A Cardinal on the Subway

An excerpt from Francis: Pope of a New World

From the chapter “A Cardinal on the Subway,” Francis: Pope of a New World (Ignatius Press, 2013), by Andrea Tornielli (translated by William J. Melcher)

How does someone experience prayer who as a youth, on that long-ago September 21, during a confession in a parish church, felt that he was surrounded by an embrace of mercy and chosen for the priestly life?

“For me, praying is in a certain way an experience of trust”, Bergoglio explains in the book-length interview El Jesuita,

in which our whole being is in the presence of God. This is where dialogue, listening, and transformation occur. Looking at God, but above all sensing that we are being watched by Him. This happens, in my case, when I recite the Rosary or the psalms or when I celebrate the Eucharist. However, I would say that I have this religious experience whenever I start to pray for an extended time in front of the tabernacle. Sometimes I doze while remaining seated and just let Him look at me. I have the sense of being in someone else’s hands, as though God were taking me by the hand. I believe that it is important to arrive at the transcendent otherness of the Lord, who is the Lord of all yet always respects our freedom.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio continues to consider himself as being the first in need of the mercy that he preaches and to which he witnesses.

The truth is that I am a sinner whom the mercy of God called in a special way. From my youth, life has entrusted to me tasks of governing—I had just been ordained a priest when I was appointed master of novices and, two and a half years later, Provincial—and I had to learn as I went along, starting with my mistakes, because I made some. Mistakes and sins. I would be a hypocrite if I said that nowadays I ask forgiveness for the sins and offenses that I might have committed. Today I ask forgiveness for the sins and offenses that I have actually committed.

“What grieves me more”, Bergoglio also tells the journalists Rubin and Ambrogetti, authors of the book-length interview, “is many times not having been understanding and impartial. In my morning prayer, at the moment of the petitions, I ask to be understanding and impartial, and then I continue by asking for a lot of other things that have to do with the defections along my journey.”

The new pope taught for a long time. In his style of instruction, the encounter with the person is an essential element. In the book El Jesuita, Bergoglio offers an example of this approach.

I remember that in the early nineties, while I was an assistant priest in Flores, a girl from a secondary school in Villa Soldati, who was in her fourth or fifth year of the program, got pregnant. It was one of the first instances at that school. There were various opinions about how to address the situation; some were even considering the girl’s expulsion, but no one asked or cared about what she was going through. She was afraid of the reactions and allowed no one to get close to her. Until a young instructor, a husband and father, a man whom I greatly respect, offered to speak to her and to look for a solution together with her. When he saw her during a recess, he gave her a kiss, took her hand, and asked her gently: “So you are becoming a mother?” The girl started to cry and did not stop. This gesture of nearness helped her to open up and tell about what had happened to her. And it allowed her to arrive at a mature, responsible answer to her dilemma, so that she avoided missing years of school and remaining alone to confront life with a child. But she also avoided—because this was the danger—being considered a heroine by her classmates for having become pregnant.

What the instructor did was to bear witness to her by going to meet her. He ran the risk of hearing the girl reply, “And what does it matter to you?” But for his part, he was very compassionate, and the fact that he approached her showed that he wished her well. When you try to educate only with theoretical principles, while overlooking the fact that the important thing is who we have in front of us, you fall into a sort of fundamentalism that is of no use to young people, because they do not assimilate the lesson of being accompanied by a close, living witness.

From this insight, Bergoglio derives also a bit of advice for confessors. He asks them, when they go into the confessional, to be neither rigorists nor laxists. “The rigorist is someone who applies the norm and nothing else: the law is the law, period. Basta.” The laxist “sets it aside: it is not important, nothing will happen…just go on that way.” The problem, explains the future pope, “is that neither one cares about the person in front of him”. And so, what should confessors do? “Be merciful.”

Anyone acquainted with Padre Bergoglio knows how important the personal relationship is for him, the personal encounter, attention to the person. One of his anecdotes helps us to understand this better. As Auxiliary Bishop of Buenos Aires, he had to travel one day to conduct a series of spiritual exercises in a convent outside the city, and he had to take the train. As the hour drew near, he left his office in the archbishop’s chancery to go pray for a few minutes in the cathedral. As he was leaving, a young man who appeared to be psychologically disturbed approached to ask him whether he could hear his confession. The young man spoke as though he were drunk, probably under the influence of some drug.

“I, the witness to the Gospel, who was engaged in the apostolate, told him: ‘Soon a priest will arrive, and you can confess to him, because I have to do something else.’ ” Bergoglio knew that that priest would arrive a short time later. “I walked away, but after a few steps, I felt tremendous shame. I retraced my steps and told the young man, ‘The priest is going to be late; I will hear your confession.’ After hearing his confession, I brought him to Our Lady to ask her to protect him. Finally I went to the station, thinking I had missed the train. When I arrived, I realized there had been a delay and, so, I managed to take the train as planned. On the way back, I did not go home directly, but first went to my confessor, because what I had done weighed on me: ‘If I do not confess, tomorrow I cannot celebrate Mass . . .’ ”

For Bergoglio, the delayed train had been a “sign from the Lord that told me: ‘You see that I am directing the story.’ How often in life it is better to slow down and not try to settle everything at once!” It is necessary to have patience, not to claim to have a solution for everything, and to “put into perspective the mystique of efficiency”.

In March 1986, Padre Bergoglio traveled to Germany, to Munich in Bavaria, to complete his doctoral thesis. When he returned, his superiors assigned him to the University of El Salvador and then to the church of the Society of Jesus in Cordoba, as spiritual director and confessor. He heard confessions a lot and continued to do so even as a bishop. His appointment as Auxiliary of Buenos Aires came a few years later.

It was May 13, 1992. Padre Bergoglio had a good rapport with the apostolic nuncio in Argentina, Archbishop Ubaldo Calabresi. He would keep in touch with the prelate’s family, even after Calabresi’s death, and during every trip to Rome he would always set aside time for a dinner or a lunch with the nuncio’s sister. Calabresi consulted Bergoglio regularly to ask information about priests who were candidates for the episcopacy. That day, however, he called to tell him that this time the consultation would have to take place in person. Since the airline ran the flight from Buenos Aires to Cordoba to Mendoza and then back, Calabresi “asked me to be at the airport [in Cordoba] while the plane went on to and then returned from Mendoza. So it was that we talked there—it was May 13—he consulted me on various questions, and when the plane that had already returned from Mendoza was about to leave on the return flight to Buenos Aires and they had called for the passengers to board, he informed me: ‘Ah…one last thing…. You have been appointed the Auxiliary Bishop of Buenos Aires, and the appointment will be announced on the 20th…’ That is how he told me.”

Bergoglio froze and stood there petrified. As he always does following a stroke of fortune, whether good or bad. So he began his episcopal ministry as the Auxiliary Bishop of Cardinal Antonio Quarracino. In no way did he change his style, his approach to persons, the simplicity of his way of life, his avoidance of worldly occasions.

In the book-length interview El Jesuita, he also tells the story of how, five years later, he was appointed Coadjutor Bishop of Buenos Aires, a promotion from Auxiliary to the designated successor of the Cardinal, who was seriously ill.

I was Vicar General of Cardinal Quarracino, and when he asked Rome for a Coadjutor Bishop, I in turn requested that he not send me to another diocese, but allow me to act instead as auxiliary of a vicariate in the vicinity of Buenos Aires. … But on May 27, 1997, in midmorning, the nuncio Calabresi called me and invited me to lunch. When we were having coffee and I was about to thank him and leave, I saw that they were bringing in a cake and a bottle of champagne. I thought that it was his birthday and was about to congratulate him. … “No, it is not my birthday”, he replied with a broad smile. “What is happening is that you are the new Coadjutor Bishop of Buenos Aires.”

By the time when he went from being Coadjutor Bishop to Archbishop, the successor of Quarracino, who died on February 28, 1998, Bergoglio could already count on the growing esteem of the clergy of the city, especially of the younger clerics. All the priests of Buenos Aires appreciated his kindness, his simplicity, his wise counsel. None of that would change once he became the Shepherd of the Archdiocese. He installed a direct telephone so that his priests could call him at any hour of the day if they had a problem. There must not be any barriers, secretaries, filters. The bishop was available for his clergy at any moment.

Bergoglio continued to spend nights in the parish, he personally assisted the sick priests, spending hours in the hospital at their bedside. At first he refused to go live in the elegant archbishop’s residence in Olivos, staying in a smaller apartment. Then he took only a modest bedroom in the palace. He still liked to cook for his guests. Washing dishes was no problem for him. He welcomed to his house a former auxiliary bishop who needed assistance and looked after him.

He continued to respond personally to all telephone calls, to arrange personally his own schedule of appointments. He did not have a private secretary, but employed various co-workers and a few nuns. He continued to travel by bus—which he preferred because from a bus you could see the people along the street—or by subway. The inhabitants of the Argentine capital learned to recognize him and got to know him. He dressed simply. When he traveled, Jorge Mario—who likes to be described as “a priest who is happy to be a priest”—was inseparable from his date book, in which were written by hand the telephone numbers of his friends and acquaintances. And he always carried with him his Breviary, in which he preserves a letter and the testament of his grandmother, which were written before his priestly ordination, in case she died before the ceremony took place. “I am very attached to the Breviary”, he explained in the book-length interview El Jesuita. “It is the first thing I open in the morning and the last thing I close before going sleep.” Found among those pages is also the text of “Rassa nostrana”, a poem in the Piedmontese dialect by Nino Costa.

At the request of the journalists Rubin and Ambrogetti, who were interviewing him, Bergoglio had opened the Breviary, taking out the letter from his grandmother for his ordination and reading it: “On this beautiful day on which you can hold in your consecrated hand Christ our Savior and on which a broad path for a deeper apostolate is opening up before you, I leave you this modest gift, which has very little material value but very great spiritual value.”

Together with this letter, the grandmother, who nevertheless was able to attend the ordination of Padre Jorge, wrote also a little will and testament, which reads: “May these, my grandchildren, to whom I gave the best of my heart, have a long, happy life, but if someday sorrow, sickness, or the loss of a beloved person should fill them with distress, let them remember that a sigh directed toward the tabernacle, where the greatest and noblest martyr is, and a look at Mary at the foot of the Cross, can make a drop of balm fall on the deepest and most painful wounds.”

In 2001 John Paul II created him cardinal. It was the largest consistory for new cardinals in the history of the Church. Concerning his thriftiness, the story is told that after the announcement that he had been created cardinal, he did not want to buy the red clothes, preferring to have alterations done to the ones left by his predecessor. On that occasion, Archbishop Bergoglio asked his fellow Argentines who wanted to accompany him to Rome not to do so and, instead, to donate the cost of the trip instead for the needs of the poor. He would do the same after his papal election.

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About Andrea Tornielli 0 Articles
Andrea Tornielli is a Vatican correspondent for the highly regarded Italian newspaper La Stampa who has collaborated with numerous Italian and international publications. His numerous books include Pius XII, the Pope of the Jews; The Choice of Martini; Pope Luciani: The Smile of a Saint; Benedict XVI, Guardian of the Faith; and The Attack on Ratzinger (with Paolo Rodari).