La Stampa 03.14.13
Pope Francis, the Argentinian Bergoglio, the first non-European Pope.
“I come from almost the end of the world.”
|POPE FRANCIS, 266TH ROMAN PONTIFF
The Jesuit Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Francis I, the first Latin American Pope in history, is a bishop without a limousine who travels around his Buenos Aires by subway, refuses worldly trappings, and has claimed for himself only a small apartment in the archepiscopal palace. He is a bishop who prefers to spend his time in the “villas miserias,” the shantytowns of the Argentinian capitol. He is a humble and profoundly spiritual bishop, who when he greets you asks you to pray for him and who in his years in the great Argentinian metropolis has continued to repeat that the Church must show forth the face of God’s mercy. “We seek to be a Church which goes out from itself and goes toward the men and women who don’t participate in it, who don’t know it, who’ve left it, who are indifferent…”
He was born 76 years ago in Buenos Aires, the son of a family from Portocomaro in the Asti region who arrived in Argentina one muggy January morning in 1929. Jorge is the fourth of five children. In the new world his father, an accountant, turned his back on nostalgia and did not speak Italian with his children. “My grandmother Rosa used to come to pick me up and take me to her house. My grandparents spoke Piedmontese among themselves, and that’s the way that I learned it.”
He played briscola and followed basketball games with his father; with his mother he listened to music. “Every Saturday, at two in the afternoon, we listened to lyric operas which were transmitted on State Radio. Before it would begin, my mother would explain the opera to us; she would tell us when the most important and well-known arias were about to begin…It was beautiful, for me, to enjoy the music.” Along with his brothers, the new Pope learned early on how to cook. “My mother”–he recounted in a book of interviews, El Jesuita, published three ago–“remained paralyzed after having given birth to her last child, the fifth. When we came home from school we would find her sitting there peeling potatoes, with all of the other ingredients for dinner already laid out. She told us how we were supposed to stir and cook them.” After he became a priest and professor, Bergoglio continued to exercise this skill: “At the Collegio Massimo on Sundays there wasn’t a cook, and so I prepared dinner for my students.” When journalists asked him if he were any good at it, he answered: “Well, I’ve never killed anyone with my food…”
Bergoglio’s family was not poor. “We had nothing extra, we didn’t have a car, and we didn’t go on summer vacations, but we didn’t lack anything.” At the age of 13, when he began high school by attending an industrial institute specializing in chemistry, Jorge began to work. His father wanted his son to know the effort of labor. So the future Pope Francis first cleaned a factory for making socks, then after two years he moved on to administrative tasks and finally worked in a laboratory doing analyses. At the end of the morning he had less than one hour for lunch, and then he went to follow the lectures in class until eight in the evening. “I thank my father so much for sending me to work. Work has been one of the things which has made me better in my life and, in particular, in the laboratory I learned the good and the evil of every human activity…my boss was an extraordinary woman.”
The future Pope was gravely ill as a child and risked dying from pneumonia. “I remember the moment when–with a very high fever–I embraced my mother and asked her, ‘Tell me what’s happening to me!’ She did not know what to say, because the doctors were bewildered.” Jorge had to undergo the removal of the top part of his right lung. There were months of convalescence with tremendous pain. The young Bergoglio found annoying the customary words that many people who visited him in the hospital used to cheer him up: “Now this will pass.” Until Sister Dolores came to visit him, the nun who had prepared him for his first communion. “She told me something that struck me greatly and which gave me great peace: ‘You are imitating Jesus’.” “Suffering”–the new Pope has stated–“is not a virtue in itself, but yes, the way in which one lives with it can be virtuous. Our vocation is to fullness and happiness, and in this quest, suffering is a limit. For this reason, one really understands the meaning of suffering through the suffering of the God made man, Jesus Christ.”
Vocation, for Pope Francis, did not arrive early. On September 21st 1953, at the age of 17, he was getting ready to celebrate Students’ Day with his classmates. He went into the church of San José de Flores. There he met a priest whom he didn’t know and decided to go to confession. That confession changed his life. He didn’t return to the train station to find his friends because he had decided to become a priest. “Something rare happened to me, the wonder of an encounter. I realized that they were waiting for me. This is the religious experience: the wonder of encountering someone who has been waiting for you. From that moment on God became for me the one who goes before you. For the person looking for God, He is looking for you first.”
His father accepted Jorge’s decision. His mother much less so. “She said: ‘I don’t know, I won’t see you…You should wait a while, keep on working, finish at the university.’ The truth is that my elderly mother took it badly. My father understood me better.” At the age of 21, the new Pope entered the Jesuit novitiate. “I was attracted by their being the advance force of the Church; because they used a military language in the Company; because there was a climate of obedience and discipline. And because they were oriented toward the missionary task. A desire grew in me to become a missionary to Japan. But because of a serious health problem that kept me back, I was not authorized to go.” His story, from that moment on, is that of a Jesuit priest. Humanistic studies in Chile, and then in Argentina degrees in philosophy and theology. Professor, rector of colleges and faculty, but at the same time also a parish priest in the church of the Patriarch San José in the diocese of San Miguel. He lived through the dark years of the dictatorship and as archbishop will ask pardon for the Argentinian Church’s ties to the military junta. Having completed his doctoral thesis in Germany, he then returned to Argentina, at Cordoba, to become a spiritual director and confessor.
In 1992 Pope Wojtyla named him auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires; five years later he became coadjutor and then in 1998 archbishop, succeeding Antonio Quarracino. In 2001 John Paul II made him a cardinal. He has dedicated a telephone line solely for the use of his priests so that they can call him at any time with regard to any problem. He keeps his own calendar of appointments and audiences. He wants a Church of “proximity,” close to humanity and its suffering. He has cultivated a particular dialogue with the Jewish community–he has published a book of dialogues with the rabbi Abraham Skorka–and also with evangelical groups. He has confessed often that he wished there were priests who would take care of the prostitutes in the streets of Buenos Aires. He publically attacked the planned law for the recognition of gay couples as contrary to the “divine plan,” but he wants all people to feel that they are loved by God.
Pope Francis has a favorite film: “Babette’s Feast.” “Here you see”–Bergoglio has explained–“a typical case of the exaggeration of limits and prohibitions. The protagonists are people who live in a puritan Calvinism, exaggerated to such a point that the redemption of Christ is lived out as a negation of the things of this world. When the freshness of liberty arrives, through the excess of a meal, everyone ends up transformed. This community truly did not know what happiness was. It lived crushed by suffering; it was afraid of love.” The Pope, who once as a professor had his students read Jorge Luis Borges, says that is necessary to pass from a Church as “regulator of the faith” to a Church “which transmits and facilitates the faith.”
Translated by Daniel Thompson, 03.14.13