The election of Pope Francis has shocked the world and the Church. From the moment of his election not only the media, but the faithful and the Church have been shocked to see, one by one, the gestures that the new Pastor of the Church has made from the chair of St Peter. We see it confirmed that ‘a gesture is worth a thousand words.’
However, I’m not going to analyze the communicative significance of his gestures, because this is a matter for specialists. Instead, let me share a brief sketch of the man, the Father Jorge, who I met in Buenos Aires for the first time when I was only 24. The man today discovered by the media (also the local ones), but discovered by the people of God for a long time ago.
1. The Bishop as Disciple
May our people sense that we are the Lord’s disciples; may they feel that their names are written upon our priestly vestments and that we seek no other identity; and may they receive through our words and deeds the oil of gladness which Jesus, the Anointed One, came to bring us (Homily for Chrism Mass 2013, Pope Francis)
Monsignor Jorge M. Bergoglio was appointed Bishop of Flores district in Buenos Aires, in May 1992. He usually visited a prayer group of men, encouraged by the diocesan priest Father Telmo Juan de Laurenti, of whom Monsignor Bergoglio was a friend and disciple. That prayer group, which continues today (and in which I have the privilege of participating) was founded in the distant year of 1973 by Father Telmo Juan de Laurenti. The group began meeting in a humble house that had been acquired by the Archdiocese in 1972, where masses were held in a room of 3m x 3m.
That house soon became – through the initiative of Father Telmo Juan de Laurenti – the Pure Heart of Mary Parish. “Father Juan”, as he was known in the neighborhood of Villa Pueyrredón, was an exemplary priest, always having words of comfort and assistance to the many needy. Father Juan went to his Father’s house with Holiness at 64 years old, on May 26th, year 2000.
2. Go to the suffering
Our people like to hear the Gospel preached with “unction”, they like it when the Gospel we preach touches their daily lives, when it runs down like the oil of Aaron to the edges of reality, when it brings light to moments of extreme darkness (Homily for Chrism Mass 2013, Pope Francis)
There was a night when the group visited Monsignor Bergoglio. At 11 pm, Bergoglio invited everybody to withdraw to their homes, which we all thought seemed logical after a hard day’s activity. To everyone’s surprise Monsignor Bergoglio apologized and explained that he must go to the “Plaza de Flores” (Flores Square) to confess “the girls” who worked there.
The Plaza Flores is in front of the Basilica of the same name, and is a very busy and dangerous place, especially at night. Bergoglio usually sat on a park bench in the middle of the night, spiritually accompanying prostitutes working there, even hearing their confessions. Jokingly, he used to say “someday you will figure out what I do, when I appear on the newspapers.”
3. Go to the Edges
A priest who seldom goes out of himself, who anoints little – I won’t say “not at all” because, thank God, our people take our oil from us anyway – misses out on the best of our people, on what can stir the depths of his priestly heart (Homily for Chrism Mass 2013, Pope Francis)
Upon the death of Cardinal Antonio Quarracino, Monsignor Bergoglio succeeded him in the post of Archbishop of Buenos Aires on 1 March 1998. At the same time, Father Juan was encouraging a civil association dedicated to children at risk, which he founded under the name “Jesus Amigo”. That year they inaugurated a convivial home for girls. Called the “Mother of Hope”, it was on the outskirts of the city of Buenos Aires, in a lower middle class neighborhood near a highway. Monsignor Bergoglio was invited to celebrate mass during the opening of the home. No one knew for sure if Bergoglio in his new commitments to the Church of Buenos Aires would attend. Bergoglio pledged his presence and asked to preside mass in the same street where the home was. On two sawhorses and a plank of wood, an improvised altar was erected on the side of the street. The whole neighborhood attended mass. The Archbishop of Buenos Aires, in his homily, said that “the Church should go and meet people, and not expect people to come to meet the Church”.
4. The Beauty of Signs
From the beauty of all these liturgical things, which is not so much about trappings and fine fabrics than about the glory of our God resplendent in his people, alive and strengthened, we turn to a consideration of activity, action (Homily for Chrism Mass 2013, Pope Francis).
Eleven years after his death, and according to his last wish, the remains of “Father Juan” were finally deposited in the churchyard of his beloved Parish, the “Pure Heart of Mary”. A mass was celebrated by then Cardinal Jorge M. Bergoglio, on 17 December 2011. This mass coincided with the birthday of the Cardinal himself and the 50th anniversary of the priestly ordination of “Father Juan”.
Near the end of mass, Cardinal Bergoglio removed his stole and to the surprise of all present, laid it on the urn containing the remains of the “Father Juan”. He said that the stole, which was from his Cardinal’s ordination and blessed by John Paul II, should belong, from now on, to “his friend Juan”. We all knew by press reports that in 2005, Bergoglio had the chance to become Pope and had waived that honor. The Cardinal had stripped off one of his last attribute of temporary “power”. People who attended the mass could not hold back the tears. A man, who was beside me, could only say: “This man belongs is from another planet”.
5. Pray for Me
We need constantly to stir up God’s grace and perceive in every request, even those requests that are inconvenient and at times purely material or downright banal – but only apparently so – the desire of our people to be anointed with fragrant oil, since they know that we have it (Homily for Chrism Mass 2013, Pope Francis)
My wife and I went to the Via Crucis one Easter, travelling on the subway (the Metro of Buenos Aires). Suddenly the Cardinal appeared, clad in black as usual. I raised my hand and said “Hello Father Jorge!”
“Very well, and you Father?”
“Send my regards to the prayer group, please!”, he replied.
“Sure Father Jorge, as always!”
“Thanks guys, please pray for me.” He gave us his blessing and a kiss on the cheek. We descended into the station and we walked to the Cathedral, where we said goodbye.
6. He Looked at Him with Mercy and Chose Him
The day Cardinal Jorge M. Bergoglio was elected Bishop of Rome, I could not stop crying. Many began to describe stories perhaps even more poignant than mine. That’s because Bergoglio lived among people, not among sextons. He is one like you and me. So, that night of his election, we all got together to celebrate that Pope Francis was now the Father of all humanity! Finally, I remembered that when Francis appeared at the balcony, my wife with typical intuition and sensitivity said to me “in his smile it looks God has transfigured him.” I replied, “I’m sure many have returned today to be Catholics…”, then she answered “Pope Benedict XVI was right when he stated that this was the Year of Faith”.