The Pope Francis I know
His role in Argentina stirs controversy, but now Francis can start with a new name and a clean bill of moral health
There are two views on Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis. The world has warmed to the first Latin American pope, whose election has cracked open the Eurocentrism of the Catholic church, and who came across on the balcony as so humble, so genuine, so holy. But that is not all that can be said.
In the last 10 years that I have been watching this Argentinian papabile, I have heard two opposite opinions. One sees him as humble, the other as authoritarian. One as progressive and open, the other as conservative and severe. When I met him in Buenos Aires in 2004, he told me he did not give interviews to the press. But he did agree to sit down in the pews with me after his Sunday mass and have a friendly conversation off the record. He came over as a man who was not only passionately committed to the gospel of poverty, but also highly intelligent and cultured.
We have been in touch a couple of times since, and when he was in Rome for the 2005 conclave, I dropped off a letter for him. He replied promptly by ringing up my hotel and giving me two excellent contacts: a well-informed Argentinian journalist in Rome, and his then press secretary, Guillermo Marcó.
As we were reminded on Thursday, Bergoglio’s name had been connected with the dirty war in the 1970s in Argentina. Was this unjust? I am convinced by Marcó’s assurance that it was a “very grave calumny”. From 1973 to 1979, as Jesuit provincial, Bergoglio had a confrontation with a couple of priests, Orland Yorio and Francisco Jalics, who were living in a poor barrio and carrying out dangerous work against the military dictatorship. They felt betrayed by Bergoglio because instead of endorsing their work and protecting them, he demanded they leave the barrio. When they refused, they had to leave the Jesuit order. When they were later “disappeared” and tortured, it seemed to many that Bergoglio had been siding with the repression. It was the kind of complex situation that is capable of multiple interpretations, but it is far more likely Bergoglio was trying to save their lives.
When I spoke with fellow Jesuits from other countries about Bergoglio’s prospects for becoming pope, I was taken aback by their dislike. He was harsh and disciplinarian, they said, and never went to visit his Jesuit brothers in the curia in Rome. According to Marcó, the alienation between Bergoglio and the Jesuits was a thorn in his side that he bore with silent patience.
Because of issues like this, and his confrontations with the Argentinian government on questions such as same-sex marriage, he has been classed as a conservative. But a different picture has been painted by one of Bergoglio’s friends, a radical feminist and Catholic called Clelia Luro, who is about as far to the left on the ecclesial spectrum as you can go. She married a prominent and respected bishop, Jerónimo Podestá – one of the leaders of the progressive reforms that followed the second Vatican council – and was sometimes seen concelebrating mass with him, the kind of thing that makes a Catholic cleric’s hair stand on end. But Bergoglio reacted differently.
Luro talked to me at length about her friend, of whom she has the highest opinion, and told me how she would write to him almost weekly, and he would always reply by ringing her up and having a short chat. When Podesta was dying, Bergoglio was the only Catholic cleric who went to visit him in hospital, and, when he died, the only one who showed public recognition of his great contribution to the Argentinian church.
Now he is pope, we can hope Francis may start not only with a new name but with a clean bill of moral health, and that the world can make its own judgement on what kind of man he is – not based on misunderstandings that come from painful and difficult moments in the past, but responding to his call from St Peter’s balcony for “fraternity, love and trust among us”. I believe he will not let us down, and will be a beacon of Franciscan poverty and simplicity in a Vatican that still operates like a medieval court. _____________________________________________
What does this article prove – about the new Pope, named after Blessed Francis of Assisi? Perhaps the most important thing – that he is fully human – like the rest of us, but with a specific job to do in the world of religion and politics. Like his original name-sake, Pope Francis has been on a journey of discovery; and it is still on pilgrimage. He has made mistakes, but – to err is only human!
Whatever his thoughts about issues like women priests or same-sex marriage – which presently are conditioned by the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church – Francis would appear to be God’s agency for change at the Vatican; in whatever way he discerns God’s will for his pontificate. Does this mean that Pope Francis is infallible in his judgements? I think his demeanour so far tells us that this is an aspect of the papacy that he might reserve his private judgement on.
However, whatever decisions are made in his new role by his explicit command, there will be those among the Faithful who will accept whatever he says as ‘Gospel’, and, almost inevitably, those (maybe among the Curia, whose way of life may soon be very different, from all accounts) who will see him as mistaken. And that is the situation of religious leaders, of whatever spiritual discipline, throughout the world – because they are all human – made in the divine Image and Likeness? Yes, but all too fallibly human!
It may well be, in this new era of the papacy, that the Roman Curia will cease to be the great power-base for Roman Catholic Christianity – giving way, perhaps, to a new ethos of collegiality that will, under the papal primacy, seek the ‘Mind of Christ’ on a much broader geographical & philosophical basis – through a devolution of power to the Bishops of the Church in their various areas of pastoral responsibility. The fact that the Throne of Peter is now occupied by a Bishop from South America – rather than an Italian or other European prelate – could allow a welcome breath of fresh air into the world-wide denomination from out of its multi-lingual diaspora.
(As an Anglican, this does make me wonder when we Anglicans will seek to broaden the aspect of our own denominational purlieu – towards a devolution of pastoral oversight in the provincial areas that is more suitable to the ethnic, cultural and spiritual ethos of the place? The excitement of ‘Unity in Diversity’ seems to have lost its original savour with some parts of the Communion, which seek to follow their own culture and ethical ways.)
It would appear that the era of great international gatherings of Episcopal Conferences – with all the expense involve in travel and hotel expenses – may become a thing of the past – at least for our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers. This Pope Francis seems quite determined to begin a period of evangelical austerity more suitable to the Way of The Cross of Christ, which he seeks to exalt in his future ministry as Pastor Pastorum. May he bring relief to the poor, the hungry, the marginalised and the helpless as Papa Francesco. His trajectory seems oriented towards the disenfranchised of the world. Does this sound like another ‘Francis’?
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand