He danced the tango in his youth, now receives roses from St. Therese
The throngs that lined the streets for hours, even days just to get a glimpse of Pope Francis, waving right and left in a gesture of blessing them; the vast crowd that camped outside Villamor Air Base, Roxas Boulevard, the Apostolic Nunciature in frenzied anticipation of his arrival; President Aquino, ranking officials and privileged journalists entranced in Malacanang by the Pope’s inexplicably charismatic aura; the unprecedented multitudes at the Manila Cathedral, the UST, the Mall of Asia and the Luneta that attended the Papal masses or listened to the homilies (spiced with humor); the thousands of Yolanda survivors in Leyte who braved the impending signal number two typhoon, to have their grief assuaged by the Pope’s compassion—all of them were profoundly moved by His Holiness’ humility, simplicity, sincerity and warm affection, as also by the overflowing sympathy he wordlessly but eloquently manifested for the aged, the disabled, the poor and particularly, the children.
Such adulation of the multitudes for the Vicar of Christ would increase a hundred fold if they could know him more closely by reading the book Pope Francis His Life in His Own Words. Therein, Jorge Bergoglio reveals and describes himself both as a layman and as a cleric through interviews conducted by Francesca Ambrogetti and Sergio Rubin.
The book begins with Bergoglio’s family background. His parents and grandparents migrated to Buenos Aires, Argentina, from Italy. The father supported the family as an accountant. He did not earn much. There was no car but the children had everything they needed. Jorge, not yet 13, was made to work by his father in a hosiery factory, while also attending school.
Once, when Jorge was 17, he was to join his friends for some fun, on Students’ Day. Suddenly, changing his mind, he went to the parish church instead for confession during which he strongly felt a religious vocation. He did not answer the call immediately. He waited until he was 21. At that age, he fell gravely ill and the doctors had to excise the upper part of his right lung, leaving him in rather frail health. (In retrospect, Pope Francis’ hectic schedule here was a tremendous strain on him with the welcoming masses not realizing it.)
Bergoglio joined the Society of Jesus, its principles and discipline having appealed to him. He thought of doing missionary work in Japan, but he abandoned the idea because it would make strenuous demands on his health.
Bergoglio’s descriptions of himself often intertwine because in his youth he already upheld high principles, moral and spiritual values which maintained in his maturity and old age, grew firmer, richer and more meaningful.
To him, love has always been the greatest virtue, the “giving of one’s self to another.” To illustrate: Once, already a priest, he was to leave on a mission. As he waited for the train, a man approached him, wishing to confess. Fr. Bergoglio, refusing to accede to the request, began walking away. The next priest would be due four hours later and Fr. Bergoglio assumed the penitent would not mind waiting. But with a stricken conscience, remembering his primary obligation of helping beleaguered souls, he retraced his steps and despite the certainty of missing the train, heard the man’s confession. But the Lord works in mysterious ways: the train’s departure was delayed; to the priest’s utter surprise, it had waited for him!
On another occasion, when he was already a Cardinal, interviewers Ambrogetti and Rubin had an appointment with him at a specified time. He had always been rigorously punctual, yet they waited while the Cardinal entertained a poor couple and their two children who lived far away. Having met the Cardinal once the couple wanted to pay their respects to him before returning home. The Cardinal gave them a thermos bottle filled with hot water and a substantial sum of money. Forthwith, he profusely apologized to the interviewers who perfectly understood the reason for the delay, admiring the Cardinal for it.
If love is the greatest virtue to Bergoglio, pride is the greatest sin. Thus, he consistently refuses, in his humility, to call attention to himself. Ironically, it was precisely this obvious trait that impressed his superiors at conclaves and meetings, thus leading to Bergoglio’s swift rise in church hierarchy from priest, to bishop, to archbishop, to cardinal, to pope.
His initial response to any announcement of a promotion was “shame and embarrassment” which rendered him speechless, thinking himself wholly unworthy of each new posting.
To this day, his humility and simplicity are evident in his lifestyle. In Buenos Aires, he travels on the subway but prefers the bus from where he can see the streets. His bedroom is bare except for a wooden bed and a crucifix, a gift from his grandparents. In his library is a vase full of white roses. He explains the roses thus: “Whenever I have a problem, I ask St. Therese of Lisieux to take it in her hands and help me to accept it, and as a sign, I almost always receive a white rose.”
Pope Francis spends his leisure reading the newspapers and listening to classical music over the radio. He admires most Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3 as conducted by Furtwangler, and the works of Wagner.
In his youth, he listened to tango music and loved dancing to it. He had a girlfriend but his religious vocation ended the relationship.
To return to Pope Francis steadfast, determined, unalloyed humility and simplicity, he has reached the rarest degree of sanctity because of these virtues. His deep, all-embracing knowledge of theology astounds his peers. He has an amazingly firm grasp of countless intellectual and cultural disciplines, among them music, literature, the visual arts, his favorite painter is Chagall, psychology which he once taught, political science (he had a vital, behind-the-scenes role in Argentina’s various upheavals in government).
Incidentally, he is no stranger to sports; he played basketball in school and how he enjoyed watching soccer!
In the Pope’s library, there is a faded, yellowed document he wrote before he was ordained priest, a document he treasures and still uploads. It reads in part:
“I believe in Mary, my mother, who loves me and who will never leave my side.
I wish to believe in God the Father, who loves me, and in Jesus, our Lord, who fills me with the Holy Spirit in my life so that I may smile and thus carry me to the kingdom of eternal life.
I believe in the kindness of others, and that I must love them without fear, without ever betraying them in death, which burns, and from which I flee, but which smiles at me, inviting me to accept it.
I believe in the embracing patience of God, as gentle as a summer day and I await the surprise of each day in which love, strength, betrayal and sin shall become manifest, which shall accompany me until that final meeting with that magnificent face, of I know nothing, from which I constantly flee, but which I wish to know and love. Amen.”
An Italian pilot, Aldo Cagnoli, holder of a degree in sociology, became a close friend of the Pope after a flight from Rome to Buenos Aires. Cagnoli describes Pope Francis best in these words: “His greatness lies in his down to earth nature combined with his tremendous wisdom, his open mind combined with his moral rectitude, the ability to listen to and learn from everyone even when he has so much to teach us. I believe he does simply, and at the same time extraordinarily, what so many men both inside and outside the church ought to do, and regrettably fail to do.”
God’s richest blessings to Pope Francis on his birthday!