sketches a biography of the man who has become the 265th successor to St Peter and outlines his stance on some key issues.
Jorge Mario Bergoglio was born on December 17, 1936 in the middle class district of Flores in the centre part of Buenos Aires City. He was one of the five children of an Argentinian born housewife and an immigrant railway worker from the Piedmont region of Italy who according to María Elena – the Pope’s only living sibling – left the country out of disaffection for Italy’s fascist dictatorship.
Jorge was a normal child, collected stamps, was keen on basketball and fond of playing football at the Church school where he studied as a child. The whole family would go to watch their favourite football team – San Lorenzo – play. It was as Bergoglio put it, ‘the team of our loves’ as his parents came from the Almagro suburb home to the San Lorenzo team. (And he is still a card-carrying member of the San Lorenzo team, who are nicknamed ‘The Saints’.) He enjoyed dancing the tango and the milonga (a more rustic style of tango). He also had his childhood romances, which included in once case at least, a marriage proposal as a childhood sweetheart Amalia Damonte, now 76, revealed: ‘When we were twelve he wrote me a letter saying that if he didn’t marry me, he’d become a priest.’ He had a girlfriend until he discovered his vocation to the priesthood.
Bergoglio has described a key event in the discovery of his vocation to the priesthood as having taken place when he was about seventeen years of age. It was the September 21, which in Argentina is a day dedicated to students and the young Bergoglio was preparing to go out with some friends to celebrate when he decided to kick off the day by paying a visit to his parish church. On entering he encountered a priest whom he didn’t know but who exuded a certain air of holiness which led the young man to decide to go to confession with him.
During this confession something unusual happened to me: I don’t know what it was but it changed my life. I would say that it surprised me with my guard down.... It was the surprise, the amazement of an encounter – I realised that I was being waited for. This is what a religious experience is: the amazement of an encounter with someone who has been waiting for you. From that moment on God was for me the one who anticipates you. You look for him but He seeks you out first. You want to find Him, but He finds you first.
Firstly I told my dad and he was happy with it, but the reaction of my mum was different. The truth is that she got pretty annoyed. (El Jesuita. Conversaciones con el cardenal Jorge Bergoglio, SJ., Sergio Rubín y Francesca Ambrogetti, Vergara editor, pp. 45-47).
Before joining the Jesuit order, he graduated from the technical secondary school Escuela Nacional de Educación Técnica N° 27 Hipólito Yrigoyen with a chemical technician’s diploma. He worked for a few years in that capacity in the foods section at Hickethier-Bachmann Laboratory. During this time he experienced the only known health crisis of his youth when at the age of twenty-one he suffered from life-threatening pneumonia and cysts and had part of a lung removed shortly afterwards.
Bergoglio himself described a certain testing of his vocation which occured while he was studying for the priesthood:
When I was a seminarian, I was dazzled by a girl I met at an uncle’s wedding. I was surprised by her beauty, her intellectual brilliance ... and, well, I was bowled over for quite a while. I kept thinking and thinking about her. When I returned to the seminary after the wedding, I could not pray for over a week because when I tried to do so, the girl appeared in my head. I had to rethink what I was doing. I was still free because I was a seminarian, so I could have gone back home and that was it. I had to think about my choice again. I chose again – or let myself be chosen by – the religious path. It would be abnormal for this kind of thing not to happen.
Following his high school graduation, he enrolled at the University of Buenos Aires, where he received a master's degree in chemistry before beginning training at the Jesuit seminary of Villa Devoto. In March 1958, he entered the Society of Jesus.
Bergoglio and the 1970s military regime
Recently the Holy See has had to clarify that claims made by some ex-priests in Argentina that the then Cardinal Bergoglio colluded with the regime that governed Argentina in the 1970s are simply slanderous. Bergoglio has rarely spoken about this troubled time in Argentina’s history, he did mention in a 2010 interview that he had often sheltered people from the dictatorship on Church property, and once gave his own identity papers to a man who looked like him, so he could flee Argentina.
Bergoglio and poverty
As is now well known, Jorge Bergoglio’s lifestyle has been noted for its austerity: he lived in a small apartment, rather than in the elegant bishop’s residence in the suburb of Olivos; he preferred public transport over using a personal car, and often cooked his own meals. As a rule he did not eat out in restaurants. At a certain point in his life as a priest he promised Our Lady never to watch television again – this happened after he was watching television one evening with some of his brother Jesuits and something indecent came on the screen. His journeys to Rome were always kept extremely brief.
As Cardinal of Buenos Aires he was not afraid to criticise to their face the politicians for their apathy to the plight of those affected by the economic crisis affecting the country during 2001-2002: ‘Let’s not tolerate the sad spectacle of those who no longer know how not to lie and contradict themselves to hold onto their privileges, their rapaciousness, and their ill-earned wealth.’ The then President Eduardo Duhalde sat stoney-faced throughout the televised sermon.
During a May 2010 speech in Argentina regarding the poor, he directed his message to the wealthy by saying:
You avoid taking into account the poor. We have no right to duck down, to lower the arms carried by those in despair. We must reclaim the memory of our country who has a mother, recover the memory of our Mother.
Cardinal Bergoglio was consistently outspoken in his defence of the right to life of the unborn, and in this, as in other moral questions, has clashed with the governing class in Argentina.
Under his tutelage the bishops of Latin America issued a joint statement regarding the situation of the Church in their countries, the ‘Aparecida Document’. On the question of abortion it could not have been clearer:
We hope that legislators, heads of government, and health professionals, conscious of the dignity of human life and of the rootedness of the family in our peoples, will defend and protect it from the abominable crimes of abortion and euthanasia; that is their responsibility.... We should commit ourselves to ‘eucharistic coherence’, that is, we should be conscious that people cannot receive Holy Communion and at the same time act or speak against the commandments, in particular when abortion, euthanasia, and other serious crimes against life and family are facilitated. This responsibility applies particularly to legislators, governors, and health professionals (paragraph 436).
In August 2005, as activists urged Argentina to legalize abortion, the future pontiff urged Catholics to defend the right to life even if they ‘deliver you to the courts’ or ‘have you killed.’ He was speaking in a homily during a Mass in honor of St Raymond Nonnatus (Raymond ‘the unborn’), who is revered as the holy protector of pregnant women. the then-Cardinal said that promoting life is ‘a road that is full of wolves.’
Perhaps for that reason they might bring us to the courts. Perhaps, for that reason, for caring for life, they might kill us.... We should think about the Christian martyrs. They killed them for preaching this Gospel of life, this Gospel that Jesus brought. But Jesus gives us the strength.
The future pontiff also urged the faithful to ‘be astute’ in promoting the Gospel of life. ‘Go forth! Don’t be fools,’ he said.
Remember, a Christian doesn’t have the luxury of being foolish.… He can’t give himself the luxury. He has to be clever, he has to be astute, to carry this out.
In October 2007 the Cardinal launched a blistering criticism of a clandestine abortion performed on a retarded woman with the help of the nation’s health minister, saying in a public speech:
We aren’t in agreement with the death penalty but ... in Argentina we have the death penalty. A child conceived by the rape of a mentally ill or retarded woman can be condemned to death.
Cardinal Bergoglio, when asked was opposition to abortion not based on religion, replied:
Nonsense! A pregnant woman is not carrying a toothbrush in her womb, nor a tumour. Science shows us that from the first moment of conception the new being has a complete genetic composition. It is impressive. It is not therefore a religious matter, but something clearly moral and based on science, because we are in the presence of a human being.
And then when asked was not the grade of moral culpability of a woman who aborts the same as that of the doctor carrying out the abortion, he responded:
I wouldn’t speak of gradation. But as far as I’m concerned I experience a greater compassion, in the biblical sense of the word (that is to say to feel sorrow for and to accompany), for the woman who has an abortion – experiencing who knows what pressures – rather than for those professional (or not professional) medics who act for money with singular coldness.... This coldness contrasts with the problems of conscience, the sense of remorse which after some years, many women who have had abortions experience. You just have to sit in a confessional box and listen to these terrible dramas, because they know that they have killed a child (El Jesuita. Conversaciones con el cardenal Jorge Bergoglio, SJ., Sergio Rubín y Francesca Ambrogetti, Vergara editor, p. 91).
Same sex unions
In 2009 the government of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner – widow and successor of Néstor Kirchner, president of Argentina from 2003 to 2007, pressed for the introduction of same sex marriage, and in July of 2010 the Homosexual Marriage Law was enacted in Argentina.
A few weeks earlier Cardinal Bergoglio sent a letter to the Carmelite nuns of the province requesting their prayers. In this letter he wrote:
In the coming weeks, the Argentine people will face a situation whose outcome can seriously harm the family…. At stake is the identity and survival of the family: father, mother and children. At stake are the lives of many children who will be discriminated against in advance, and deprived of their human development given by a father and a mother and willed by God. At stake is the total rejection of God’s law engraved in our hearts.
Let’s not be naive: This is not a simple political fight; it is a destructive proposal to God’s plan. This is not a mere legislative proposal (that’s just its form), but a move by the father of lies that seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God…. Let’s look to St Joseph, Mary, and the Child Jesus to ask fervently that they defend the Argentine family in this moment.... May they support, defend, and accompany us in this war of God.
At the same time he expressed support for civil unions for homosexual couples in Argentina, but only because he believed civil unions were ‘the lesser of two evils’ and acceptance would head off pressure in the country to allow homosexual couples to marry.
Relationship with the Jews
Argentina is home to around 250,000 Jews, making it the sixth largest Jewish community in the world, and the biggest in Latin America. The vast majority of Argentina’s Jewish population lives in Buenos Aires. Bergoglio has always maintained close relations with the Jewish community of the city. Over the years, Bergoglio has not hid his love and closeness to the Jewish people and many Jews there jokingly refer to him as ‘Rabbi Bergoglio’. The archbishop of Buenos Aires welcomed Jews for a joint service on the 74th anniversary of the Nazi’s 1938 ‘Kristallnacht’.
Rabbi Abraham Skorka, the rector of the Latin-American Rabbinical Seminary in Buenos Aires, and the archbishop were engaged in a series of friendly debates over religion, politics and social issues deciding eventually to record their debates. Their dialogues were published in 2010 as Sobre el Cielo y la Tierra (On Heaven and Earth). The two men kept up their dialogues in program broadcast each Friday on the Archdiocesan TV channel.
In July 1994, a truck loaded with explosives drove into the seven-story AMIA building (Argentine Israelite Mutual Association), a focal point of the Jewish community in Buenos Aires. Eighty-five, mostly Jewish people died and around 300 were injured.
Bergoglio was the first public personality to sign a petition condemning the attack and calling for justice. Jewish community leaders around the world noted that his words and actions ‘showed solidarity with the Jewish community’ in the aftermath of this attack.
According to the rector of the Russian Orthodox Church of Saint Catherine the Great Martyr in Rome, Bergoglio ‘often visited Orthodox services in the Russian Orthodox Annunciation Cathedral in Buenos Aires’ and is known as an advocate on behalf the Orthodox Church in dealing with Argentina’s government.
It is noteworthy too that Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople attended Bergoglio’s papal installation – this may be the first time in history that the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople has attended a papal installation.
Other Catholic rites
When Bergoglio was named Archbishop of Buenos Aires in 1998, he was concurrently named ordinary for those Eastern Catholics in Argentina who lacked a prelate of their own rite.
It appears that Bergoglio was mentored by Salesian Ukrainian Greek Catholic priest Stefan Czmil and while at the Salesian school, often woke up hours before his classmates so that he could concelebrate Mass with Czmil.
In 2007, just two days after Benedict XVI issued new rules for using the liturgical forms that preceded the Second Vatican Council, Cardinal Bergoglio was one of the first bishops in the world to respond by instituting a Tridentine Mass in Buenos Aires. It was celebrated weekly.
Bergoglio has spoken out strongly on pedophilia, clarifying that
More than seventy percent of cases of pedophilia occur in the family and neighborhood: grandparents, uncles, stepfathers, neighbors. The problem is not linked to celibacy. If a priest is a pedophile, he is so before he is a priest.
He advocated, as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, a zero tolerance approach to pedophilia, saying that a blind eye could never be turned to cases of pedophile actions on the part of a priest, because ‘You cannot be in a position of power and destroy the life of another person.’ He recounts that
In the diocese it never happened to me, but a bishop once called me to ask me by phone what to do in a situation like that and I told him to take away the priests’ licenses, not to allow them to exercise the priesthood any more, and to begin a canonical trial in that diocese’s court.
He simply said of the approach of simply moving priests around, as adopted in some dioceses in the United States, that this was ‘a stupid idea’ and also that he admired Pope Benedict’s zero tolerance approach to the cases which had surfaced in Ireland.
Bergoglio is slightly unusual as an ecclesiastic in that he spent time exercising a profession before entering the priesthood. Following his high school graduation, he enrolled at the University of Buenos Aires, where he received a master's degree in chemistry before beginning training at the Jesuit seminary.
He has spoken of his experience working with gratitude:
I am so grateful to my father who made me work. This work was one of the best things that ever happened to me, and in particular in my time in the laboratory I learnt the good side and the bad side of all human tasks (El Jesuita. Conversaciones con el cardenal Jorge Bergoglio, SJ., Sergio Rubín y Francesca Ambrogetti, Vergara editor, p. 34).
He is particularly grateful to a boss he had there, Esther Balestrino de Careaga, who ‘taught me the seriousness of work’.
Perhaps this early experience of work gave Bergoglio a strong sense of the evil of clericalism whereby the laity fail – often through the fault of the clergy – to fully assume the responsibility of the baptismal call to holiness. Of the laity he has said:
Their clericalisation is a problem. The priests clericalise the laity and the laity beg us to be clericalised… It really is sinful abetment. And to think that baptism alone could suffice. I’m thinking of those Christian communities in Japan that remained without priests for more than two hundred years. When the missionaries returned they found them all baptized, all validly married for the Church and all their dead had had a Catholic funeral. The faith had remained intact through the gifts of grace that had gladdened the life of a laity who had received only baptism and had also lived their apostolic mission in virtue of baptism alone. One must not be afraid of depending only on His tenderness.… Do you know the biblical episode of the prophet Jonah? (30 Days, issue no. 11, 2007).
He has also spoken of the phenomenon of clericalism in even stronger terms in an interview with an Argentinian newspaper:
I don’t like to generalise; there are lay people who really take their faith seriously, they put it into practice.... But there is a problem; I’ve said it elsewhere: the temptation of clericalism. We priests tend to clericalise the laity. We don’t realise what we are doing but we are spreading our own disease. And the laity – not all of them but many of them – beg us on bended knees that we would clericalise them because it is more comfortable to be an altar-boy than a protagonist of the lay vocation. We shouldn’t fall into this trip which is a sinful complicity. Neither clericalise nor ask to be clericalised. The lay person is a lay person and has to live as a lay person by virtue of their baptism, which equips them to be the ferment of the love of God within society itself, to create and sow hope, to proclaim the faith, not from a pulpit but from everyday life (Pilar (Buenos Aires), Nov. 9, 2011).
The New Evangelisation
As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio has been insistent – and lead the way through his own personal example – that priests must be proactive evangelists. Last year addressing Argentina’s priests he said:
Jesus teaches us another way: Go out. Go out and share your testimony. Go out and interact with your brothers. Go out and share. Go out and ask. Become the Word in body as well as spirit.
Where before the Church followed a ‘clientalist’ model of action ‘offered opportunities for people to come to seek us out ’ something that worked in a community which had already been evangelised. But things are different now, and the Church must adapt its structures to become missionary, he holds.
We cannot remain in the clientalist model of action, which passively waits for the ‘client’ , the faithful, to come along; rather we must have structures to enable us to go to where they need us.... The internal life of the Church has to be reorganised to go out to the faithful people of God. Pastoral conversion calls us to move from being a Church which ‘regulates the Faith’ to a Church which ‘transmits and facilitates the Faith’ (From 'Orientations for the promotion of Baptism in the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires', in El Jesuita. Conversaciones con el cardenal Jorge Bergoglio, SJ., Sergio Rubín y Francesca Ambrogetti, Vergara editor, pp. 77-78)
He fears a Church that has become self-referential (something incidentally that Joseph Ratzinger likewise greatly feared, a Church that celebrated itself, and was obsessed with ‘internal problems’ while people were lost in the ‘deserts of alienation’) Speaking in another interview Bergoglio has given an example of pushing his own priests out of their passivity.
I have told my priests: ‘Do everything you should, you know your duties as ministers, take your responsibilities and then leave the door open.’ Our sociologists of religion tell us that the influence of a parish has a radius of six hundred meters. In Buenos Aires there are about two thousand meters between one parish and the next. So I then told the priests: ‘If you can, rent a garage and, if you find some willing layman, let him go there! Let him be with those people a bit, do a little catechesis and even give communion if they ask him.’ A parish priest said to me: ‘But Father, if we do this the people then won’t come to church.’ ‘But why?’ I asked him: ‘Do they come to mass now?’ ‘No’, he answered. And so! Coming out of oneself is also coming out from the fenced garden of one’s own convictions, considered irremovable, if they risk becoming an obstacle, if they close the horizon that is also of God (30 Days, issue no. 11, 2007).
What books does Bergoglio enjoy? He loves the poetry of Hölderlin, much Italian literature, in particular Manzoni’s The Betrothed which he has read four times, and Dante. He also enjoys Dostoyevsky and Marechal.
And what works has he written? He has written works on the Social teaching of the Church, an area of keen interest for him (incidentally he made a gift of several books on the Church’s social doctrine to President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner when she visited him after his election to the Papacy). Here is a complete list of his publications (none of them have yet been translated into English:
Meditaciones para religiosos [Meditations for Religious] (1982) Buenos Aires: Diego de Torres. OCLC 644781822.
Reflexiones en esperanza [Reflections of Hope] (1992), Buenos Aires: Ediciones Universidad del Salvador. OCLC 36380521.
Educar: exigencia y pasión: desafíos para educadores cristianos [To Educate: Exactingness and Passion: Challenges for Christian Educators] (2003) Buenos Aires: Editorial Claretiana. ISBN 9789505124572.
Ponerse la patria al hombro: memoria y camino de esperanza [Putting the Motherland on One's Shoulders: Memoir and Path of Hope]. Buenos Aires: Editorial Claretiana. ISBN 9789505125111.
La nación por construir: utopía, pensamiento y compromiso: VIII Jornada de Pastoral Social [The Nation to Be Built: Utopia, Thought, and Commitment] (2005) Buenos Aires: Editorial Claretiana. ISBN 9789505125463.
Corrupción y pecado: algunas reflexiones en torno al tema de la corrupción [Corruption and Sin: Some Thoughts on Corruption] (2006) Buenos Aires: Editorial Claretiana. ISBN 9789505125722.
El verdadero poder es el servicio [True Power Is Service] (2007) Buenos Aires: Editorial Claretiana. OCLC 688511686.
Seminario: las deudas sociales de nuestro tiempo: la deuda social según la doctrina de la iglesia [Seminar: the Social Debts of Our Time: Social Debt According to Church Doctrine] (2009) Buenos Aires: EPOCA-USAL. ISBN 9788493741235.
Bergoglio, Jorge; Skorka, Abraham Sobre el cielo y la tierra [On Heaven and Earth] (2010) Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana. ISBN 9789500732932. Random House Inc., has recently announced that its translation: On Heaven and Earth: Pope Francis on Faith, Family and the Church in the 21st Century will come out May 7.
Seminario Internacional: consenso para el desarrollo: reflexiones sobre solidaridad y desarrollo [International seminar: Consensus about Development: Reflexions on Solidarity and development] (2010) Buenos Aires: EPOCA. ISBN 9789875073524.
Nosotros como ciudadanos, nosotros como pueblo: hacia un bicentenario en justicia y solidaridad [Ourselves as Citizens, Ourselves as a People: towards a Bicentenary in Justice and Solidarity]. Buenos Aires: Editorial Claretiana. ISBN 9789505127443.
El Jesuita. Conversaciones con el cardenal Jorge Bergoglio, SJ by Sergio Rubín and Francesca Ambroguetti (Vergara, 2011) is a long interview with Cardinal Bergoglio. El silencio. De Paulo VI a Bergoglio. Las relaciones secretas de la Iglesia con la ESMA by Horacio Verbitsky (Editorial Sudamericana, 2005) deals with Bergoglio and the Argentinian military dictatorship.
Bergoglio is clearly greatly devoted to the Blessed Virgin. Father Fabian Garcia former Salesian Provincial of Buenos Aires from 2005 to 2010, knew Cardinal Bergoglio personally and recounts that
... of all my memories there is one that is strongest, most significant, indelible: a man of faith, who, every 24th of the month, early in the morning before the doors were opened, came to the Basilica of Mary Help of Christians in the suburb of Almagro, celebrated Mass and stayed a good hour praying before the image of the Blessed Virgin which had been blessed by Don Bosco himself.
After the death of Pope John Paul II in 2005, the then Cardinal Bergoglio recounted how John Paul II’s example inspired him to ‘recite the fifteen mysteries of the Rosary every day.’
If I remember well it was 1985. One evening I went to recite the Holy Rosary that was being led by the Holy Father [John Paul II]. He was in front of everybody, on his knees. The group was numerous; I saw the Holy Father from the back and, little by little, I got lost in prayer. I was not alone: I was praying in the middle of the people of God to which I and all those there belonged, led by our Pastor.
I felt that this man [John Paul II], chosen to lead the Church, was following a path up to his Mother in the sky, a path set out on from his childhood. And I became aware of the density of the words of the Mother of Guadalupe to Saint Juan Diego: ‘Don’t be afraid, am I not perhaps your mother?’ I understood the presence of Mary in the life of the Pope.
That testimony did not get forgotten in an instant. From that time on I recite the fifteen mysteries of the Rosary every day.♦
Joseph Matthews is a free-lance writer who lives and works in Dublin.