A Sinner’s Mission
The pope was at lunch with boisterous relatives in the archbishop’s residence in Turin. “Eat, Giorgio!” the old lady told him. “No, no, I have to watch myself,” he protested, refusing a second helping as the six cousins and their families, more than thirty people in all, roared with laughter. It was June 2015. Even before his election two years earlier, Francis had lost the lanky, tall figure he had had for decades in Buenos Aires, and now, at seventy-eight, with the sciatica pills and the pasta, and no longer being able to callejear—to walk the streets as he used to—he had filled out. But not for Signora Carla. “But what do you live off?” she remonstrated. “You eat nothing!”
He is a pope of the people, for the people; but most of all, he is a pope with the people. It is what everyone, admirers and enemies alike, notices about Francis: his natural affinity with the human race, the way he turns people you wouldn’t look at twice into subjects and protagonists. Some say he is a populist in an age of populists, but that is to misunderstand populism. He is not using his at-oneness with the people to create power, for he rejects that kind of power; he does not offer boundaries to protect people from perceived threats, but doors and bridges to expand their possibilities. He is captivating and energetic, but humble. He makes mistakes, and asks forgiveness. His mission is to take the Church to the people, in order to not just save the people but to save the Church.
The people, he likes to say, are infallible “in their believing.” They may not be able to tell you why they believe in God, but they know God. People like old Carla, whom he knew from regular visits over the years after he was made archbishop of Buenos Aires in 1998, when he began to fly at least once a year to Rome for meetings—usually in February, his Lenten penance—and would sometimes add on some days around Turin. From there it was two hours into the hills around Asti, the fons et origo of the Bergoglio clan, where he enjoyed cookouts with cousins in the village of San Carlo in the region of Tigliole.
So now, on his first visit to Turin since he was made pope, there is no shortage of locals who can say what he is like. One is San Carlo’s parish priest, Don Angelo Franco, who describes for local TV the pope’s excellent Piedmontese dialect and his enthusiasm for the local dishes, the ravioli and the bagna cauda. He may be pope and he may be Argentine, Don Angelo declared on television during the papal visit of June 2015, but you could see he was still a humble astigiano like his father and grandparents, “full of humanity.”1
This was time out for Francis. Like Jesus stopping in Bethany with his old friends before leaving for Jerusalem to turn the temple tables, Francis came to his grandparents’ city not long before his visit to the United States, where his most ferocious critics had their bunker. Among the ordinary faithful, his popularity and prestige were at their zenith. The media still painted him as the reformer pope who had set the Church on a bold new Gospel path, facing resistance from a corrupt old guard, a simplistic narrative that had so far held. And while the tide of angry opposition was already visible, its force had not yet been felt in petitions and accusations of heresy. His Vatican reforms were battling institutional sclerosis, but had not yet stalled; nor had bishops’ mishandling of abuse in past decades yet erupted into the public eye with devastating force, as it would three years later. There was even a feeling—partly because of hints that Francis himself had strategically dropped—that his would not be a long pontificate and some of the old guard in the Vatican had been persuaded that they just had to batten down the hatches and wait for the Argentine storm to pass. In fact, it was just building its strength.
The Turin visit took place at the tense midpoint between two turbulent synods, on the eve of the release of his explosive ecology encyclical, just a short time before the most ambitious trips yet of his papacy: to South America, to Cuba and the United States, and then, in November, to Africa, to inaugurate the Jubilee Year of Mercy in a war zone.
This was one of three Italian visits in 2015: he had been to Naples in March, and would give a blockbuster address in Florence in November. As on all his apostolic visits, he came to Turin to comfort and to edify, to invigorate and to inspire, to shore up the local Church and throw ropes across the ravines of prejudice and misunderstanding. But he had another, personal goal that made this, the sixteenth trip of his pontificate, different from all the others: to touch that European piece of his soul that his father and grandparents had left behind when, seven years before the future pope was born in 1936, they had boarded a boat to Argentina.
In the profile of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, tall, thickset, with a square head and a piercing gaze, you could catch the outline of his grandfather Giovanni. They say an Argentine is an Italian who lives in South America and speaks Spanish, and it is true: Piedmont runs in the pope’s veins. The Alpine land that Giovanni and his wife, Rosa, abandoned for the pampas had imprinted upon their grandson something of its rassa nostrana libera e testarda, “our free and headstrong local race,” as the local poet Nino Costa painted the folk who lived at the foot of the Alps: straight-talking, stubborn types who speak little but say much; who walk slowly but go far; who work hard but know how to enjoy their wine. Jorge Mario had learned the poem “Rassa nostrana” by heart as a child from Rosa in Buenos Aires. Now, in Turin, he recited part of it in dialect halfway through his homily in the Piazza Vittorio, at one point choking with emotion, maybe thinking of Rosa. The crowd teared up with him, erupting in applause.
As ever, Francis came to announce the closeness of God, the mercy lede that somehow Catholics had managed to bury in the lower paragraphs of the Christian Good News story. He was in Turin to affirm the periphery-focused, joyful Church-that-goes-out, to show that Jesus could still be found beyond the introverted, clericalist institution that squatted on its neo-Christendom laurels while the pews drained. But this time he had an extra purpose: to honor his saintly stubborn forebears whose peasant piety was as solid and fertile as Piedmont’s hazelnut-tree hills.
* * *
In February 2001, in the days before he would be made a cardinal in the square of St. Peter’s by Pope John Paul II, Archbishop Bergoglio made a visit to Asti with his Jesuit nephew, Father José Luis Narvaja. They went with two of the Bergoglio cousins to the hamlet of Portacomaro Stazione, fifteen minutes outside the town, where their forefathers were raised in a farmhouse. Its current owner showed them the stunning view over the bottle-green valley of Monteferrato, as well as the defunct winepress and vast oak barrels he still kept in the cool cellar in the back, which Bergoglio’s great-grandfather—called Francesco, the name he would one day take as pope—used to age his vino rosso.
There is a photo, which Father Narvaja says could be from that trip, or maybe another (there were many). On either side of the two priests under a terra-cotta-roofed porch stands the pair of ruddy cousins beaming in rolled-up shirts and hats. The sixty-five-year-old cardinal-elect, at that point still lanky, has gray hair thinning on his bald patch and a weak smile. (He always hated posing and even today almost always looks like a sourpuss in protocol shots.) His grandfather Giovanni often spoke to him of the farmhouse, called Bricco Marmorito, with its twenty acres of vineyard and woods. The old man loved to recall the verdant hilly beauty of the region, so that by the time his grandson made it there, it had lived long in his imagining.
Giuseppe Bergoglio and his two brothers bought Bricco Marmorito in the early 1800s. Giuseppe’s son Francesco had four children, among them the future pope’s grandfather Giovanni, born in 1884. Giovanni’s brothers, Lorenzo, Eugenio, and Vittorio, later lined up with the tens of thousands who left for Argentina after the First World War, but Giovanni didn’t join them until 1929. By then he was in his mid-forties, and had his wife, Rosa, and his only son, the twenty-year-old Mario, the future pope’s father, in tow.
Between abandoning Bricco Marmorito for Turin at age twenty-two and leaving Italy for Argentina at age forty-five, Giovanni worked in the city making the bitter wine enriched with herbs and spices known as vermut, for which, along with its hazelnut chocolate, the city was renowned. Soon after arriving in Turin, in 1907, he met and married Rosa Margherita Vassallo, from Piana Crixia, some fifteen miles north of Savona on Piedmont’s southern border. Rosa had lived in the city since the age of eight, when her mother had sent her to live with her aunt on the advice of her parish priest. The pastor had seen the girl’s intelligence and thought that with an education she could rise out of her peasant surroundings.
In her teens Rosa became a sartina, one of Turin’s four-thousand-odd dressmakers supplying the city’s burgeoning fashion trade. Most of the seamstresses scissored and sewed not in sweatshops but from home, organized by Catholic labor activists inspired by Pope Leo XIII’s great 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum, and its call for just wages and worker dignity. The Turin seamstresses’ guild, born to combat the double exploitation of women and the poor, organized the city’s first ever strike and was the crucible of Italy’s suffragette movement. Out of this ferment came Rosa’s passion for social justice, her ready identification with the struggling classes, and her vocation as a lay leader, which would later be forged in Asti’s Catholic Action.
In 2018, when Francis published a teaching document called Gaudete et Exsultate (Rejoice and Be Glad), he described how the Holy Spirit bestowed holiness in abundance among God’s holy, faithful people, and he painted what that looked like: the patience of parents who struggled to raise their children, for example, or the sick and elderly who never lost their smile. Citing what he called “the particular genius” of female holiness, he contemplated a woman out shopping who resisted the temptation to indulge in the latest gossip but came back to listen patiently to a child share her hopes and dreams. Francis’s imagined saint-next-door felt a surge of anxiety but prayed her Rosary with faith, and later stopped to speak kindly to a poor person in the street. These outwardly ordinary actions, Francis wrote, were about filling ordinary moments with love, modeled on Christ. Every saint like this is “a mission, planned by the Father to reflect and embody, at a specific moment in history, a certain aspect of the Gospel.” That was how real change happened, for “the most decisive turning points in world history are substantially co-determined by souls whom no history book ever mentions.”
No one would ever have given her a second thought had her grandson not become pope, yet she was a mission planned by the Father. Rosa was one of those “unknown and forgotten women who, each in her own way, sustained and transformed families and communities by the power of their witness,” as her grandson would describe them. She was passionate, hardworking, and resourceful. She had a canny political mind and a melting smile; she was prayerful and compassionate; she had a deep trust in Jesus Christ and a love of His people. Hers was the kind of faith that Francis needed to draw on to convert the Church.2
* * *
Francis likes to point out that Jesus always took time to stop and listen to the people. At the 2018 synod he called it “the apostolate of the ear: listening before speaking” and asked forgiveness of the young people there “if often we have not listened to you, if instead of opening our hearts, we have filled your ears.” He once encouraged taxi drivers in Buenos Aires—many of whom are out-of-work psychoanalysts—to exercise this “apostolate of the ear” because when they heard confessions with their hands on the wheel they opened “doors of hope.”3
That’s why he hates to turn up like a politician on a campaign, to give a speech and leave. He likes first to hear from those whom he addresses, and to dialogue. He is the pope of proximity. Vicinanza, the Italian word for “closeness,” is a key word for Francis now, just as the word in Spanish, cercanía, was in Buenos Aires. How could he preach the closeness of God in Turin’s Piazzetta Reale if he didn’t get to know them a little? The Kingdom of God isn’t an idea, but a happening, a relationship: God has come near to His people, and to the extent that His people grasp this, history turns. God’s love is not the possession of good people, nor a reward for the righteous. You have to show, not tell: because it is not an idea, a doctrine, a rule, a norm, or a law, a scholar and a bishop have no more access to it than the out-of-work Turin car workers and cleaners who share their stories with the pope now.
What Francis wants to communicate is that God, when you turn to Him, changes your horizon, as Benedict XVI once put it in a quote Francis likes to repeat. You don’t have to be strong or rich or clever, and power and wealth and learning can make the Good News harder to receive. God is mercy, and mercy is close and concrete; mercy never stands outside, giving lectures or rolling eyes, but enters right in with rolled-up sleeves. But to receive it, you have to be humble. That’s what lets love in.
What did the Kingdom of God mean right now for the Torinese workers who struggled to get to the end of the month alongside Romanians and Macedonians willing to work for half the wages? Across the Western world, capital was in flight and workers were being cast off the production lines by blinking boxes and robots. A populist would rub salt on their anger, promise to protect them by sacrificing the foreigners. But Francis focuses on the suffering of both, the change both need for their basic human flourishing. He urges solidarity: migrants, too, “are victims of inequity, of this throw-away economy and of war,” he tells them in the Piazzetta Reale. He adds that women workers bear the greatest burden in taking care of the home yet “are still discriminated against, even in the workplace.” Maybe as he spoke, he was thinking of Rosa, who back in the 1920s in Asti used to give talks on Catholic social teaching until the fascists shut her down.4
Francis wants the workers to organize for change, to band together against the new harsh winds of the global economy: “only by joining forces can we say ‘no’ to the unfairness which generates violence,” he tells them. The following month in Bolivia he would give his second rousing speech to the “popular movements,” mobilizing them in favor of another kind of globalized modernity, one that didn’t make shareholder profit the main criterion of economic organization, but the right of all to land, labor, and lodging. When Francis spoke like this he was called Marxist, but it was an old call, repeated by popes across the twentieth century, for the markets to work for the many, not the few, the kind of thing President Juan D. Perón tried to create in Francis’s childhood Argentina, or Franklin D. Roosevelt in the United States. Work, Francis told the workers in Turin, was key to human and social flourishing. Society had to be organized to produce jobs for all.
When Leo XIII said this in 1891, during that first era of globalization, the European Catholic bourgeois of the time had said the pope was crazy. What did the old man in Rome know of the scientific wonders of the market? Why not stick to faith and morals and leave business to the businessmen? Now, 124 years later, the Catholic conservative business folk in the United States and the colleges and institutes they funded were saying the same about Francis’s teaching document on the environment, Laudato Si’, before it was even out. The pope hadn’t any authority to speak on the science of climate change, so why listen to him when he tells us to conserve energy and cut consumption?
It was easy for rich people to believe their good fortune. In their world, hardworking, upstanding people were rewarded; the iron law of the market, the logic of the world, the law of “real life” in which the strong swim ahead because they deserve to—it all made sense to them. That made it hard for the rich to receive the Good News, said Francis at the canonization of Pope Paul VI and Óscar Romero in October 2018, not because God was harsh but because “our having too much, our wanting too much suffocates our hearts and makes us incapable of loving.” Because the logic of the system worked for the poor in the opposite way—they had toiled their whole lives yet others reaped the reward; they did their best for their families, but remained poor—it was easier for them to grasp the logic of the Gospel. The real strength was not theirs but God’s. And because they could grasp this, they could more easily become channels of God’s power as He worked through history to create a new people. That was the Good News.5
* * *
Returning to Turin in 1918 after two years’ fighting in the Great War, the pope’s grandfather Giovanni found a restless city boiling with tension. Jobless young men were clashing in rival political mobs and piling onto boats bound for America. His brothers were on one to Buenos Aires, but he and Rosa, then in their early thirties, moved instead into the hills of Asti, where he had relatives in the villages around the town. There was work there, and their only son, Mario (Rosa’s other five children were stillborn), could go to school in peace. In Asti, Giovanni worked in a café, and eventually he opened his own. Rosa never stopped sewing but also became a leader in a church movement created by the bishops to mobilize ordinary Catholics.6
Catholic Action was divided into four groups: men, women, boys, and girls. They had grown rapidly in Asti to around 7,000 members in 1930, of which the women’s branch was the largest: 2,398 organized in 53 parish groups. It was a formidable network of cooperatives, savings and loan schemes, and guilds of peasants and workers. Together they formed the backbone of an early Christian-democrat movement, Father Luigi Sturzo’s Italian People’s Party. But the sudden growth of both Catholic Action and the Popolari alarmed Benito Mussolini’s Blackshirts. Their offensive against the Catholics in the early 1920s was felt especially in Asti, where both Popolari and fascists were strong. After Mussolini’s March on Rome, the new pope, Pius XI, dialed back the tension, committing Catholic Action to political neutrality and distancing himself from Sturzo’s movement, while remaining resolute in defending the Church’s freedom to organize. But the standoff remained tense. “Catholics could meet to hear Mass and pray the Rosary, but little else,” recalls the historian Vittorio Rapetti.7
In an effort to resist this attempt to deny the Church’s growing public presence, Catholic Action formed bold leaders, especially women, who were given special training to give talks in public—a scandalous idea to the petit bourgeois fascists of the time. Rosa became one of the outstanding leaders of the women’s branch. She appears various times in the town’s only newspaper, the diocesan weekly Gazzetta d’Asti, where she is described as AC’s moral action counselor (consigliera d’azione morale), as well as the social action secretary of its women’s branch. Twice a week she gave marriage preparation classes to women in the San Martino church, and wrote popular pamphlets. Her oratory and courage made her well known in the parishes in and around the city, which in turn made her a target for the fascists, who did not like women imitating men. They heckled and cajoled her, one time shutting down the hall where she was due to speak. Unable to gain entry, she instead made her speech in the street, standing on a table. Rosa had cojones.
Her son became active in the youth branch. The Gazzetta d’Asti described Mario as a student of accountancy (studente in ragioneria) who at the age of seventeen in 1925 spoke “with passion and strength.” His favorite topic was revealed three years later, when the Gazzetta recorded the father of the future pope giving “a very fine illustrative speech on the papacy, culminating in a hymn of praise and admiration to Pope Pius XI, the Pope of Catholic Action.”
Giovanni and Rosa couldn’t manage the fees of his local technical college, but Mario got a rare scholarship for bright poor students. After graduating in 1926, he went to work at the local Banca d’Italia branch in Asti, where his last appraisal, highlighting his competence and skills, was in October 1928. A few months earlier, Mario was in the Gazzetta again, as a judge in a catechists’ competition. By this time he was a trained bank clerk, and at close to six feet, was tall for his time and place. But although he was active in the local sports club he was turned down for military service at nineteen because of “serious constitutional weakness,” according to the town’s registry.
By then the Blackshirts had gained a decisive hold; it was a matter of time before Rosa would be forced to drink castor oil. Giovanni decided finally to leave with his family to join his brothers in Argentina. In early 1929, Mario, then twenty-two, was on the Giulio Cesare with his parents bound for Buenos Aires, carrying a letter from the Salesian priests in Turin.8
* * *
Francis began his June 21, 2015, address to the Salesians of Turin in their vast basilica, Our Lady Help of Christians, by ditching his prepared text as too formal. This settling in for a fireside chat was straight out of the Francis playbook. Speaking a braccio (off the cuff), as the Italians say, creates closeness. It was a politician’s skill he had seen in General Perón, who created the sense of speaking as one of the people, rather than at them; but it was also his imitation of Jesus.
The Salesians, a religious order founded in Turin by St. John “Don” Bosco in the late nineteenth century, educated the young Jorge Mario Bergoglio, he told them, in beauty and work; and they opened his heart to Don Bosco’s “three white loves”: Our Lady, the Church, and the Eucharist. They had cultivated in him “affectivity,” and taught him how to be a missionary who could respond, practically, to the needs of the poor.
“I think of the early days of Patagonia,” Francis mused, “when the sisters went around in their habits—how did they ride the horses?—evangelizing Patagonia. And the Salesian martyrs of Patagonia…” He described how his grandparents and father had lodged with the Salesians in Buenos Aires after arriving in 1929, and again in 1932, following the failure of his great uncles’ business in Paraná. How the priests had arranged a loan that enabled the family to start again, and how, through the Salesian basilica in Almagro, known locally as the “Italian church,” his father, Mario, met his wife, Regina, whom he married in 1935. And he described the key role played by the family priest at the Italian church, Father Enrico Pozzoli, who was also Piedmontese. Don Enrico baptized most of the children there, and he continued to help the Bergoglio family in countless ways—arranging schooling for the eldest for a year when Regina fell ill, for example.
But there were stories Francis didn’t tell about Don Enrico. How the priest tried to mediate, often without success, in the furious rows and feuds on Regina’s side of the family, for example. Or the time in December 1955 when the atmosphere in the Bergoglio household turned toxic because Regina was furious when Jorge Mario revealed that he was going to be a priest rather than a doctor. Don Enrico had celebrated a private Mass for the family on Mario and Regina’s twentieth wedding anniversary, and afterward he took them to a Flores café for breakfast, where he softened Regina’s heart with stories of various vocations, including his own. Or how Jorge Mario, after a year in seminary, had to leave on a stretcher, on the verge of death from complications from tuberculosis that required the removal of the upper lobe of a lung; and how, in that winter of 1957, Don Enrico had helped him choose a new vocation, as a missionary in the Jesuits rather than to the diocesan priesthood.9
The story Francis wanted to tell in the basilica in Turin was not really about his own family but the bigger family: how Don Bosco’s men and women helped to form a people. Forty years earlier, in 1975, in a lecture the then Jesuit provincial in Argentina had given, he had described how Don Bosco’s early collaborators had accompanied the great Piedmontese transatlantic migration of those years—over two million went to Argentina alone—acting as agents of integration, forming hundreds of thousands of displaced newcomers into a people under the wings of the Church and its networks of charities and schools. He singled out the Salesians’ role as missionaries among the native Indians in the harsh wilderness of Patagonia, how they stood up against the racism that was then part of the official nation-building ideology, and how in Argentina they had founded “oratories” to give migrant families food, schooling, and dignity. The Salesians even created a football team, San Lorenzo, to which the pope’s father, Mario, remained devoted for the rest of his life.10
When, as Jesuit provincial, Bergoglio created night schools for the jobless and popular kitchens for the hungry in the parish he founded from the Colegio Máximo in the early 1980s, he was accused of trying to “Salesianize” his order. And when, as cardinal, he was criticized for creating networks of practical schools in the slums of Buenos Aires, he defended himself by citing the example of Don Bosco. For Francis, the Salesians represented Christ’s closeness to the people. “The Salesian is concrete,” Francis said in Turin. “He sees the problem, thinks about it, then takes it in hand.”11
Speaking now in the basilica of Turin, he noted how many things were far better since Don Bosco’s time, yet some problems had come back again, like youth unemployment. Nearly half of Italian young people under the age of twenty-five neither worked nor studied, and too many died young from addictions or suicide. Francis urged the Salesians to respond as Don Bosco did, by pioneering networks of small, local schools that taught technical trades and crafts to help young people into jobs. “Let’s give them whatever can be a source of work, even basic work, even if it’s just work for today and not tomorrow,” he urged. That evening, he told young people in the Piazza Vittorio how he hated to see them “retire at 20.” “When a young person loves, lives, grows, he does not retire; he grows, grows, grows and gives.” He quoted Saint Ignatius of Loyola: love was known “more in deeds than in words.”12
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Francis rode to Turin’s cathedral by popemobile through cheering crowds to pray before a world-famous thirteen-foot length of herringbone linen that has been housed there since the end of the Middle Ages. After sitting motionless before the Shroud of Turin, he made a sign of the cross, and moved forward to touch the case that preserves the cloth in gas. Maybe he imagined Rosa doing the same back in 1898. A teenager in Turin at the time, she was almost certainly among the 800,000 who flocked to venerate the cloth when it was put on display that year and photographed for the first time.
The negative from that photo caused astonishment. It seemed to prove what had been long claimed: that this holy relic, passed between French knights and finding its way to the Savoy family at the end of the Middle Ages, had once wrapped Jesus’s crucified body. Now, on the eve of the twentieth century, the negative showed a bearded man’s shadow on the rough cloth, his wounds of torture precisely matching the Gospel account. The image was as close as anyone had come in the modern era to physical evidence of the crucifixion, and it triggered a century of squabbles over science versus religion. Either it was the very cloth in which the crucified, scourged Christ (or someone who shared precisely the same fate at the time) was wrapped, or it was the most astonishingly creative, pious medieval forgery.
But the deeper truth of the shroud was what it revealed about humanity.
Shroud Man is a very different symbol from Leonardo da Vinci’s abstract Vitruvian Man, geometrically perfect, free from all blemish and suffering. Shroud Man was all wounds and shame. Which was more human? Which was love?
“The Shroud attracts people to the face and tortured body of Jesus and, at the same time, urges us on toward every person who is suffering and unjustly persecuted,” Francis said during the Angelus in the Piazza Vittorio. This, the suffering face of Christ, was the authentic image of man, but it was also the humility of God, his synktakábasis, his coming down to the people, his becoming weak with the weak.13
At the end of the afternoon, in between meeting the sick and the young people, Francis made an unscheduled stop at a little eighteenth-century pink-marbled church in the old quarter. The Carmelite priests who ran the parish of St. Teresa of Ávila had been told to keep his coming quiet, for security reasons, and there were just a few friars to welcome him and his entourage. After bending to kiss the baptismal font, he made his way to the center of the church in front of the altar where he set a vase of flowers. He asked to pray there, so they brought out a chair on which he sat silently, slightly hunched forward, with the friars behind him on the pews.
Before leaving, he asked for the guest book. “I thank the Lord for the gift of my family in this church of Santa Teresa where my grandparents were married and my father baptized,” he wrote in his round, spidery handwriting, adding: “I prayed especially for the forthcoming Synod on the Family.”
* * *
The Bergoglios struggled at first in Argentina. The collapse of Giovanni’s brothers’ pavement business in Paraná in 1932, a victim of the global recession, led to a second uprooting, this time to Buenos Aires. With a loan arranged by Father Pozzoli, the family set up a corner grocery shop in Flores, a neighborhood of Italian immigrants. Giovanni and Rosa sold a little of everything—sugar, beans, rice, oil, and wine—and their good cheer and kindness soon built a clientele. Mario, unable to work in banking because his accountant’s qualification wasn’t recognized, made grocery deliveries from his bicycle.
At the Salesian basilica in Almagro, Mario continued the Catholic Action formation he had begun back home. The basilica was his hub, the place he met friends and his future wife, Regina Sívori. Don Enrico married them on December 12, 1935, and baptized their firstborn, Jorge Mario, on Christmas Day the following year. Four other children followed in quick succession: Oscar Adrián, Marta Regina, Alberto Horacio, and María Elena, Francis’s only surviving sibling. As bookkeeping work began to come in, Mario was able to feed his growing family. He rented a house in Flores, a simple one-floor casa chorizo, named after a sausage because each room led off the other. Jorge Mario would later recall his father poring over the fat ledgers of local companies while Italian operas crackled from the state radio station. It left him, he joked, with a horror of finances.
When Marta was born, Jorgito was dispatched each day to his grandparents’ house just a few blocks away. Giovanni and Rosa were the anchor of his early, carefree years: his first memories are of going each day back and forth between the houses. While his parents were keen to move ahead and fit into their new country, speaking only Spanish and putting Turin behind them, Giovanni and Rosa were only too happy to teach their grandson everything they loved, happily mixing Italian, Spanish, and Piedmontese. They gave him a backstory.
It was an austere but happy lower-middle-class family life. But while there was peace in the Bergoglio households, among the Sívori, on his mother’s side of the family, it was a different story. At their house in the Almagro neighborhood of Buenos Aires, on Quintino Bocayuvá Street, a long-standing feud between Regina’s brothers often broke out in violent tempests that Don Enrico tried helplessly to mediate. “In my family there was a long history of disagreements: uncles, cousins—quarrels and bust-ups,” Francis confided in a 2013 letter to a Brazilian priest, Father Alexandre Awi, who had acted as his interpreter on his first visit to Rio de Janeiro. “As a child, I cried a great deal in secret when these fights were talked about or when we could see a new one coming. Sometimes I offered a sacrifice or a penance to try to prevent them occurring. I was very much affected.”
Jorge Mario was a sensitive, bighearted child whose primary experience was one of warmth and protection, above all from his grandmother. The trauma of the fights and breakups became the source of what would become one of his life’s defining missions: to reconcile and depolarize. How can people live with tension and disagreement, and see in these not a reason to fall apart but a more fruitful way to live together? Over time he came to call this a “culture of encounter,” a means by which differences could be contained and made fruitful in what he called a “reconciled diversity.”14
It was his intellectual passion as a Jesuit in the 1960s, when he read widely in the French new theology, drawn to a form of Catholic dialectical thinking that developed in critical response to Hegel. Drawing on the great nineteenth-century Tübingen scholar Adam Möhler, the Jesuits Gaston Fessard, Erich Przywara, and Henri de Lubac saw the Church as a complexio oppositorum, a system that synthesized elements that ordinarily pull in opposite directions, creating—through the power of the Holy Spirit—a unity out of diversity that respected difference. Later, in the 1980s, by then in his fifties and with direct experience of leading a divided body at a time of polarization in Church and society, Bergoglio began doctoral research to develop Romano Guardini’s theory of polar contrasts, applying four principles of discernment, which later appeared in Evangelii Gaudium, and which have long guided his governance: means of bringing about peace within the tension of difference. It can all be rooted back to his childhood family experience, one that “created in my heart a desire for people not to fight, to stay united,” he told Father Awi. “Or if they do fight, to remain friends.”15
The rows made him a serious, self-contained, thoughtful child. He loved music and dance and could laugh and josh; but all who knew him as a teenager stressed his qualities as a leader and protector, one who saw himself as strength for others. He had a robust inner life, reinforced by being sent away at age eleven to board when his mother had health problems after the birth of his youngest sister. The year he spent at the Colegio Wilfrid Barón de los Santos Angeles in 1949 immersed Jorge Mario in a boys’ world of sports, learning, and a muscular religious diet of daily Mass and Rosary, weekly confession, and devotion to the Virgin. The Salesian boarding school toughened him further for secondary school, which he attended starting at the age of thirteen while working part-time in a food chemistry laboratory.
At that time he was seldom at home, spending mornings at the factory from seven until one, returning only for lunch before attending classes until eight at night. His chemistry school classmates describe him as fiercely smart, excelling especially in literature and religion. But they also stressed a side of him that was unusual: he seemed concerned less with his own goals than with helping others achieve theirs. “Even as a teenager, he devoted himself to his fellow man,” recalls his classmate Horacio Crespo.16
He was intrigued by politics: not just the power of ideas, but the idea of power, how it is built and used. When he had free time, he loved to hang out in political clubs and meeting rooms where socialists, radicals, and Peronists met and argued. He remains, to this day, Homo politicus, committed to what he calls “big politics,” the construction of the polis. As a Jesuit, Bergoglio later identified with the popular nationalism of his mother’s family, and especially with Peronism in its original late-1940s phase, when it made Catholic social teaching its governing ideology. But during Perón’s second term (1952–1955) Jorge was drawn, like so many at that time in Latin America, to Marxist analyses, which he devoured from books lent to him by a Paraguayan communist woman he worked with. Unconvinced by its materialist theories, he nevertheless related to Marxism’s rage at injustice, and he would always be convinced that communism had thrived because Western Christianity had neglected the Gospel’s call to put the poor first.17
Faith and social justice were his two abiding passions. But he was also wrestling with a third.
* * *
Francis reads his spiritual journey through chapter 16 of Ezekiel, the story of Israel’s vexed “marriage” with God, the drama of a spoiled wife who became a forgiven whore.
It is a heady brew of shame and grace that begins with a girl born unloved and left to die who is rescued by God. He nurtures her until she is of marriageable age and adorns her in the finest jewels. Clothed in divine splendor, she is dazzling in her beauty. But later, self-infatuated and proud, she prostitutes herself, squanders her gifts, and sacrifices her children. Furious, God pledges violent justice: she will be stripped naked before a crowd who will stone her and stab her to death. But the flash of anger soon gives way to a pledge of mercy. “I am going to renew my covenant with you,” God tells Ezekiel/Israel, “and you will learn that I am the Lord, and so remember and be covered with shame, and in your confusion be reduced to silence, when I have pardoned you for all you have done.”
When Francis reads those pages, he told Andrea Tornielli, “everything here seems written just for me. Jesus looked at me with mercy, he took me, he put me on the street.… And he has given me an important grace: the grace of shame.” Jorge Mario encountered that grace—God’s favor—late in his adolescence, just at the point when he was developing into a tough, self-reliant leader. The experience of shame and grace, of being forgiven, taken in and sent out, has been the template of his teaching: how the experience of mercy leads into mission. It has been the lens through which he has read, for example, the Church’s sex abuse crisis.18
At sixteen, going on seventeen, Jorge was in the full flowering of what psychologists call “ego formation.” His mother had already mapped out a future for him in which her eldest would be a doctor and lead the family into bourgeois respectability. But like the camel-borne magi after Bethlehem, he found himself on another road. He has often spoken of what happened in the Basilica of Flores on September 21, 1954, each time adding extra details. But until he spoke about it with Tornielli during the Jubilee of Mercy, he had never given away the depth of raw emotion the experience involved.
He was drawn into the basilica, the family church in Flores, while on his way to meet up with friends, among them the girl to whom he was planning to open his heart. The basilica was the center of his adolescent religious life. He was there not just for Mass on Sundays with his family, but for weekly evening meetings of the young men’s branch of Catholic Action.
It was a time of change; new winds were blowing. His Catholic Action group was devouring, for example, the American monk Thomas Merton’s memoir The Seven Storey Mountain, recently published in Buenos Aires. Merton’s extraordinary story of mercy and redemption “opened new horizons” for them, Francis later recalled. It was the same phrase he would use in speaking of Merton while addressing the U.S. Congress in September 2015.19
The teenage Jorge Mario was observant rather than prayerful. He had had no particular experiences of God’s mercy as a young child. While at the Salesian school he had pondered the priesthood, but as an idea rather than as a result of prayer, and the desire soon vanished. His real passion was politics. When he wasn’t thinking about politics, he was thinking about girls, and especially the one girl whom he had begun to think of as his girlfriend, to whom, on that day, he was about to profess his love.
For one who trusted his intellect rather than his heart, what he was poised to do was terrifying. Yet not to do it was weakness. He was in turmoil. Crying out inside for strength and peace, he suddenly found himself at the door of the basilica he knew so well, and plunged in, obscurely hoping to find there some relief and sense of direction. As his eyes adjusted to the cool gloom, he saw, at the far left-hand corner, the open door of a confessional, and entered it, drawn as if by a twitch upon an invisible thread. He later described his confession as a “fluke,” unexpected, like, he said, being thrown from a horse.
It was the feast day of Saint Matthew, the money changer turned disciple whom Jesus recruited from his tax collector’s booth. “Without me being even at the customs post, like the saint of the day, the Lord was waiting for me, ‘miserando et eligendo,’” Bergoglio told the Argentine Salesian provincial Don Bruno, in 1990. “After that I had no doubt that I would be a priest.” The Latin phrase miserando et eligendo—“looking at him with the gaze of mercy, he chose him”—was taken from the Venerable Bede’s description of that moment in which Jesus captivated Matthew. It would be Bergoglio’s motto as bishop and now as pope, and his template for evangelization.
Jorge opened more than the door of the confessional that day. Whether or not he shared some burden of serious guilt or simply poured out his confusion and shame, what he accused himself of is not important. What mattered was that his shame, and act of self-accusation, threw him in trust on God’s mercy, and swung wide the door of grace. What he saw and felt on the other side is hard to capture in metaphors—an eagle soaring? a sudden burst of sun from a mountain?—but real. What is awakened at such moments is a consciousness of the awesome totality of everything yet, at the same time, the particular love of the Creator for a person, just as they are. And with that experience comes a new horizon: that the universe is not, after all, a cold, empty place of grim survival but a warm womb of possibility, created by and in love. A man can find that out as a teenager and spend his life trying to communicate it.
“A personal encounter, which has touched my heart and given direction and new meaning to my existence” is how Francis described it to his atheist friend Eugenio Scalfari. The Italian journalist and editor, like many modern skeptics, had questioned the need for the institutional church: why not believe without belonging? Francis told his story to show that the “personal encounter” that changed his life had been made possible by “the community of faith in which I have lived … Believe me, without the Church I would not have been able to encounter Jesus—even though I am aware that the immense gift that is faith is kept in the fragile earthen vessels of our humanity.”20
The Church supplied not only the place of that encounter, but a guide through the thickets of decision-making that followed. His confessor, Father Carlos Duarte Ibarra, was a humble pastor from the poor province of Corrientes then living in the clergy house in Flores while receiving treatment for leukemia. “On confessing myself to him, I felt welcomed by the mercy of God,” the pope told Tornielli. Over the following year, as Jorge went to him for spiritual direction, Father Ibarra helped the young man become aware of the “motions” in his soul, the way God’s gentle call can be made out through the storms of our desires and confusions. That call might have been to marriage and medicine, but Jorge discovered that it was to priesthood and mission, and specifically to offer what he experienced with Father Ibarra: the tenderness of God in guided spiritual discernment. As pope over sixty years later, he has worked to ensure the Church offers that experience to every young person.
A year after Jorge’s encounter with God’s mercy, the cancer that had been devouring his confessor finally claimed him. The young man was devastated. “I cried a lot that night, really a lot, and hid in my room.… I had lost a person who helped me feel the mercy of God.”
By then he was on a path. The following year he finished his chemistry studies and announced to his shocked mother that he was to be a doctor of souls rather than bodies. While waiting to enter the seminary, he went to pray in the Salesian basilica in Almagro, the church where he had been baptized, to struggle in the tension between the One who gently calls and the self that tries to cling to what he has.
* * *
On a day’s visit to Genoa on May 27, 2017, Francis began as he had in Turin, with a question-and-answer meeting with the workers in a struggling steel plant. He told them how moved he was at being so close to the port where his father and grandparents had departed for Buenos Aires in the midwinter of 1929. “As a child of migrants,” he told them, “I thank you for your welcome.”
Then he began a day of evangelizing, teaching the closeness of God to the people of God. From the steel plant he went to meet with clergy and religious in the city’s cathedral, after which he held an encounter with young people gathered at a Marian shrine overlooking the city and the sea. Afterward he lunched with 120 refugees, migrants, and homeless people, before visiting a pediatric hospital. Then he celebrated Mass near the port with some 80,000 people.
To the workers and businesspeople, he didn’t just spell out the ethical principles of a justly ordered economy, but pondered the difference between an entrepreneur and a speculator. The good entrepreneur knows his workers, invests in them, creates opportunities for them, and is deeply pained at having to lay them off, whereas a speculator has no love for workers, seeing them as dispensable means of securing his own profit. He drew the larger lesson. “When the economy loses contact with the faces of the people, it becomes faceless and therefore ruthless.”21
With the pastors he used the same idea, contrasting the good-shepherd priest with the businessman-priest. Look at how Jesus spent his day, Francis told them: plenty of time in solitary prayer, then on the road with a crowd, “close to people and to their problems. He never hid.” Always on the move, he was never, as it were, looking at his watch, saying, “I have to do this, this, this,” but always open to people, especially the needy. Don’t be afraid of being pulled this way and that, Francis told them: “let yourself be tired out by people.” Be afraid, rather, of stasis and excessive organization, of wanting everything perfectly organized. “I would say that kind of life, so structured, is not a Christian life,” he told them, smiling. “Maybe that parish priest is a good businessman, but I wonder, is he a Christian?”
Asked about vocations—the calling to priesthood, religious life, and marriage—he said people could only ever choose what is attractive, and what attracts is joy. “We have to give a witness that shows we are happy and that we will end our lives happy that Jesus chose us,” he told them. But joy wasn’t the same as having fun, he told the young people at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of the Watch. Joy was born in the heart and couldn’t be taken away, and it happened when people went out among others, not as tourists but on mission, as fellow children of God. It meant being part of the people, listening carefully and looking at others with “the eyes of the heart.” It meant compassion. “Love is being able to take a hand that is dirty and the ability to look in the eyes of those who are in distress and say, ‘For me, you are Jesus.’ This is the beginning of every mission, this love with which I must go out and speak.”
Then he told the young people how he had visited a prison once in Buenos Aires and met a man who had murdered more than fifty people. “And I thought: but you are Jesus, because He said, if you come and see me in prison, I’m there, in that man.”
To be missionaries, he said, means that kind of craziness.
“I go on mission,” he said, “to bring great love.”22
Copyright © 2019 by Austen Ivereigh