The Promise of Francis
The Bishop of the Slums
The work of the priests in the Buenos Aires slums is not ideological, it’s apostolic, and therefore part of the church of Rome. Anyone who thinks it’s a different church doesn’t understand how priests work in slums.
—POPE FRANCIS, RADIO INTERVIEW, BAJO FLORES, ARGENTINA, MARCH 13, 2014
The first time I saw Pope Francis in person and heard his gentle but powerfully convincing slow tones in the Vatican’s cavernous audience hall just days after his election, he made it crystal clear that he had no sympathy for the external trappings of a rich church. He had extensive firsthand experience of real poverty in his years of ministry in the teeming slums, the villas miserias, of his native city, Buenos Aires. He was the first pope ever elected from a megacity, a metropolis inhabited by more than ten million people.
“How I would like a church of the poor, for the poor,” he told us.
As head of the Catholic Church in Argentina, he had never kept a set of custom-tailored cardinal’s formal red robes handy at the Vatican for
ceremonial occasions, like some of his fellow princes of the church. Nor had he ever fastened around his neck the “Cappa Magna,” the long red silk ceremonial train still worn by some fashion-conscious senior clerics who enjoy parading in costly ecclesiastical finery. As pope, he has publicly deplored clerics who are “unctuous, sumptuous and presumptuous.”1
In fact during one of his 2015 local parish visits as bishop of Rome, he was spotted wearing a white cassock with cuffs seriously frayed from hard use.
Italy’s leading daily La Repubblica commented: “After the plastic watch and the iron cross, now it’s the fraying tunic. In a photo taken during the visit of Pope Francis to Ostia, on the Roman coast, the Pope’s vestment is visibly getting worn.”
It was not the first time that his lack of interest in sartorial matters had been noticed. His scuffed black shoes and his black socks peeping out from under his white cassock attracted media attention immediately after his election. Former Pope Benedict used to favor expensive custom-made red slippers more in line with Vatican tradition.
The mass-circulation Italian Catholic weekly Famiglia Cristiana (Christian Family) wrote:
A small detail, certainly. But indicative of the pastoral style of Bergoglio. The black shoes he has worn since his election, the simple cross of metal, the ring of the fisherman in silver and a very simple watch on his wrist: a Swatch, a basic model, giving the date but with no other special function. It costs about 50 euros. It is said that when the watch broke, it was not easy to convince him to buy a new one. He wanted to change only the strap, and “gave in” to buying a new one only after he was assured that a new one, identical to the old one, would not cost more than changing the watch-band.
He hailed from a country, Argentina, that by the second decade of the twenty-first century had turned into an economic basket case,
unable to repay its international debt. It had been a dramatic shock for gaucho pride, after enjoying the status of being one of the wealthiest countries in the world during earlier economic booms, for Argentina to descend slowly toward international penury at the end of the twentieth century. In 2015, the country suffers under the burden of 40 percent annual inflation.
At home, the cardinal from Buenos Aires who liked to be called “Father Jorge” had already espoused poverty as a virtue, just like his namesake Francis of Assisi. After promotion to the leadership of the church in Argentina, he refused to move into the large suburban mansion occupied by his predecessor, and lived simply in two rooms in a property next to his cathedral church.
So Francis’ first promise was to transform the popular image of the Vatican as a place that flaunted its wealth and its artistic riches to a place where the poor and even the homeless would not feel out of place. He refused to move into the ostentatious palace where all popes in living memory had resided, chose to take his meals in a cafeteria, slept in a guesthouse, and used a Ford Focus service car, not the Vatican’s official papal limo, for his sorties into Rome.
Bumping into a bishop one day in the guesthouse lobby, he asked the prelate what he was waiting for. “My driver,” the prelate replied.
“Shouldn’t you be walking, like I do?” was the new pope’s startling reply.
In 1964, the future Pope Francis, twenty-eight-year-old Father Jorge Mario Bergoglio, was still completing his studies to become a full member of the Jesuit order. He was doing a two-year teaching stint at one of the oldest and most prestigious high schools in all Argentina. Among his teenage students at the Immaculate Conception College in Santa Fe de la Vera Cruz, three hundred miles from Buenos Aires, was Jorge Milia, then age fifteen.
“We were rebel adolescents, full of hormones, and thirsty for novelties,” Milia recollected in a recent interview.2
“We couldn’t play any instruments, since we had none—no drums, no electric guitars—but it was the sixties, and we all wanted to be Beatles.”
Seeking help, they turned to the priest who was teaching the boys literature, psychology, and art history. “Within a short time he helped us find electric guitars, a room to rehearse in, and an amplifier.” Father Bergoglio also located for the boys, who now called their Beatles-style band The Shouters, an English-speaking student who could transcribe the words of the Beatles’ songs. “Father Jorge never refused a request for help. If he saw that people became involved, he continued to support them.”
During those same two years of high-school teaching, Father Bergoglio introduced his pupils in literature to the works of the already famous Argentinian short-story writer and novelist Jorge Luis Borges. Through a family connection—his own former piano teacher who became personal secretary to Borges—Father Bergoglio contacted Argentina’s most famous literary celebrity and invited him to visit the school. Borges came and stayed five days. To encourage the students’ appreciation of the novelist’s work, Bergoglio had his students emulate Borges by writing their own short stories. The best were sent to Borges, who wrote an introduction to a book that was later published—and became a local best-seller.
On yet another occasion, Bergoglio arranged a showing in the school cinema of the Ingmar Bergman movie The Seventh Seal. His point was to illustrate literary connections with the dance of death, a common theme in Spanish literature. Theater as well as cinema was important; for a high-school performance in 1964, a historical play was staged about battles between Spanish and indigenous tribes, set in what is today’s Uruguay. In such all-male church schools the female roles were usually played by boys dressed as girls. Bergoglio, producer of the play,
complained that this damaged the image of women and encouraged the mothers and sisters of some of the actors to take the female parts.3
They did; in its way, this was revolutionary.
From the beginning, as these incidents suggest, Bergoglio showed a particular sense of creativity—a capacity to think outside the box.
Asking myself where this began, and where he had begun, I traveled to Argentina in the summer of 2014, where I was startled to see a sign in a travel agency offering a three-hour bus tour called “The World of Pope Francis.” All the better that the tour was free, subsidized by the city of Buenos Aires. For it, our guide, Daniel Vega, wore a smart black blazer. Before we left he helped the driver attach to the side of the bus a large banner proclaiming CIRCUITO PAPAL.
Our tour began outside the Church of St. Joseph of Flores, a twenty-minute subway ride from the city center. This was the parish church in which the young Bergoglio and his family used to attend Sunday mass, and where, at age seventeen, he had a mystical experience during confession—“a moment of truth,” he later recounted—that made him decide to become a priest. The church interior was dilapidated, and restoration work under way on the cupola intimated a risk of collapse.
This was the church opposite a small park in Flores, at the time a relatively modest suburb or barrio, where the Bergoglio family made their home: his father, Mario; his mother, Regina; his two brothers, Alberto and Oscar; and his sisters, Marta and Maria Elena. Born December 17, 1936, Jorge was the eldest sibling. His grandparents, who had six children, had sold the coffee shop they owned in Turin and migrated to Argentina in 1929.
Argentina had been a Spanish colony since the 1580s and gained independence from Spain at the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1816. Italian émigrés had already been arriving in Argentina in increasing numbers since the second half of the seventeenth century. Today it is estimated that of its population of twenty million, 50 percent to 60
percent have some Italian ancestry. The Bergoglios and their only child, a son, Mario, who had been working for the Banca d’Italia in Turin, made the five-week Atlantic crossing on board the liner Giulio Cesare, arriving in January 1928.
At that time Argentina boasted the world’s eighth largest economy, but with the onset of the Great Depression, the country was about to plunge into a severe economic crisis. The newcomers were able to join relatives in Parana, a river port upstream along the River Plate, who had arrived seven years earlier and had set up a company that sold road building materials; the relatives had built a four-story building that they called Palazzo Bergoglio, which had the only elevator in town.
Five years later, Mario Bergoglio, trained in Italy as an accountant, married Regina Maria Sivori, a young Argentinian woman also of Piedmontese origin. The family had by then moved to Buenos Aires, where the two had met in a church. Jorge, their first child, spent considerable time at the home of his grandmother Rosa, now living nearby. Jorge was particularly close to his grandmother, whom he has mentioned many times since his election to the papacy as his guide and source of religious inspiration; together they used to recite the rosary, and to this day Pope Francis keeps a letter from his grandmother in his breviary.
During a meeting at the Vatican with leaders of the now-worldwide Protestant Salvation Army, Pope Francis, speaking in Italian, recalled an incident from his childhood that set him on his lifelong quest to encourage reunification with the Christian churches that separated from Rome—first the Orthodox church at the time of the Great Schism in the eleventh century, and then again the Protestants during the sixteenth-century Reformation.
“It was 1940—I suppose none of you were even born then,” he told the sixty-year-old Salvation Army general André Cox with a smile. “At that time the general idea was that all Protestants went straight to hell!
“I remember as clearly as if it happened yesterday. There were two
Salvation Army women with that special bonnet that they wear walking on the other side of the road and I asked my grandmother: ‘Who are they? Are they nuns?’ ‘No,’ she said, ‘they are Protestants! But they are good Protestants!’ So I received my very first lesson in ecumenism from your people.”
“Thank you very much,” he added emphatically, in his halting English.
Because the grandparents continued to speak with each other in Italian, albeit in the Piedmontese dialect, Jorge became bilingual in Italian as well as Spanish. (He can, in addition, get by in Latin, German, French, Portuguese, and English, though he is uncomfortable when speaking anything but Spanish and Italian.)
The first stop made by our tour bus was in front of the childhood home of Jorge Bergoglio. This was at 531 Calle Membrillar, a modest two-story dwelling just seven blocks from the parish church at Flores, in what was in his time a lower-middle-class suburb of Buenos Aires. Its two- and three-bedroom row houses were mostly of brick, and many, including the Bergoglio home, had small gardens or patios. Reflecting the Spanish style, theirs and many of their neighbors’ sported ironwork balconies. After the deaths of Jorge’s parents, the family home was rebuilt in the 1970s, but its leafy street must always have had dignity and charm.
Money was short; Mario Bergoglio worked as a bookkeeper in a factory that made hosiery, and, to make ends meet, he took on extra jobs. They had no luxuries, no vacations, no car, but there were records of grand opera playing in the background to the traditional Italian game of briscola. After the birth of her last child, his mother suffered from a form of paralysis, and, as the elder son, Jorge stepped in, learning to cook.
So one can imagine the scene in the Bergoglio home, with teenager Jorge hovering over a frying pan. Typically, Bergoglio insisted on installing a hot plate in his modest three-room suite in his Santa Marta
residence in Rome. While in seminary he would cook for his fellow future priests on the Sundays when the official paid cook had a day off.
Our next stop was nearby: the playground where young Jorge kicked soccer balls with his friends after school. “He was never without a ball at his feet,” one of his teachers recalled. It was a close-knit family, and his father took Jorge to see matches in which the local San Lorenzo soccer team played.
The bus made a zigzag course through the sprawling city, stopping briefly at the places where the future pope had studied: his elementary school; the technical high school where he had studied chemistry; and the Immaculada Concepción Seminary where, after working in a chemistry lab on foods for a time, he began his studies for the priesthood at age twenty-one. He had told his mother that he planned to study medicine. But when she found in his room no medical textbooks, only numerous volumes of theology including many in Latin, she expressed surprise.
After he acknowledged that he intended to pursue seminary studies full time, his mother was initially distressed (so say his early biographers).
“I thought you were studying medicine,” she reportedly said.
“I did not lie to you. I am studying medicine, but medicine of the soul,” he replied—so goes the legend, at any rate.
The bus passed through the broad streets of downtown Buenos Aires, where on Saturday afternoons couples gather to dance the tango right in the middle of the street. Here our guide informed us proudly that Jorge, in his late teens, used to dance the tango or the somewhat less slinky milonga con mucho gusto.
The image of a tango-dancing future pontiff captured the imagination of believers and nonbelievers alike. On December 17, 2014, hundreds of tango dancers gathered in streets around the Vatican to celebrate, with music and movement, the pontiff’s seventy-eighth birthday.
“I liked the tango very much as a young man,” said the pope in an interview in 2010.4
“My favorite singers were Carlos Gardel and Ada Falcon. She later became a nun.”
It was not all fun and tangos. In 1957, when he was twenty-one, Jorge fell ill with pleurisy. The illness lasted at least three months, and surgeons had to remove a portion of his upper right lung. On her own initiative, a nursing sister tripled his doctors’ prescription of antibiotics. He has credited her boldness with helping him to survive what risked being a fatal illness. Now in his late seventies, he admits that he still feels the effects of this early and permanent impairment of his health.
From the venue of street dancing the bus now took us to the Jesuit seminary, the imposing but rather stark neoclassical Villa Devoto. Jorge entered here in 1958 for training as a future priest. He decided not to become a diocesan priest based in a parish, but to join the elite Society of Jesus, the Jesuits. In 2013, Pope Francis, reflecting upon his experience in that seminary, described the environment of his training as “closed and rigid thought, more instructive-ascetic than mystical.” His teachers left little space for innovation, he said.
On the other hand, the Jesuits attracted him; he knew that in undertaking the rigorous, fourteen-year training and series of vows demanded to join the order, he would be living in a deeply committed Catholic community. The order was founded nearly five hundred years ago by St. Ignatius of Loyola, a town in the Basque country of northern Spain, and is among the most prestigious within the Catholic Church. An aristocrat and soldier, Ignatius turned to the life of the spirit after suffering a wound in battle, and in the 1530s wrote a classic book of meditations, prayers, and contemplative practices called The Spiritual Exercises. That book remains extraordinarily influential for many Catholics today, and for Jorge Bergoglio, its spiritual insights became a handbook for life. The impact of St. Ignatius is reflected in Pope Francis’ keynote teaching document, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), which he wrote in 2013.
As an order, the Jesuits were formally recognized by Pope Paul III—that same pope who would be a protector and benefactor of Michelangelo—in 1540. From the outset they were missionaries, with about a thousand Jesuits already working in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the New World by 1556, when Ignatius died. In 1632, Jesuit missionary Paul Le Jeune sent his first report of missionary work in the New World back to his superiors in France. From Paraguay the order spread into Brazil, Bolivia, and Argentina, in order to convert to Christianity native American peoples within Spain’s empire.
The Jesuits first set foot on the River Plate in Argentina over four centuries ago, in 1585. There, as the 1986 British film The Mission showed dramatically, they found the seminomadic indigenous people, the Guarani, in pitiful conditions, exploited by the Spanish colonists. The Jesuits organized the Guarani into stable communities called reducciones (reductions) and eventually created fifteen missions in Argentina.
They were teachers, but also learners. When the Jesuits found local customs in contradiction with Christian teachings, they tried to understand why. For instance, they were troubled that the Guarani killed their sickliest children upon birth, but learned that it was because, as a nomadic tribe, they could not tend to them.
Given their missionary work, the Jesuits also became skilled teachers and even businessmen. They were the guardians of the colonies’ know-how: “Astronomers, botanists, pharmacists, printers, zoologists, cartographers, and architects, as well as theologians and jurists, they were admired not just for their knowledge and accomplishments, but also for their discipline and personal austerity,” according to Austin Ivereigh, an historian of church-state relations in Argentina.5
They learned to run successful ranches and plantations, akin to the medieval European monasteries; the accumulated wealth from these paid for construction of Jesuit colleges in all Argentina’s major cities, including Buenos Aires.
Although the Jesuits protected the indigenous people in Spanish South America from slavery, the advent of Portuguese colonization in Argentina resulted in what came to be known as the Guarani wars, fought against the Guarani, who were defeated by the Portuguese in 1756.
Back in Europe, the monarchs of Spain, Portugal, and France had become deeply suspicious of Jesuit teachings and power; to them, the Jesuits appeared subversive because of their support for the rights of ordinary people rather than the divine right of kings. A decade later all the Jesuits were expelled from the Americas as well as from Europe, in what is known as the “Suppression,” which took place everywhere on the same day, April 2, 1767. Ordered by Pope Clement XIV, the Suppression lasted until the end of the Napoleonic era, when the Jesuits were able to return to their missions and schools, including in the Americas.
They had already returned to Argentina in 1814, just after the country achieved independence from Spain. But when the new dictator, Juan Manuel de Rosas, demanded that they preach against his political enemies and place his picture upon their altars, the Jesuits were again expelled from Argentina. They returned only after de Rosas was ousted in February 1852 and fled into exile in England, where Queen Victoria welcomed him at Plymouth with a twenty-one-gun salute.
During the second half of that century the Jesuits once again became one of Argentina’s largest and most influential religious orders. Still, by comparison with their first generation of Jesuits, rather than frontiersmen, they acted defensively in their dealings with the secular powers.
Given their centuries of far-flung missions, their knowledge of languages, and grasp of the subtleties of other cultures, the Jesuits came to be considered overly cosmopolitan, highly politicized, and interfering. Their leader was often called the “General,” reflecting the order’s military origins, but sometimes also the “Black Pope,” not always a compliment. Even today some despise the Jesuits, and the Internet harbors various hate sites, like the one offering “Free Anti-Jesuit Papacy PDF Books,”
with such titles as Engineer Corps of Hell and The Jesuit Conspiracy. Another site discusses “Jesuits Devil Worship” (the grammar is theirs).
In 1969, Bergoglio, on the eve of his thirty-third birthday, was ordained a priest by the retired bishop from Córdoba in the chapel of the Colégio Máximo. Just four years later, he took his final vows against a background of civil war on the streets of Buenos Aires. In a promotion that came with exceptional rapidity, only three months after those final vows he was made provincial superior, or head of all the Jesuits in Argentina. He succeeded Father Riccardo O’Farrell, a sociologist who had supported all the changes introduced by Vatican II. O’Farrell had gone further, to embrace liberation theology, a Catholic movement in several Latin American countries that sought to redress unjust economic, political, and social conditions in underdeveloped regions. It was to be the “preferential option for the poor,” in the words of Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutierrez.6
Their goal was to create Christian-based communities run by socially committed Catholics.
Back in Rome, Pope John Paul II and his bureaucrats were deeply suspicious of the movement. In their eyes it was basically Marxist and supported class struggle. This was the height of the Cold War, and in the Vatican there was fear that that the more extreme liberation theologians were in effect justifying armed struggle between rich and poor. In Rome, liberation theology became identified with the political expansionism of Soviet Communism and of Fidel Castro’s Cuba.
O’Farrell’s years in charge of the Jesuits in Argentina coincided with a dramatic decline there of religious vocations. Between 1961 and 1973, the year of Bergoglio’s promotion, new vocations had slipped from twenty-five to just two; every year during that same period between ten and fifteen seminarians deserted. O’Farrell’s six-year term in office was abruptly cut short after just four years.
Taking his place, the thirty-six-year-old Bergoglio, until that time a professor, banned such elements of Vatican II as guitar-strummed songs played at mass, returning the Jesuit churches to traditional hymns and Gregorian chants. O’Farrell had allowed the Jesuit students and priests to wear nonclerical clothing. Bergoglio insisted upon clerical collars and cassocks. He also steered the order’s seminary students away from some studies that O’Farrell had encouraged, such as politics, sociology, anthropology, and engineering.
At the same time, Bergoglio encouraged his students to seek contacts with the poor. On weekends, students were urged to visit parishes in the big city slums, while discouraged from contact with potentially political organizations: trade unions, cooperatives, and even Catholic NGOs. According to Father Rafael Velasco, a former student of Bergoglio, now rector of the Catholic University of Cordoba, the Bergoglio of those years was “very pastoral, but also a bit patronizing—more interested in relieving the effects of injustice or poverty than in empowering the poor.”
Others have described the Bergoglio of the 1970s as deeply conservative and authoritarian; some also criticize him as inexperienced.
In 1976, a military junta seized power in Buenos Aires. Immediately it began a crackdown on anyone perceived to be a political opponent. Tens of thousands of people disappeared in a systematic campaign of kidnappings, torture, and murder.
That very year, Bishop Enrique Angelelli of La Rioja in northeastern Argentina died in a faked automobile accident. The son of Italian immigrants like Bergoglio, the bishop was a strong supporter of agrarian reform, which meant tackling the ownership of giant plantations. When he tried to protect farmworkers, local landowners had marched straight into the church where he was preaching and had thrown stones at him. (Thanks to documents found in Vatican archives on the instructions of Pope Francis, his murderers, who were in the military, were
finally brought to justice exactly forty years later; knowing he was on the death list, one month before his murder Angelilli had written of his fears to Papal Nuncio Pio Laghi, who had forwarded his letter to the Vatican, where it was archived and forgotten until it was brought to light again in 2014.)
Theirs was the era of the desaparacidos (the disappeared), among them hundreds of nuns, lay Catholic teachers, and 150 priests. Some therefore make the case that Bergoglio’s view—that priests should not be involved in politics—was the better part of wisdom, for in this way some lives may have been saved; these were divisive times, and there was no easy way to exercise spiritual leadership during what amounted to civil war.
Following his six-year term as provincial superior, in 1979, Bergoglio became rector of the Colégio Máximo, the most important Jesuit university conferring degrees in philosophy and theology in all Latin America. This was the year after Karol Wojtyla had been elected pope as John Paul II, the first non-Italian pontiff in 450 years. John Paul interpreted political strife in Latin America through strictly Polish spectacles. Having lived through Nazi and then Communist-led dictatorships in Poland, he found Latin American politics and Peronism hard to fathom. Not surprisingly, therefore, Bergoglio found himself facing a cruel, right-wing military dictatorship at home and, in the Vatican, hostility toward anything smacking of Marxism, which in Argentinian terms meant pressure on the part of radical priests to commit the church as a spearhead for social and economic reform.
Shortly after the military junta seized power, two Jesuit priests who had been working in the slums were kidnapped and tortured by the regime. Bergoglio had ordered them to stop their work, but they had refused, and he came under harsh criticism from some in the Jesuit order for having failed to protect them. A further complication was the 1982 Falklands War, which pitted Argentina against Britain.
By 1986, Bergoglio had been walking that tightrope for a decade,
and he found himself in trouble with his superiors in Rome. For them, his fifteen years of leadership of the Argentinian Jesuits had become divisive. As a benign form of punishment they relieved him of his post and dispatched him into temporary exile in Germany, where he was to carry out “research” for a doctorate.
And this is why our next bus stop was at San Jose del Telar, a small modern church in a somewhat upmarket suburb called Agronomeia. We were there to see, in the church, a reproduction of an eighteenth-century baroque painting of the Virgin Mary, whose original Jorge Bergoglio had admired while in Germany. The painting in the Church of St. Peter Am Perlach in Augsburg shows Mary, flanked by two angels, untying a long and tangled ribbon; underfoot she crushes the head of a serpent, representing the devil. Behind the painting, whose formal title is Mary, Undoer of Knots, was the true story of a Bavarian aristocrat. Seeking advice for his failing marriage, he was told by a Jesuit priest to bring him the long white ribbon that Bavarian brides traditionally carry to their wedding. Supposedly it represents Eve’s knot of disobedience in the Garden of Eden; as a symbol, Mary’s unraveling of the knot refers to her power to resolve all of life’s tangles.
The painting left a deep emotional mark upon Bergoglio, a stranger in a distant land, and when he returned temporarily from Augsburg to Buenos Aires six months later, he brought with him a postcard of the painting. (His poor relations with his fellow Jesuits meant that for two years, 1990–92, he would be sent to cool off in Cordoba, a city 250 miles from Buenos Aires.)
Times changed, and by 1992 the military dictatorship and “dirty war” had ended. That year Bergoglio was ordained auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires, and, at the ceremony, he distributed prayer cards showing the painting of Mary, Undoer of Knots. To honor their new bishop, the San Jose church parishioners then raised money to commission an Argentinian artist to make a full-sized copy of the painting.
Thanks to its association with Bergoglio, the little church became a
popular shrine to Mary, drawing pilgrims from all Argentina and even from abroad; on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, tens of thousands now converge there every December.
The events of these years gave Father Jorge, as he preferred to be called despite his important new role, a different focus. He became actively involved with the poor and the marginalized, to the point that he was becoming known as the Bishop of the Slums. By 1998, he had quadrupled the number of priests working in the villas miserias (shantytowns), in which some three million inhabitants of the Argentinian capital lived.
As our guide also reminded us, after he was promoted to archbishop and primate of Argentina in February 1998, Father Jorge shunned his predecessor’s palatial residence in an exclusive neighborhood fourteen miles away. He moved into a very modest apartment next door to the cathedral; of its four rooms he could use three, one being a chapel. In the same way, he decided after his election as pope not to live in the huge papal apartment on top of the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace.
Exactly as he would when he became pope in 2013, he adopted a lifestyle and system of church government that represented a sea change by comparison with that of his predecessor. His frugality became legendary: he cooked his own meals, and, to visit city parishes, used the bus and subway. He had so few personal belongings that when a friend gave him a present of classical CDs, he asked him to record them on cassettes because he had no CD player. When he was made a cardinal in 2001, he chose not to order new robes, but had the hand-me-downs of his late predecessor altered to fit him. He told fellow clerics planning to fly to Rome to see him receive his red hat that they should instead save the price of the ticket and distribute the money to the poor.
This was a difficult time for Argentina. Bergoglio’s promotion to cardinal happened to coincide with the country’s virtual bankruptcy. Between 1998 and 2002, Argentina suffered from a severe economic
depression that reportedly reflected financial crises in both Brazil and Russia. In four years the economy shrank by one-fifth, and the government defaulted on its foreign debt. Poverty soared; demonstrators in the Plaza de Mayo died in clashes with the police.
At last our bus headed to its final destination: the neoclassical Metropolitan Cathedral in the now-notorious Plaza de Mayo in the heart of the business district. Just across the square is the Casa Rosada, the palatial pink mansion that serves as the official residence of the Argentinian president. In his cathedral the new cardinal called upon priests and laypeople to work together; care of the poor and the sick would be a priority.
It was winter and 4:30 P.M. Already the sky had turned dark. The official tour was over. Now my own would begin.
It began with a walk through the gardens of the vast Plaza de Mayo. Groups of aging army veterans from the Falklands War were standing outside a camp they had erected. Banners lit by candles were looped between lampposts, and bore protests that these veterans had been abandoned by the Argentinian state and left destitute after having fought for their country against the British.
On the façade of the cathedral was the new pope’s coat of arms and the crossed keys of St. Peter in stucco. In the foyer stood a large portrait of a beaming Pope Francis (he is the first pope in history to choose that name) and the text of Saint Francis’ famous prayer:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.
Inside the dim cathedral a few dozen worshippers, mostly women, were praying.
I recalled that during the years when Bergoglio was archbishop, for an annual ceremony marking Argentina’s national day, he received here a delegation representing the highest authorities of the state, but with important exceptions: for years he had been boycotted by the country’s populist president Cristina Kirchner, who resented his political influence. Far worse, her entourage alleged that he had been an accomplice of the military dictatorship, and even tried to lobby among Argentinian bishops against his election to the papacy.
But after his election, when the polls showed that two-thirds of Argentinians admired him (today, 95 percent), in a surprising about-face, Kirchner called upon him four times altogether in Rome, where on one occasion the two had lunch together in his home in the Casa Santa Marta. On her return, posters popped up on walls declaring WE SHARE HOPES, with her photo next to the pope as she offered him a set of porcelain cups for drinking the traditional Argentinian herbal tea, “mate.”
The next morning I went where the bus tour had not—to one of the most notorious of the multiple slums of Buenos Aires. This one near the port was called Villa 31, but changed its name, as we shall see. It was and is considered a dangerous area for outsiders to visit, but I had an introduction to Father Eduardo Drabble, a worker priest who had been ordained by Father Bergoglio.
Villa 31 was a far cry from downtown Buenos Aires. The city had been one of the world’s major capitals at the end of the nineteenth century, when Argentina was the world’s fourth wealthiest country—a booming frontier land, attractive to immigrants. The papal bus tour had taken us down spacious boulevards and through European-style middle-class neighborhoods that still reflect that prosperity. The turn-of-the-twentieth-century Colón opera house, built in lavish art deco style, is one of the world’s largest, and still hosts top international performers.
In Villa 31, the poverty-stricken, drug-infested slum I was now entering, Father Eduardo was carrying on the work begun under the
then Father Jorge. By telephone he had warned me not to take a taxi: “It is too dangerous unless someone from here accompanies you. Phone me and I’ll pick you up.” As I later learned, neither taxis nor police cars would enter Villa 31.
We were to meet in front of an auto dealership, which boasted a row of gleaming secondhand Porsches and Mercedes-Benzes in its window. Within minutes of Father Drabble’s arrival in his beat-up red pickup truck we entered a warren of boxlike shanties and ramshackle two-story buildings, and then quickly arrived at his tiny Christ the Worker church, built of cement block and brick. On its outside wall was a touching memorial plaque dedicated to the memory of Father Carlos Mugica, murdered by a right-wing paramilitary death squad after saying mass in his slumland church of San Francisco Solano in 1974.
Father Mugica is today celebrated as a martyr of the church in Argentina. His story is akin to that of Archbishop Óscar Romero of San Salvador, who was similarly gunned down in 1980 by a murder squad while saying mass. Just the day before, from the pulpit he had urged the Salvadoran military, as Christians, to stop their violations of basic human rights. Romero had been outspoken against poverty, injustice, and the torture inflicted by his country’s military regime, and his funeral attracted an astonishing quarter of a million mourners. His statue already stands in Westminster Abbey in London. He is venerated as “Saint Romero” in El Salvador, but efforts to put him on the road to official sainthood had been sidetracked by Pope John Paul II because his name had been linked to liberation theology, feared in Rome to be inspired mainly by Marxist ideology. Romero was finally beatified—putting him one step away from full sainthood—at a ceremony in San Salvador in May 2015. He was formally declared a martyr for the Catholic faith, and his canonization can be expected to follow shortly.
Father Mugica was born into a wealthy Buenos Aires family and grew up in spacious surroundings with plenty of servants. He played tennis, soccer, and rugby, and at age twenty, during a visit to Rome in 1950, discovered his vocation to be a priest. Returning to Argentina, he became one of the first politically active Argentinian priests, and was deeply committed to fighting for the rights of the poor. He lived in fear of being banned by the hierarchies of the church of his time because of his political activities. “Nothing and no one will stop me from serving Jesus Christ and his church, fighting together for the poor and their liberation,” he once wrote. This quote became the motto for the 2014 celebrations of the fortieth anniversary of his death.
Father Eduardo Drabble is cut of similar cloth. He too was from a privileged family; his great-grandfather was English and, from Scotland, brought shorthorn cattle to Argentina. After studying for a law degree, Eduardo worked as an attorney in Buenos Aires for three years, but then abandoned the law to become a priest, ordained in 2009 by Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio himself.
Seated in his tiny office, we observed the ritual often shared with Father Jorge: to sip through a straw the rather bitter lukewarm brew, maté. Drabble is a handsome, bearded man of thirty-six, and as he spoke his face lit up.
“I’d thought the law was a way to help people, but you can help them more by being a priest,” he said. “To me, Jorge Bergoglio’s finest intuition was to realize that we don’t change people; people change us. We grasp that our system is unjust, and as priests we have an authoritative voice. With the strength of our organization we can and do support the people.”
He explained to me how Villa 31 is physically detached from the city of Buenos Aires. On the divided highway between the international airport and the high-rises of the downtown, I had already noticed huge screens erected to try to conceal or camouflage the existence of some
of the worst slums along the route. Similarly, the road to Villa 31 was a broad superhighway soaring above the barrio, making access to it difficult, and indeed invisible to those traveling overhead in the fast lane. In this way few foreign visitors to Buenos Aires come face to face immediately with the reality of the villas miserias.
Home to fifty thousand people, Villa 31 has open sewers and potholed mud roads. It has no hospital, not a single public school, apart from the one small religious school maintained by Drabble’s church. “We are in a desperate environment, where no one else wants to be. For us, this is heaven: being in the villas miserias is a blessing. You don’t learn it at Harvard or Cambridge. The streets teach you the Gospel,” Father Drabble enthused.
Forty percent of those living in Villa 31 are under sixteen years of age, he went on to explain. “The government distributes free condoms, but this seems to have no effect, and we often see young women alone with three or four children.”
Drugs are its cancer. I saw children, some of whom looked no more than ten, squatted by the roadside with the blank eyes of drug addicts. “You can buy a dose of paco [cocaine residue] for only $1,” said Father Drabble.
Some months after my own visit, Cardinal Mario Poli, who succeeded Bergoglio as archbishop of Buenos Aires, visited the barrio to launch yet another appeal for action by both the church and society to deal with the problem of drugs. “Addictions are a challenge,” said the cardinal in December 2014. “In this misery, which all Argentinians share, we need a serious drugs policy and a strong approach to health care.”
Father Pepe Di Paola, a famous shantytown priest in Buenos Aires and close friend of Pope Francis, was more forceful: “The social fabric here is unraveling. We can set up thousands of centers run by the best professionals, but it is all pointless if the rest of society fails to join us
in trying to resolve these problems. The rest of society—meaning the police, the government, the wealthy landowners, the industrialists.”
Just one week after his election, Jorge Bergoglio telephoned Father Eduardo Drabble from the Vatican to ask for news of the barrio. Half a world away, Pope Francis never forgets the world he left behind to govern his whole church.
In Rome, the Polish Pope John Paul II died after a lingering illness in April 2005, and a conclave was summoned to elect his successor. The German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected with the necessary two-thirds majority of votes.
But there was a surprising footnote. Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, as it was later learned, had been the runner-up in the election. Despite the fact that Bergoglio’s opponents at home launched a campaign to halt his candidacy, he is reported to have received forty votes in the final balloting, although he was relatively little known to those outside Latin America.
In 2007, he traveled to Aparecida in Brazil to participate in the fifth Latin American Episcopal Conference (CELAM). The bishops gathered there elected him to chair the committee that would draft the final document of the meeting, which was particularly important because Catholicism in Latin America was changing drastically. Despite such valiant efforts as those of Father Drabble and Father Di Paola, Argentinian Catholicism is seriously challenged. Latin America is home to 40 percent of the world’s Catholic population, and from 1900 through the 1960s, at least 90 percent of Latin Americans were Catholic.
But countless Latinos have either turned their backs on religion altogether or converted to evangelical Protestantism for such reasons as “enjoyment of the style of worship” (69 percent of converts), “greater emphasis on morality” (60 percent), and “found a church that helps
members more” (58 percent). During the twentieth century, the 90 percent of Latin Americans who used to belong to the Catholic Church at the beginning of the century shrank to under 70 percent, according to a November 2014 Pew Research survey.
The conference at Aparecida therefore had particular importance for the future of the church, and it was a tribute to Bergoglio that he was chosen to draft its final report, in which social outreach played a key part. From that document’s chapter 8:
We pledge to work harder, so our Latin American and Caribbean Church may continue to accompany our poorest brothers on their journey, even to martyrdom. Today, we want to confirm and promote the option of preferential love for the poor which was expressed in previous conferences. . . . The Latin American Church is called to be a sacrament of love, solidarity and justice in our countries.”
For the Economist, this document amounts to a “refined version of liberation theology.”7
“Preferential love for the poor”: these were the words of the man who became pope in March 2013. His intimate knowledge of the lives of the poor, and his commitment to all those he had known and cared for personally, came as a surprise to many veteran Vatican watchers, more accustomed to the remote pomp and circumstance of church ritual than to the friendly and frugal lifestyle of Jorge Bergoglio.
This lifestyle was illustrated by the arrival of Father Pepe Pinto, who suddenly appeared in the Casa Santa Marta one Saturday afternoon shortly after Bergoglio became pope bearing a large suitcase filled with gifts donated by the people of the villas miserias. In it too were personal objects to be blessed by the pope: rosaries, statuettes, photographs.
He cried for his Argentina. In April 2013, when he had been pope for barely a month, he sent a letter to the Association of the Mothers of
Plaza de Mayo to say that he shared their sorrow and their fight for justice for “the tragic loss of their loved ones at this moment in Argentina’s history.” The association had been created in 1977 to denounce the disappearance of tens of thousands of Argentinians during the military dictatorship. The military forcibly but secretly gave out for adoption the infant children of murdered parents. For decades Bergoglio had been accustomed to seeing them demonstrate every Thursday in front of the Casa Rosada, near the cathedral.
And when Estela de Carlotto, the president of the Association of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, called upon him in Rome in November 2014, she was received, together with her grandson, Ignacio, whom she had only recently met for the first time. His mother, Laura Carlotto, had been killed shortly after his birth in 1978, and Ignacio’s identity had just been confirmed by DNA testing.
As all this shows, Pope Francis had long since changed from the young conservative he had been in his early years in the church. When he was catapulted into a leadership role with the Jesuits at age thirty-six, just when his country was plunged into a military dictatorship, he was not yet prepared to walk such a difficult path. During that era he had censored books of liberation theology. He had long since admitted that this was an error—and not only; now, as pope, he began corresponding with the Franciscan theologian from Brazil, Leonardo Boff.
For a pope, this was a radical change, and not only in style. In 1985, the then-Cardinal Ratzinger, later Benedict XVI, initially silenced Boff for one year for having published his seminal work, Church, Charism and Power: Liberation Theology and the Institutional Church.8
After Ratzinger accused him of “religious terrorism,” Boff was deeply insulted. He left the Franciscan order in 1992 but continued as an academic, teaching theology, ethics, and philosophy at the University of Rio de Janeiro, and as a visiting lecturer all over the world, including in Italy.
In a recent interview with the German Deutsche Welle, Boff said,
“I think this pope will create a new dynasty of popes from the Third World. Only 24 percent of the world’s Christians live in Europe, while 62 percent live in Latin America, and the rest, in Asia and Africa. Today Christianity is a religion of the Third World, which originated in the First World.” Boff believes that these churches bring new life into Christianity, and that the Third World church has its own heroes, martyrs, and prophets, including “the people’s saint, Óscar Romero.”
In that same interview, the formerly discredited Latin American theologian heaped praise upon Pope Francis for his readiness to discuss hitherto taboo subjects. “When he heard that a priest in Rome would not baptize an illegitimate child, he said, ‘There are no illegitimate daughters or sons—there are only children.’ ” For Boff, “Francis has already started to reform the papacy.”
Not only are Boff’s teachings no longer censored, but Pope Francis asked Boff for suggestions while drafting his new encyclical on the protection of the environment.
As pope, Francis is a reflection of his Latin American origins and experiences. He appears unlikely to renounce this heritage in his papacy or in his private life. John Paul II was quick to celebrate his election by a triumphal return to Poland and indeed made multiple return visits there. By contrast, Pope Francis has shown remarkable restraint. He could easily have carried out a side visit to his homeland when he attended World Youth Day in Brazil, just three months after his election, but chose not to do so. Although he visited three other Latin American countries during 2015, his first trip back home to Argentina is not scheduled until 2016.
However, he remains strongly attached to his origins. Although he has four times received Argentine President Cristina Kirchner and hosted a private luncheon for her, he indicates that he prefers not to welcome politicians. He receives many other visitors from Argentina, particularly close personal friends such as Rabbi Abraham Skorka,
rector of the Latin-American Rabbinical Seminary in Buenos Aires, and Omar Abboud, the soft-spoken former head of the Islamic Center, now director general of the Institute for Interreligious Dialogue in Buenos Aires. Both these old friends from Argentina were invited to accompany Pope Francis on his visit to the Holy Land in May 2014.
Earlier that year Pope Francis had aroused curiosity when news was leaked that he had telephoned the Argentine consulate in Rome to ask for renewal of both his passport and his identity card. Within days the consul general hand-delivered the new documents to the pope at the Vatican. Simultaneously, the pope felt it necessary to let it be known that he had no intention of an immediate return to Argentina.
On the other hand, do these documents suggest that the pope has an exit strategy? Possibly. In Buenos Aires, Father Eduardo Drabble had confided to me, “When the pope realizes he can do no more, when he realizes that his mission is finished, I believe he will retire. He may well return here to live in a home for retired priests.”
I was reminded that, before his election, Jorge Bergoglio had already reserved a place in a retirement home for clergymen at Flores, his birthplace.
Meanwhile Argentina continues to come to the pope. In November 2014, Argentine artist Alejandro Marmo brought to Rome two giant statues made of scrap iron—one a crucifix called Cristo Operaio (Christ the Worker)—which were placed in the garden of the papal villa at Castel Gandolfo, where they were blessed by the pope. “The sculptures are a sign of the creativity of which we are capable, even using abandoned raw materials,” said the pope during the blessing ceremony. “They symbolize the genius that God has wished to place in the mind of an artist.”
The statues reflect the “culture of waste,” the artist explained, because they are made of such recycled materials as iron chains and
gates abandoned to rust decades ago. The sculptures were constructed by a group of young Argentinians with drug problems, “those excluded from society,” said Marmo in an interview with the Italian press agency ANSA. For him, the use of recycled materials in art serves as a metaphor for social recovery.
There is a special reason behind Marmo’s gift and the pontiff’s words. In Argentina, Pope Francis had been profoundly shocked when, during the severe economic crisis in Argentina after 2001, he saw men and young boys in rags poking through the garbage dumps of Buenos Aires looking for recyclable materials and also collecting cardboard to sell. Bergoglio is an activist, and he helped the more than three thousand ragpickers, called cartoneros, form an association. He also became their chaplain, supporting them, marrying them, and baptizing their children. He regularly deplores what he, like the artist Marmo, calls “the throwaway culture.”
Visitors from Argentina have also brought lighter moments to Rome. To celebrate the pope’s seventy-eighth birthday in December 2014, a horde of tango dancers, mindful of the pontiff’s early passion for their national dance, converged in the Via Della Conciliazione, the street leading up to Saint Peter’s, for a dance-in. The languorous tones of the tango belted out from loudspeakers in the square, which normally amplify Pope Francis’ voice, as pilgrims of all ages—from teenagers to grandparents—tried out their paces on the uneven cobblestones of the square, not the most friendly of dance floors.
In Buenos Aires, Bergoglio had quickly come to grips with a financial scandal involving his predecessor as archbishop. A powerful local Catholic banking family, the Trussos, had been financing the travel program of Cardinal Antonio Quarracino and paying his credit card bills. The archdiocese held a number of accounts in their bank, Banco de Credito Provincial (BCP), which had collapsed in 1997. Some family members went to jail.
On taking over the top job in the Argentinian church in 1998,
Bergoglio quickly hired a firm of international accountants to sort out the mess he inherited in his diocesan finances and began to enforce for the first time strict accountability and transparency procedures. So there was promise too that one of Pope Francis’ first priorities on his arrival in Rome would be to find out the truth about long-standing rumors about the Vatican Bank; that it had for years been functioning as a convenient offshore money-laundering center, fiscal paradise, and tax haven for unidentified account holders in the heart of the Italian capital.
Two years into the new papacy the situation has changed drastically. All account holders, cardinals included, have had their finances examined in detail by professional scrutineers from the United States, and rigid new transparency and money management rules have been imposed on every Vatican department.
But there are increasing grumbles inside the Roman Curia that the new teams set up by Pope Francis to monitor Vatican finances are prying too deeply into long accepted procedures. Serious budgeting and accounting rules are relatively new concepts at the Court of the popes. What exactly has been going on at the Vatican Bank?