional power of the Synod of Bishops. “I don’t want token consultations,” he explained in an interview, “but real consultations.” That, at least so far, appears to be what he is getting. The membership is telling: Cardinals from Chile, Congo and Honduras as well as Munich, Australia and Boston are on the panel. In August, another member, Cardinal Oswald Gracias of India, issued one of the most expansive comments about gays that the church has ever made, stating that while the church does not allow gay marriage, homosexuality is not a sin. “To say that those with other sexual orientations are sinners is wrong,” he wrote to an LGBT group in Mumbai. “We must be sensitive in our homilies and how we speak in public and I will so advise our priests.”
Francis has backed up his deeds with homilies and his first apostolic exhortation. He can barely contain his outrage when he writes, “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?” Elsewhere in his exhortation, he goes directly after capitalism and globalization: “Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion … has never been confirmed by the facts.” He says the church must work “to eliminate the structural causes of poverty” and adds that while “the Pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike … he is obliged in the name of Christ to remind all that the rich must help, respect and promote the poor.”
The church has always made the poor a priority—a mission that has been the biting paradox of the treasure-laden Vatican. But Francis has made it clear that they are a priest’s first responsibility. “A lack of vigilance, as we know, makes the Pastor tepid; it makes him absentminded, forgetful and even impatient,” he preached in May. “It tantalizes him with the prospect of a career, the enticement of money and with compromises with a mundane spirit; it makes him lazy, turning him into an official, a state functionary, concerned with himself, with organization and structures, rather than with the true good of the People of God.” In case anyone missed the point, he suspended a bishop in Limburg, Germany, for overseeing a $42.5 million renovation of the church residence that included a $20,500 bathtub. Says Father Guillermo Marcó, who was Bergoglio’s spokesman from 1998 to 2006: “It is the first time we have had a priest as Pope.”
An Argentine’s Way
On weekends in Buenos Aires, you can take a 31⁄2-hour bus tour of the neighborhoods where Jorge Mario Bergoglio grew up. “What’s coming up on this street?” the tour guide Daniel Vega asks as the bus pulls up on Calle Membrillar in the Flores district of Buenos Aires. “The house where he was born,” comes the answer. There’s the chapel where his father Mario, a native of the Piedmont region of Italy, and Regina, an Argentine of Piedmontese descent, met in 1934. They married the next year and had their firstborn, Jorge Mario, on Dec. 17, 1936.
The Bergoglios were very strict Catholics, the kind who worry about meeting people who were not married in the church or who were socialists or atheists. But the future Pope was never that doctrinaire: in the four years between realizing he was called to the priesthood and actually entering seminary, he said he had “political concerns, though I never went beyond simple intellectualizing.” He admits to reading and liking publications of the Communist Party but says he was never a member. Many Bergoglio watchers—a minor industry in Argentina—believe that his concern for the destitute is partly rooted in Argentina’s experience with Peronism, a strange socialist-capitalist amalgam that evolved in the country in the 1940s and was powered by a deep, working-class populism. That ideology suffused everything Argentine then—and now.
Bergoglio is quite mystical about his career choice, which hit him when he stopped off at church on his way to join friends to celebrate a holiday. “It surprised me, caught me with my guard down,” he told Francesca Ambrogetti and Sergio Rubin, who interviewed him for their 2010 book, published this year in the U.S. as Pope Francis: Conversations with Jorge Bergoglio. “That is the religious experience: the astonishment of meeting someone who has been waiting for you all along.” He did not enter seminary until 1957, telling the authors, “Let’s say God left the door open for me for a few years.”
Bergoglio Family / AP
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His crisis centered around two Jesuits, Father Orlando Yorio and Father Francisco Jalics, who refused his orders over the period of about a year beginning in 1975 to leave the slums as the country spiraled into political chaos and the military, which considered slum priests to be likely rebels, was clearly moving to take over Argentina. As terrorists on the right and left tore the nation apart, many Argentines—including some bishops and priests—longed for a strong hand to reassert control over the country, and many welcomed the military coup of March 24, 1976.
In May the two Jesuits were arrested and subjected to torture. Bitterness has lingered among some Jesuits and the relatives of Yorio (who died in 2000), who to this day accuse Bergoglio of virtually giving up the priests to the junta, citing a flurry of bureaucratic paperwork that ultimately failed to provide cover for the clerics to stay on in the slums. Bergoglio said he immediately tried to win their freedom (as he would do for many others), and Yorio and Jalics were released after five months. Very few of the “disappeared”—as abducted Argentines were called—reappeared alive.
Even after Bergoglio served out his term as Jesuit provincial in 1979, he remained a divisive figure. In 1988, when he was serving as a theology lecturer at a school in Buenos Aires, he came into conflict with the provincial at the time, Father Victor Zorzín, who reassigned Bergoglio to Córdoba, more than 400 miles (640 km) northwest of Buenos Aires. From June 1990 to May 1992, according to journalist Elisabetta Piqué, author of the biography Francis: Life and Revolution, he could make no phone calls without permission, and his correspondence was “controlled.” Zorzín says “it cost [Bergoglio] a lot to accept the change. But pain can ripen into something else.”
In what would prove to be a providential turn, a Cardinal who admired Bergoglio’s work as provincial—including his ability to assess the talents of others and organize productive meetings—came seeking him and, rescuing him from Córdoba exile, turbocharged his ascent in the church hierarchy. And as he rose from bishop to Archbishop to Cardinal, Bergoglio began ministering to the slums—the same kind of districts that Yorio and Jalics refused to leave at his orders. Jalics, who now lives in Bavaria, kept silent about the case for nearly four decades but released a statement after Bergoglio became Francis, declaring that “Orlando Yorio and I were never given up by Jorge Bergoglio … I used to think we had been victims of an accusation. But by the late 90s, after many conversations, it was clear to me that I was wrong.”
After becoming Archbishop in 1998, Bergoglio was known for his frugality, for taking the bus and the subway and for living in a simple apartment on the same block as the cathedral, not at the opulent archdiocesan residence. That kind of humility increased his appeal not only with ordinary Argentines but also among his fellow Archbishops in Latin America. His meteoric postexile rise seemed to climax in April 2005, when the death of John Paul II brought Bergoglio to Rome and to the ranks of what Vaticanologists call I papabili—the Cardinals who might become Pope. The Wednesday after Germany’s Joseph Ratzinger was elected Pope Benedict XVI, Bergoglio had lunch with his press secretary Marcó and, according to Marcó, never let on that the Latin American Cardinals had gathered enough support to make him the runner-up in the conclave. Some accounts have Bergoglio signaling to his supporters to shift their votes to Ratzinger so as not to prolong the process and give an impression of a divided College of Cardinals.
He returned to Buenos Aires and looked to retirement. He had already picked out the residence where he would live out the rest of his life—an old-age home for priests in Flores, where he was born—and handed his letter of resignation to the Pope when he turned 75 in 2011. “I’m starting to consider the fact that I have to leave everything behind,” he said in 2010. “It makes me want to be fair with everyone always, to sign the final flourish … But death is in my thoughts every day.” He insisted he was not sad, and he went on posing for pictures with the faithful. But his face gave him away, and one parishioner called him on it: “Padre Jorge, if you’re going to put on that face, you’re going to ruin the photo.”
Then without warning on Feb. 11, Benedict XVI announced that he was abdicating the papacy, the first time a Pope had resigned in 600 years. The Archbishop of Buenos Aires once again flew to Rome, though he was no longer on the hot list of I papabili. But on the night of March 13, to the world’s surprise, Bergoglio emerged on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica as Francis.
Argentines saw on his face what millions of others could not have divined: the sad, haggard look was gone. Joy cometh in the evening.
The five words that have come to define both the promise and the limits of Francis’ papacy came in the form of a question: “Who am I to judge?” That was his answer when asked about homosexuality by a reporter in July. Many assumed Francis, with those words, was changing church doctrine. Instead, he was merely changing its tone, searching for a pragmatic path to reach the faithful who had been repelled by their church or its emphasis on strict dos and don’ts. Years of working closely with parish priests have taught him that the church seemed more comfortable with narrow issues than human complexity, and it lost congregants and credibility in the bargain. He is urging his army to think more broadly. As he told Spadaro, “What is the confessor to do? We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. That is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context.”
In short, ease up on the hot-button issues. That might not seem like significant progress in the U.S. and other developed nations. But the Pope’s sensitivity to sexual orientation has a different impact in many developing countries, where homophobia is institutionalized, widespread and sanctioned. Similarly, Francis is aware of the liberal clamor in the affluent West for the ordination of women. He also recognizes that Catholic doctrine, as it is currently formulated, cannot be made to justify women as priests. “The feminine genius is needed wherever we make important decisions,” he has said. But that does not involve ordination as priests. Instead, in his recent exhortation, he says he wants to diminish the primacy of the all-male priesthood, arguing that just because they monopolize the sacraments does not mean their gender should be the only one empowered in the church.
That won’t make the grade for women who expect equal protection and rights under secular law. But the real significance of these new horizons will likely come in countries where the stakes for women are far higher than just the question of ordination. In the places where the Catholic Church is growing fastest, Francis’ words may portend significant advances in culture wars where women and other disadvantaged groups have always been on the losing side. When Catholic Archbishop Berhaneyesus Souraphiel of Addis Ababa talks of women in the church, he thinks of the crisis in sub-Saharan African regions where female genital mutilation is common. He is trying to rally Catholics to raise money to build a university where women can have greater access to education. Souraphiel sees great progress in Francis’ statements about women. “It could help a lot,” he says, “because he is saying women have a great role in the church and in society.”
But if there appears to be some wiggle room on homosexuality and the role of women, there is none for abortion. “This is not something subject to alleged reforms or ‘modernizations,’” Francis says. “It is not ‘progressive’ to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life.” Even so, Francis’ tonal shifts on doctrine have unsettled some church conservatives, particularly in the U.S., where some bishops in the past have declined to offer Communion to elected officials who favor abortion. The exact size of this group is unknown, but no one denies it exists. “Already there has been a lot of backlash from traditionalist groups, conservative groups, people who feel he is moving too quickly away from the traditional style of Benedict on liturgy, on clerical appointments,” says Brian Daley, a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame. “But that’s probably a relatively small group of people.”
Those who have inveighed against abortion and homosexuality for decades may fear that the ground is shifting underneath their feet. Some of the harshest criticisms of Francis have come from traditionalists alarmed at his emphasizing the Pope’s role as just another bishop—albeit of Rome—rather than Supreme Pontiff. They argue that this path would lead to the end of the papacy as the world has known it for centuries. In early October, Mario Palmaro, a conservative bioethicist who worked for Radio Maria, went so far as to co-author an essay titled “We Do Not Like This Pope” that hinted that Francis was the Antichrist because of his all-too-knowing use of the media to propagate heterodox ideas. Palmaro was particularly appalled by the interview Francis granted the atheist editor of the Italian daily La Repubblica, in which the Pope was quoted as saying, “I believe in God, not a Catholic God.” The station fired Palmaro for criticizing the boss. But in November, after Palmaro came down with a debilitating disease, Francis telephoned to console him. “I was so moved by the phone call that I was not able to conduct much conversation,” Palmaro told reporters. “He just wanted to tell me that he is praying for me.” Palmaro says he has not changed his opinion of Francis’ policy.
Part of the conservative critique is that Francis’ words and gestures cannot be fully reconciled with the legacy of previous Popes. Apparently aware of that potential for controversy, Francis has been skillfully citing the writings of former Pontiffs, stressing continuity. As the first Pontiff to be ordained a priest after Vatican II, he has been generous to the opinions of John XXIII, who convened that reformist council. But it is a delicate task given that Francis has one thing no Pope has had since the 15th century: a living predecessor. While Benedict resides in quiet retirement in the Vatican Gardens, he remains a potential rallying point for those who fear that Francis may hold the doctrinal reins too loosely. So far, Francis and Benedict appear to get on well: both men flatter each other, and Francis was especially generous with quotations from Benedict in his recent exhortation. In any case, Francis needs to keep his predecessor on his side, for it was Benedict who codified the conservative views of John Paul II, the hero of many Catholics, particularly those on the right of the spectrum.
Francis will continue the policy of both John Paul II and Benedict on détente and fraternal relations with Judaism. (Francis plans to visit Israel in May.) But with his experience working with the Muslim immigrant population of Argentina, Francis will extend a warmer hand toward Islam than Benedict, who famously infuriated that religion’s clerics with a scholarly aside in an otherwise innocuous speech. And he has proved himself amenable to Protestant, evangelical piety, scandalizing conservative Catholics in Argentina by kneeling and being blessed by Pentecostal preachers in a Buenos Aires auditorium.
While still in his home country, the future Pope also said that priestly celibacy is a recent development (it dates to about the year 1000) and has seemed open to change. Again, in Argentina, he startled conservatives by attending the funeral of a rebel bishop who left the church to marry, comforting the deceased prelate’s widow, who used to concelebrate Mass with her husband. Francis is sympathetic to people whose marriages have fallen apart: his only surviving sibling, María Elena Bergoglio, is divorced. In Argentina, he worked very closely with Catholics who were divorced and remarried, some of whom continue to take Communion. The Pope has called an Extraordinary Synod of Bishops—only the third such gathering in almost 50 years—in October 2014 to discuss pastoral challenges that face modern families, including sexual ethics, divorce, cohabitation and reproduction.
A place that measures change in terms of centuries doesn’t do relaunches often. It is important to remember that Francis has been Pope for less than a year, and a papacy can change character in midstream. In 1846, Pope Pius IX came to the throne as the great hope to liberalize Catholicism but by the end of his pontificate had become the great champion of conservatism—the font of infallibility and angry confrontation with secular powers like the newborn Italian state. The entrenched dynamics of the church can transform the would-be transformer.
A Day In The Life
Francis begins, ends and dots his day with prayer. He rises at 5 a.m. and prays until 7 before celebrating morning Mass at the Casa Santa Marta chapel. He prays after Mass and again before breakfast. Then at 8 a.m., the day begins. He works through papers until 10, then meets with secretaries, Cardinals, bishops, priests and laypeople until noon, followed by lunch and a half-hour siesta. Six hours of work follow, then dinner and more prayer in front of the Blessed Sacrament. He admits he sometimes nods off at this point, but says, “It is good to fall asleep in God’s presence.” He is usually in bed by 10.
On Wednesdays, he has a general audience around lunchtime in St. Peter’s Square, which brings in the multitudes. On a bright December day, the festive crowd numbers about 30,000. It’s the season of light, and Francis is talking about the Resurrection. He appears to have a cold; he needs the handkerchief tucked in his robes. But his voice is strong, though higher than you’d expect, and more musical, like that of a storyteller with a full range of context and characters to bring to his mission of making you listen. He has a script in hand because once he finishes the lesson, it will be repeated by priests reading in French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, English and Arabic.
Once the service ends, he greets the Cardinals in attendance on the dais, then walks over to meet first with the sick, then with special guests. Many have brought him gifts, mementos: a small statue of a merry Jesus on a yellow silk altar, a painting of Christ, a coffee-table book of photos from Austria. One man poses with him for a selfie; others do not want to let go of his hand. The ushers and security guards try to keep him moving, but he has more words to speak, pilgrims to meet and missions to launch before the day is over.
It’s hard to imagine a setting farther from Pasaje C. But if Francis can order his steps, it’s not so far at all.
—With reporting by Hilary Burke and Uki Goñi/Buenos Aires and Stephan Faris and Alessandro Speciale/Rome