A Cardinal for the Poor

Archbishop Bergoglio refused the episcopal palace, taking residence in a small upper apartment in a diocesan building next door to the cathedral. He also refused the grand office reserved for the archbishop, fearing it would be too imposing and far-removed for visitors. He used that office for storage, taking a smaller and more welcoming one instead. Archbishop Bergoglio also refused to hire a cook, choosing instead to cook his own meals as his mother had taught him so many years ago. He also prepared meals for his guests and joked about his cooking, “Well, no one ever died...” (from Ch. 1 of Conversations with Jorge Bergoglio). Average porteños were surprised and delighted to come across the new archbishop in the city striking up casual conversations with the people on the bus or subway dressed like an ordinary priest and insisting that they call him ‘Father Jorge.’

Archbishop Bergoglio took his responsibility to his priests seriously. He wanted to remain approachable to them, so he designated one phone line and a one-hour period in the early morning that allowed for any priest to call him directly to talk about anything they needed without ever going through a secretary. He would also remain for long hours at the bedside of priests who were seriously ill or dying. Archbishop Bergoglio, recalling his days as a seminary professor, remained close to the seminarians of the archdiocese, such that certain classes of seminarians in Buenos Aires have even become known as the ‘Bergoglio generation.’

Archbishop Bergoglio did not forget the poor, but promoted a perception of the Church as close and near to the marginalized by his words and actions. He continued to go into the homes of the people in the slums and eat simple meals with them. He also personally supported and encouraged other priests to work in the slums, increasing their numbers in the slums greatly. Further, he established a diocesan vicariate, ‘Priests for the Favelas,’ to organize and support the priests in their ministry. He met periodically to offer support to families who had missing family members because of the kidnappings that took place in the Dirty War; they were known as the ‘desaparecidos.’

Father Facundo, a priest that was once one of only six priests working in the favelas, said, “Now there are twenty-four of us because he supports us personally and comes to work in the middle of the street with us. He celebrates Masses for the prostitutes in the Plaza Constitutión, visits the AIDS patients, and also keeps in contact with the families of the desaparecidos, always hoping that at least the truth will set us free” (from Ch. 8 of Francis: Pope of a New World by Andrea Tornielli).

The priests in the favelas have changed lives one person at a time. Miriam, who was at one point of her life a very desperate woman, is one of their success stories. Tornielli, shares Miriam’s reflection, “I thought there was no more salvation for me. But in the streets I kept meeting the priest, who would tell me, ‘God loves you.’ Now I work as a catechism teacher and want to become a therapy aide for drug addicts who want to be cured.” Archbishop Bergoglio believed that personal contact in the places where people spend their time is a good practice for reaching the inhabitants of the favelas and for touching everyone else. Bergoglio recalls, “I once suggested to the priests that we rent out a garage, and if we find a willing layperson, we send him there to spend time with people, give religious instruction, and even give Communion to the sick or those who are willing. A parish priest told me that if we did that, the believers wouldn’t come to Mass anymore. ‘Is that so!’ I exclaimed. ‘Do you mean to say that you have so many coming to Mass at the moment?’” (as quoted in Ch. 7 of Conversations with Jorge Bergoglio).

Pope John Paul II made Bergoglio a cardinal in 2001, a rank that required a greater level of solicitude for the universal Church from the archbishop of Buenos Aires. Friends and supporters planned to go to Rome to support him in receiving the red beretta, but Bergoglio asked them to spare the expense, stay in Argentina, and donate their travel-money to the poor. Living out the Church’s preferential option for the poor, Cardinal Bergoglio gave the best of his time to the marginalized. On Christmas Day, he never failed to cook for the people of the favelas of Buenos Aires, and he celebrated the Mass of the Lord’s Supper during Holy Week in 2008 with young drug rehabilitation patients, washing their feet.

Believing very much that the Church needs to be a place of welcome for both saints and sinners, it distressed Cardinal Bergoglio that some priests refused to baptize the babies of unwed mothers. He insisted that the child was not at fault and that the mothers should be shown mercy, congratulated for choosing life, and offered support. He was saddened that these mothers were not welcomed and forced to go from church to church to find a priest who would agree to do the baptism.

Once in 2004, a mother came to him who had seven children from two different men and never had them baptized because it was too expensive to have all the godparents present. Cardinal Bergoglio offered to baptize the children in his chapel after some brief faith instruction and offered to proceed with the baptism with only two godparents who stood in as proxies for the others. Afterwards, he shared sandwiches and soft drinks to celebrate. The mother was not used to being so welcomed in church, and Bergoglio recalls her saying, “‘Father, I can’t believe it, you make me feel important.’ I replied, ‘But lady, where do I come in, it’s Jesus who makes you important’” (see Ch. 8 of Pope Francis by Matthew Bunson for more on Cardinal Bergoglio’s pastoral style).

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