Pope Francis
Pope Francis

Pope Francis SJ

Jorge Mario Bergoglio was born in Buenos Aires on 17 December 1936. He was the eldest of five children to Italian immigrants, Regina María Sívori and Mario José Bergoglio. After being educated by the Salesians in the city of Ramos Mejía, he went to a technical school in Buenos Aires, where he qualified as a chemical technician.

The feast of St Matthew – 21 September – became a turning point in the life of the young Argentinian. Aged 17, Jorge Mario went to confession and became convinced that he wanted to be a priest. He had been deeply moved by the verse in St Matthew’s Gospel - He saw a tax collector, and since he looked at him in pity and choosing him as a disciple, he said ‘Follow me’ – which later (first as bishop and eventually as pope) inspired his motto of miserando atque eligendo, (looking at him with pity and choosing him).

As a young man, Jorge Mario had a girlfriend, developed a love for the Tango and became a passionate fan of the Buenos Aires’ soccer team, San Lorenzo de Almagro. At the age of 21, he experienced a grave illness which resulted in the loss of a lung. Then, on 11 March 1958, he decided to follow his religious vocation and applied to enter the Novitiate of the Society of Jesus in Cordoba.

Jorge Mario was ordained priest in Buenos Aires on 13 December 1969, after which he completed his formation in Alcalá de Henares in Spain. On returning to Argentina, he was made Master of Novices, professing his Final Vows on 22 April 1973.

On 31 July 1973, the Feast of St Ignatius, at the unusually young age of 37, Bergoglio started a six year term as Provincial (Superior) of the Jesuits in Argentina. This was a momentous period for the Church, because not only did these years follow the Second Vatican Council, but the Church in Latin America was also living a new emphasis on God’s preferential love for the poorest or Liberation Theology. It was an era of violent unrest in Argentina, with military coups and guerrilla insurgency; the poor were victims of extreme conflict, abductions (or ‘disappearances’) and killings. Although Jorge Mario worked tirelessly in favour of the poorest, claims were made after his election as pope that he had had serious reservations about Liberation Theology during his term as Argentine Provincial. Various controversies emerged, coupled with allegations that he failed to adequately protect Jesuits working in the slums. But at the same time, there have been many testimonies by those whom he helped to escape the dictatorship and by those who worked in human rights during this time who affirm his discreet action against the dictatorship. Many instances have been cited of the help Bergoglio gave to those who had been kidnapped or were in danger during these years. 

After his term as Provincial, he was appointed Superior of the Colegio Maximo de San Miguel, where Jesuits preparing for ordination to priesthood study Theology, and also studied in St Georgen College in Frankfurt, Germany. He then went on to serve as Spiritual Father and Confessor to the House in Cordoba, before being appointed by Pope John Paul II as Auxiliary Bishop of Buenos Aires. Since Jesuits vow not to seek honours and offices in the Church, this was a relatively unusual appointment.  He was named Episcopal Vicar for Flores, then Vicar General of the Diocese, before being made - in 1997 - Coadjutor Archbishop of Beunos Aires. This meant that he automatically became Archbishop on the death of his predecessor. In 2001, Pope John Paul II created him Cardinal with the titular Church of St Robert Bellarmine SJ.

Archbishop Bergoglio gave precedence to the poorest in his diocese, those living in the slums of Buenos Aires. He sent them his own choice of the best priests and he would personally visit them regularly, by foot or travelling there by public transport. He regularly visited prisons and shelters for the homeless, chatting freely with people and demonstrating his characteristic desire that priests should be close to the people rather than separated from them. He rejected the Archbishop’s residence, preferring instead to live in a small flat with a retired priest, and he cooked his own meals.

Bergogolio was at pains to emphasise the importance of preaching the heart of the Gospel, which he said was much more important than speaking of the controversies of our time and issues of sexual morality. He argued that people needed to have opportunities to encounter the Lord Jesus through the sacraments, stressing the importance of everyone in the Lord’s eyes. His term as Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires was also characterised by mutual respect for and dialogue with other faiths (especially Judaism), as well as listening and soliciting advice, which he took it to heart. During his time as Provincial, he had shown that he could be decisive, and this was a characteristic that he continued to demonstrate as archbishop and as President of the Bishops’ Conference.

Having reached the age of 75, Jorge Mario Bergogolio submitted his resignation as Archbishop of Buenos Aires and it was assumed that he would be too old to be elected pope at the conclave that followed Pope Benedict’s resignation in February 2013; besides, a Jesuit had never been pope before. Immediately after his surprise election on 13 March 2013, his change of style in the papacy started to become evident. In humility, he asked for the prayers of the crowd assembled in St Peter’s Square and he chose the name Francis, after St Francis of Assisi, the champion of the poor. He describes himself principally as the ‘Bishop of Rome’ and moved out of the Apostolic Palace, preferring instead to live in the nearby Domus Santae Martae, saying he needs to be amongst people. He is reducing much of the Curia’s bureaucracy, has instigated reforms in the Vatican Bank and has chosen eight cardinals to be his advisors, representing a more worldwide style of consultation, less centred on the Roman Curia.

On Pope Francis’ first visit outside of Rome - to the island of Lampedusa - he prayed for the victims of the July 2013 shipwreck in which several hundred migrants died. And since then, his emphasis has been very much on the poor, the marginalised, the disadvantaged and the sick, with whom he has been frequently photographed. He broke papal protocol by giving an impromptu press conference on the flight back to Rome after World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro and by giving an interview to the Editor in Chief of La Civiltà Cattolica, which was simultaneously published by several Jesuit journals across the world, including Thinking Faith. His Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) is not only a call for a new evangelisation but also an expression of Pope Francis’ vision of a ‘poor Church for the poor’.