A Window to the Soul

Though Bergoglio does not accept many interviews, he has shared enough to give us a glimpse into his personal life and values. When asked, “How would you introduce yourself to a group of people who have no idea who you are?” Cardinal Bergoglio gave a joyful and humble response, “I am Jorge Bergoglio, priest. I like being a priest” (from Ch. 12 of Conversations with Jorge Bergoglio). When asked by Father Spadaro years later, in light of the world seeking increased understanding of the new Roman Pontiff, “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” Pope Francis responded, “I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.”

The word ‘mercy’ encapsulates both his pontificate and his vocation. His favorite painting is the White Crucifixion by 20th century French artist Marc Chagall, a Jew. In the painting, Chagall depicts, in the surrealist style, many disturbing and confusing symbols of atrocities committed against the Jewish people. The focal point, and the only point of solace and peace in the painting, is the face of the crucified Jesus in the center with his eyes closed, wearing a Jewish prayer shawl in place of a loincloth. The image of Jesus is resigned and does not give into torment, while also depicting his mercy on the wrongs around him. It is reminiscent of Pope Francis' Latin motto, miserando atque eligendo. The Pope tells Father Spadaro, “I think the Latin gerund miserando is impossible to translate in both Italian and Spanish. I like to translate it with another gerund that does not exist: misericordiando [‘mercy-ing’].” Perhaps, we could translate the motto as “‘mercy-ing’ and choosing.”

One of Bergoglio’s favorite works of literature is the classic 19th century Italian novel, “I Promessi Sposi”, translated as “The Betrothed”. Pope Francis tells Father Spadaro, “I have read The Betrothed, by Alessandro Manzoni, three times, and I have it now on my table because I want to read it again. Manzoni gave me so much. When I was a child, my grandmother taught me by heart the beginning of The Betrothed: ‘That branch of Lake Como that turns off to the south between two unbroken chains of mountains....’” The novel is set in 17th century Italy in a time when the people were burdened both by draconian oppressors and widespread panic and loss due to the Black Death whose torments neither spared the rich nor poor, the oppressor nor the oppressed.

The violent and worldly power of Don Rodrigo, greatly feared by all, is contrasted with the mysterious and spiritual power of the one man who has no fear of him, the humble and saintly Father Christoforo. Father Christoforo carries no weapon and holds no high office. The Capuchin friar, not afraid of death by powerful men or by a terrible disease, is seen dressed in a humble habit, standing up to fearsome oppressors for the people, and tending to the victims of plague in their moment of death. He is the most powerful man in the novel, and surely an inspiration to Bergoglio.

Pope Francis often speaks of goodness, truth, and beauty, aspects of all things that reflect the Creator, as an experience that unifies believers and non-believers. He told journalists who came out to meet the newly-elected Pope on March 16, 2013, “This is something we have in common, since the Church exists to communicate precisely this: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty ‘in person.’” Pope Francis has a great appreciation for musical beauty, something that his mother instilled in him when she would gather the children around the radio on Sunday afternoons. He shared with Father Spadaro some of his musical favorites, “Among musicians I love Mozart, of course. The ‘Et incarnatus est’ from his Mass in C minor is matchless; it lifts you to God! I love Mozart performed by Clara Haskil. Mozart fulfills me.... And then Bach’s Passions. The piece by Bach that I love so much is the ‘Erbarme Dich,’ the tears of Peter in the ‘St. Matthew Passion.’ Sublime.” He shared, in fact, that he mostly uses the radio to listen to classical music.

Bergoglio is also very much a porteño, a native of Buenos Aires, in his interests. In fact, he shares in the book, “Conversations with Jorge Bergoglio”, that Buenos Aires is his favorite place in the world. He enjoys tango, saying, “It’s something that comes from within.” Bergoglio enjoys maté, a hot tea popular in Argentina made from the evergreen leaves of the yerba maté. It is prepared and drunk from a calabash gourd with a metal straw, called a bombilla, which has a mouthpiece at one end and a sieve at the other. The gourd is filled with dried, crushed leaves, and hot water is added, making for a distinct herb-like flavor. One well-circulated image of the newly elected Pope Francis was one of him sharing maté with President Christina de Kirschner, who, despite their differences, had come to Rome to congratulate him. He was also known for sharing maté in the homes of the poor in the slums of Buenos Aires.

Joining as a boy, Pope Francis also continues to pay dues as a member of the San Lorenzo Soccer Club in Buenos Aires, and was recently presented in Rome by members with one of their red and blue jerseys. Members of the club, who support the professional San Lorenzo de Almagro team, are known as the Cuervos or Crows, named after the black worn by their founder, Father Lorenzo Massa, who started the fútbol club to keep boys active and out of trouble.

When it comes to languages, besides Spanish, Bergoglio knows Italian, Portuguese, German, French, Piedmontese, Genoese, and English. While perfectly comfortable in Italian, he finds English the most difficult because of the pronunciation. His understanding of Piedmontese and Genoese, and hence his facility with Italian, are from hearing his older family members converse in these dialects when he was a boy. His fluency in German comes from his days of study in Germany.

Bergoglio has a devotion to St. Thérèse of Lisieux. The 19th century French saint, who also inspired Mother Teresa, is known for her ‘Little Way’ of small deeds with great love and for her ‘Shower of Roses’ as a sign of answered prayer. Pope Francis shares in Ch. 12 in the book “Conversations with Jorge Bergoglio” the following: “Whenever I have a problem, I ask the saint not to resolve it, but to take it in her hands and help me accept it, and, as a sign, I almost always receive a white rose.” Bergoglio has had good experiences of sharing devotions among the people, especially in Argentina, because they become engrained in the culture and keep the people close to God.

Bergoglio has a heart for those of other rites and faiths. Known to greatly appreciate the beauty and spirit of the Eastern rite liturgies and prayers in the Catholic Church, he was appointed ordinary of Eastern rite Catholics in Argentina that were lacking an ordinary while also serving as archbishop of Buenos Aires.

Cardinal Bergoglio became good friends with Rabbi Abraham Skorka and they published a book together recording their dialogue on religious topics, titled “On Heaven and Earth”. Skorka recalls, “Inter-religious dialogue, which acquired special significance after the Second Vatican Council, usually begins with a stage of ‘tea and sympathy’ before moving on to the trickier subjects. With Bergoglio, there was no such stage. Our conversation began with an exchange of terrible jokes about each other’s favored soccer teams and went immediately to the candor of sincere and respectful dialogue. Each of us expressed to the other his particular vision about the many subjects that shape life. There were no calculations or euphemisms, just clear and direct ideas. One opened his heart to the other, just as the Midrash [the traditional commentary on Scripture by the rabbis] defines true friendship.”

In their dialogue, the two religious leaders would alternate in discussing their views and values on a given subject, such as society, culture, morality, God, and religion. One would agree with much of what has been said and then contribute his values, perspectives, and experiences. Even in instances where Bergoglio, as a Catholic archbishop, likely disagreed with Skorka, he typically held back from critiquing him unless there was a misunderstanding that had to be cleared. This represents the style of the dialogue and of their friendship; this experience also sheds light on Pope Francis' approach to many situations.

For Bergoglio, dialogue is the way to harmony and solidarity by recognizing commonality in others and acknowledging differences respectfully. Genuine dialogue, according to Bergoglio, is what is very much lacking in the political climate in Argentina. He shares in “Conversations with Jorge Bergoglio” that people must recognize “that the other person has much to give me, that I have to be open to that person and listen, without judgment, without thinking that because his ideas are different from mine, or because he is an atheist, he can’t offer me anything. That is not so. Everyone has something to offer, and everyone can receive something.” Further, according to Bergoglio, “Real growth in mankind’s conscience can only be founded on dialogue and love. Dialogue and love mean recognizing the differences of others, accepting diversity. Only then can we call it a true community: by not attempting to subject others to my criteria and priorities, by not ‘absorbing’ others, but by recognizing them as valuable for what they are....”

Bergoglio’s approach to dialogue is not grounded in relativism; he is a firm believer in truth with an open heart to love those who may be different. Likewise, Bergoglio’s openness to all and his emphasis on commonality do not come from a naiveté of the world’s problems or of the Church. Instead, his approach is one of mercy, a type of mercy that presupposes the existence of sin and division among us. As a Church leader, his approach has been like the father in the parable of the prodigal son, standing in the road with open arms, welcoming home his son without any questions.

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