Pope Francis: "a new grace"
A Latin American view of Pope Francis
In a recent edition of Jivan, the magazine of the Jesuits in India, Fr Alfonso Jose Gomez SJ was interviewed by Fr John Rose SJ. Fr Gomez has just completed a consecutive nine-year term as Provincial - six of the Argentine Province and three of the recently formed Argentine-Uruguay Province. Jorge Mario Bergoglio - Pope Francis - was the first Jesuit Fr Gomez met when he wanted to join the Society of Jesus. Fr Bergoglio was his Rector in the Juniorate and later on his Provincial. The interview is re-published here, with permission of the editor.
Alfonso, did you ever expect Cardinal Bergoglio to be the Pope?
His election took me by surprise. He was not on most of the short lists drawn up by media pundits. Maybe in Argentina he was seen as a good possibility, given his strong showing in the previous Conclave that elected Benedict XVI. Before the election, when people asked me about his chances, I simply stated that age was against him and that he had some health problems. I imagined that the Cardinals would be looking for someone younger.
But I have high hopes that Pope Francis will do well, sharing the truth of the gospel with people of good will and challenging people to live more simply, after the manner of St Francis whose name he has chosen. I also think that he will find it tough to deal with the many taxing problems of the modern world. He will experience the hardships that come from the challenge to evangelize.
What do you feel about a Jesuit becoming Pope?
It makes me feel proud that the Cardinals placed much trust in a member of the Society of Jesus. A Jesuit Pope is a historical first. In all of his religious life he has been, to my knowledge, a profound Jesuit. Some years ago he had a series of conversations with two journalists and he allowed them to be published in a book called The Jesuit. This election is a vote of confidence in the formation process leading to ministry that Jesuits undergo. It also recognizes the value of our Ignatian spirituality in the mission of spreading the gospel. This makes me ever more grateful to be a Jesuit.
When did you first meet him?
I first met him in 1979 when he was the Provincial. I had written a letter requesting admission to the novitiate. He wrote back a warm letter in which he recalled his own vocation, and he invited me over to speak to him personally. I still keep vivid memories of this interview - strolling along with him on the novitiate soccer field.
What impressed you the most about him as a person and as a Jesuit?
I was struck by his youth. I guess I was expecting an older person with more grey hair. I was also struck by his simplicity and the practical nature of his questions; it was very easy to talk to him. He listened. He was humorous. I left impressed. I felt I had met a very good man. He subsequently helped me to follow Christ.
How was he as your Juniorate Rector?
He looked after us very well. He personified the cura personalis (care for the whole person) expected of Jesuit Superiors. Surprisingly many of us chose him as our Spiritual Director. What all of us noticed was that he was more interested in listening to us than in telling us anything. Where perhaps two words were necessary, he was content with one.
He had a lot of responsibilities as a Rector, but I don't remember him ever looking tense or preoccupied. He seemed to enjoy helping out in the farm run by the Brothers, where the Scholastics had to do their weekend chores. We grew vegetables, raised sheep and pigs and cattle, and took care of bee hives - all to be self-sufficient. To most of us who had grown up in dense urban settings, all this did much for our spirits and for understanding how the world works. And we were well-fed. Remember, we were over a hundred in that house of formation. At the cook-outs during the holidays, he would be the chef along with us. And, gosh, he would tell us jokes. And take his turn at waiting at tables.
In the Juniorate, Colegio Maximo San Jose, he advocated serious study of history and literature as a foundation of what was soon to come later, philosophy and theology. I am very grateful for the heavy dose of the humanities that we had under him. To celebrate the 50 years of the Colegio, he laboured hard to get a brand new library. During his time, there was much pastoral outreach. He became the pastor of the Patriarca San Jose parish, and he was instrumental in setting up small capillas (chapels) in the vast areas that it covered, and roped in staff and students to help out. Besides, he set up a secondary school for adults and a vocational school for the local poor, using the infrastructure of the Colegio.
Did he bring any significant changes as Provincial of Argentina?
He was Provincial during 1973-79. His greatest concern was the formation of young Jesuits. He continued to pay a great deal of attention to the formation of young Jesuits. He moved the Jesuit Curia to San Miguel, in Buenos Aires proper. This meant that the Curia was now located in the same building that housed the School of Philosophy and Theology and where the Scholastics stayed. Perhaps one of his greatest achievements was the increase of vocations during his tenure. He astutely appointed an ex-president of a Jesuit University, noted for his conducting of the Spiritual Exercises, to be full-time involved in vocation promotion, and he appointed too as many young Jesuits as possible to help him out.
Fr Bergoglio was also decisive in action. He cleared the financial debt of Universidad El Salvador in Buenos Aires, even selling off Jesuit properties to do so, and was instrumental in handing it over to lay people. In spite of all the difficulties, he strengthened the Jesuit presence at Universidad Catolica in Cordoba and in the School of Philosophy and Theology in San Miguel - both institutions entrusted to the Jesuits. Because of lack of Jesuit personnel, he had to close down boarding schools and give over Jesuit schools to lay management.
He will be remembered for getting the Jesuits to work in the poor areas, both in the cities and also in the vast interior. He was alert to the strengths of folk religion, and to the drawbacks of clerical status, and what was often touching to the people was his receiving blessings from the elderly. Nothing moved him so much as the plight of the disadvantaged, like the newly arrived immigrants to the big cities. He began a twinning agreement with the Province of Ecuador that required us of Argentina to send Scholastics and Jesuit priests, some even for ten years at a stretch, to teach and work in campus ministry at Colegio Javier in Guayaquil. This turned out to be a very positive experience for both Provinces.
What was your experience of him as his Provincial?
Most of the Jesuit Provincial's attention goes to ministries in the interior of the country, outside Buenos Aires. During my six years as Provincial the work in Buenos Aires did not require a great deal of my time, and so I only met Cardinal Bergoglio occasionally.
In my last three years as Provincial, but of the newly created Argentina-Uruguay Province in which he took great interest, we saw each other more often for a number of reasons. One of them was the creation of the new Province and another was the visit of our General Nicolás to Argentina. I would also run into him during celebrations, like the Chrism Mass, at the Cathedral, and also at the annual gathering of Religious Priests and Sisters of the Archdiocese. In addition, I was in contact with his Office when we needed the Archdiocesan approval for many financial transactions connected with work for the poor. I had his full support when I had to make difficult decisions in connection with the temporary closure of the community, San Francisco Javier, that belonged to the Centre for Investigation and Social Action that had to be re-located, and with the huge re-construction project of the block around Colegio El Salvador. Both the new Provincial who took over from me and I had a very friendly meeting with him when the change of office took place.
It has been alleged that he was aligned with the military dictatorship in the 1980s during the 'Dirty War'. What do you think?
Keep in mind that on 24 March 1976, the date that marks the beginning of the military government, Fr Bergoglio was Provincial and only 39 years old. Thereafter there was a great political upheaval in Argentina, characterized by tensions and armed confrontations, not only between military and civic groups but also between civilians of different political affiliations. As far as I know, he did not participate in any rallies or meetings in support to the dictatorial regime. Those were difficult times for all. I have no evidence at all even to suspect that his role was in any way negative. On the contrary, there are several testimonies that he helped some Jesuits and several other individuals sought by the military to leave the country.
Would you like to say something about what is highlighted by the media these days: his simplicity and love for the poor?
He is unassuming. He is direct. And he is spontaneous. As is obvious, he uses authority not as status but as service. The fact that he was given so many responsibilities in the Society at a very early age shows that he was highly regarded by many. He was made Novice Master when he was 34 and even then he continued to be a professor of theology. And he became Provincial when he was 36. In telephone conversations he always introduced himself to me by his name and not by any title.
His love and care for the poor is instinctual. As a young Provincial, he participated in GC 32 - famous for its 'option for the poor.' I have spoken earlier of the tremendous work he did as Pastor of Patriarca San Jose parish, the good effects of it still enduring.
Will he bring anything new to the Church?
I am sure that he will be, like any sensible Christian, respectful of the Church's tradition. I remember the title of the book he recommended when he did Catechetics with us as Scholastics: Where Am I Coming from? Where Am I Going? Perhaps one new thing that he will bring in is the frescura, the freshness, associated with John XXIII or the young John Paul II. I am also sure that he will re-invigorate ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue. And the needs of the poor will continue to be important to him. There is also no doubt that he will do his best to restore simplicity and transparency to the workings of the Vatican bureaucracy.
What are the implications of a Latin American Pope in South America in general and Argentina in particular?
Naturally, we from Argentina are very proud to have one of our own as the Pope. We have plenty of problems in our country, but now there is more hope that, away from the country and on the throne of Peter, he will have a far greater influence in directing it to better days through better ways.
Are Catholics in Latin America being lost to Protestant groups?
Yes, they are. Thousands of Catholics have moved over to other Evangelical Protestant groups, to agnosticism, or simply to a belief in God without belonging to any organized religion.
I think that Pope Francis' closeness and affection for the common people will bring a better image of the Catholic Church that can diminish or reverse this trend.
Do you think that South Asia and Latin America are cut off from each other because of language? Would you foresee more interaction in the future as Asians learn Spanish and Latin Americans learn English?
The advantage for us, who know Spanish, is the easier access that we have to the original writings of St Ignatius and of his first companions. But our General, Fr Adolfo Nicolás has done well to insist on the study of English for all Jesuits who are Spanish speakers. I believe that our Scholastics now possess a good command of English or are in the process of acquiring it. This was not the case 20 years ago. The fact that we live today in a globalized world and that we belong to a world-wide missionary religious order is good reason to think that communication between Latin America and Asia will increase in the years to come. There is much that they share, socially, economically, and in religious spirit. And both are strongly family-based cultures.
How should we, the Jesuits in South Asia, view the election of Pope Francis?
When Fr Peter-Hans Kolvenbach was preparing us for his resignation as Superior General and also at the same time was preparing for GC 35, I heard him say several times that it would be wise to have a superior who was young, so that he could be a 'new grace' for us. But despite his age, Pope Francis is a 'new grace' for us. We are called to cooperate with him. He comes from the developing world. He has had real experiences of poverty. Even though he has not yet travelled to Asia, he will surely have a feel for it. His fantastic social and human outreach can easily be picked up by Asian Jesuits.
I believe that this is a very positive historical moment when, led by the Holy Spirit, we become 'those who allow to be guided in the service of our eternal king' along with Pope Francis as the 'Vicar of Christ.'