81st Birthday of Pope Francis: The Adventure of a Calling

Jorge Mario Bergoglio was born in Buenos Aires on December 17, 1936, the son of Italian immigrants. With affection and gratitude on his 81st birthday, we reproduce a brief sketch of the Holy Father's youth written by Monsignor Mariano Fazio in his book Pope Francis: Keys to His Thought.

From the Pope
Opus Dei - 81st Birthday of Pope Francis: The Adventure of a Calling

"The following comes from a book I wrote in 2013 with the personal conviction of the need to make known the spiritual roots of the new Pope and contribute to a greater knowledge of his personality. I have the good fortune to have been in contact with Cardinal Bergoglio with some frequency ever since the year 2000. With our Holy Father turning 81 on December 17th, I hope to inspire affection and prayers for him in all those who come to read these lines" (Mariano Fazio).

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"You have been loved by name": the vocation

His papal motto – miserando atque eligendo (freely translated as “lowly but chosen”) – requires some explanation. Its significance is not as obvious as that of Benedict XVI – “Cooperators in the Truth” – nor, once the Marian context is grasped, that of Saint John Paul II: “Totus Tuus.

When I asked a compatriot what the motto meant, he replied “I believe it’s a Jesuit thing.” Once more I saw that most of us Argentineans are incapable of responding with a simple and humble “I don’t know” to a question when we don’t know the answer.

"In that confession, something strange happened to me. I don’t know what it was, but it changed my life... From that moment on for me, God is the one who 'acts first.'"

More light was provided by an article published in L’Osservatore Romano, signed by the theologian Inos Biffi. There it was explained that the phrase is taken from a homily of the Venerable St. Bede, concerning the vocation of Matthew. We recall that the future author of the first Gospel was working as a tax collector: that is, a collaborator with the power of the imperial invader and, therefore, a sinner in the eyes of the Jews. Biffi writes:

Bede – making repeated reference to Paul with his affirmation that Christ “has come to this world to save sinners,” of which he proclaimed himself the first – insistently focuses during that Lenten homily on praise of the divine mercy, and on the “confidence of salvation” that sinners should nourish.

And it is to precisely this point that the words of Pope Francis’s motto refer: “Jesus saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax office; and he said to him, ‘Follow me’ (Mt 9:9). He saw not only with the eyes of his body, but with those of his interior goodness. He saw a publican and, as he looked at him with merciful love in view of his choice, he said to him: ‘Follow me.’ He said ‘Follow me’ that is, imitate me. Follow me, he said, not so much with the movement of your feet as with the practice of your life. (L’Osservatore Romano, Special ed. March 15, 2013)

“He looked at him with merciful love in view of his choice.” This is something applicable to all souls: Our Lord chose us before the constitution of the world so “that we should be holy and blameless before him” (Eph 1:4) And he chose us knowing the clay of which we are made. But in the case of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the phrase has special meaning. The feast of St. Matthew is celebrated on September 21. On that date, the Liturgy of the Hours includes the homily of St. Bede that we have just cited. It was precisely on September 21 – in Argentina, “Students Day” – that Bergoglio discovered his vocation of full dedication to God. He went to his parish, the Church of St. Joseph of the Flowers, one of the most traditional in the city, and decided to go to confession.

In that confession [says the cardinal in an interview incorporated into a biography], something strange happened to me, I don’t know what it was, but it changed my life; I would say that I was “caught off guard.” … It was a surprise, the wonder of an encounter; I realized that I was being awaited… From that moment on for me, God is the one who “acts first.” We seek him, but he seeks us first. We want to find him, but he finds us first.[1]

Persisting in his call to follow God, the cardinal commented on his episcopal motto:

The religious vocation is a call of God to a soul which is expecting him consciously or unconsciously. I have always been impressed by a reading from the breviary which says that Jesus looked at Matthew with an attitude which, translated, is something like “having mercy and choosing.” That was, precisely, the way in which I felt that God was looking at me during that confession. And that is the way that he has always called me to look at others: with a lot of mercy and as if I were choosing them for him: not excluding anyone, because all are chosen for the love of God. “Having mercy on him and choosing him” was the motto of my consecration as bishop and is one of the pivots of my religious experience (The Jesuit, p. 49).

"I have always been impressed by a reading from the breviary which says that Jesus looked at Matthew with an attitude of 'having mercy on him and choosing him.'”

You have been loved by name.” The cardinal took as the basis for a retreat he preached the letters to the seven churches in the Book of Revelation. Commenting on the letter to the church of Pergamon, he referred to the passage that says the Lord will give to his chosen ones a small white stone with a new name. The cardinal preached:

The passage about the white stone with the new name, known only to God and the soul who receives it, shows a great intimacy. It happens at times that one person, inspired by love, gives to another a special name which expresses what he likes and loves in her. Certainly he does not want this name to be made public: it should remain only between him and his beloved.

The little stone has inscribed the name by which God the creator expressed the being – unrepeatable, personal, unique – of the beloved person. This is the apocalyptic intimacy, in which each member of the immense multitudes has his personal relationship with God.[2]

Photo credit: Jeffrey Bruno

Family, studies, personality

The light of God which showed Jorge Mario Bergoglio his vocation appeared when he was seventeen. He had been born in Buenos Aires on December 17, 1936, the son of Italian immigrants from Piedmont on his father’s side, and Piedmont and Liguria on his mother’s.

God calls from all eternity, but the vocation becomes present at a particular place and time. Jorge Bergoglio was born in a city which at that time was one of the world’s largest in population. The tango was triumphing in Paris, and Argentinean movies competed with those of Mexico throughout the Hispanic world. The Buenos Aireans had seen a lot of water flow down their Rio de la Plata since that distant 1536 when Pedro de Mendoza, of Guadix, had founded a city, or actually a village of precarious huts, destroyed by the Indians. In the year of the cardinal’s birth, the fourth centennial of its foundation was celebrated, and a 220-foot obelisk, now one of the symbols of the city, was unveiled. In 1580 the city was reborn through the work of the Basque, Juan de Garay, and it has endured to the present day. In 1620 it was the capital of a poor political territory; being on the outskirts of the Spanish empire, it had to live by contraband. The city prospered gradually until it became the capital of a territory governed by a Viceroy at the end of the eighteenth century, the promoter of independence in 1810, and the recipient of a growing influx of immigrants during the whole of the nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth.

His initiation into the world of work arose through the needs of his family. The Bergoglio Sivori family was composed of his parents, his grandparents, and five brothers and sisters of whom Jorge was the oldest.

The history of the Bergoglio family was typical of millions of middle-class Argentineans. In their case, 100 percent of their blood was Italian; more common was a mixture of nationalities with an Italo-Spanish foundation.

Various financial ups and downs – so common in Argentina – required the Bergoglios to work hard to sustain themselves. They did not go hungry, but they could not afford the luxury of owning a car or going away on vacation. They were children of hard, honorable, hidden work. Jorge Mario himself had to combine his secondary school, where he was preparing to be a chemical technician, with various jobs, eventually working in a laboratory.

The culture of work marked him for the rest of his life. The incessant activity of his later years was not improvised, but the fruit of well-rooted habits. He begins his day very early, at four in the morning, and usually sleeps for only five hours. His punctuality was proverbial in Buenos Aires: he used to arrive well in advance of the time set for liturgical ceremonies or wherever his pastoral activity was required. He had a sustained rhythm of work, but without giving the impression of haste. The cardinal always found time to dedicate to others in spite of his multiple commitments, personal or telephonic, and his answering of innumerable letters, always writing replies in his own hand, placing them in the envelope, and addressing them personally.

His personal experience of the world of work – like that of John Paul II – made it easy for him to understand the manual laborers and other workers in their joys and sorrows. And it let him to champion the recovery of a culture of work in an Argentina that in recent years had fallen into the anticulture of welfarism. He considered work the key point of the modern social doctrine of the Church. Every year on August 7, he celebrated Holy Mass at the Shrine of St. Cajetan, one of the country’s most popular saints and the patron of the unemployed and job-seekers. Millions of people go to St. Cajetan asking for food and work, and the cardinal always accompanied them in their prayers.

These life circumstances helped Jorge Bergoglio to develop one of the most marked characteristics of his personality: his austerity, evident in his modest needs, his use of public transport, and his detachment from material goods.

These life circumstances helped Jorge Bergoglio to develop one of the most marked characteristics of his personality: his austerity

His initiation into the world of work arose through the needs of his family. The Bergoglio Sivori family was composed of his parents, his grandparents, and five brothers and sisters of whom Jorge was the oldest. They were practicing Catholics who formed a normal middle-class family in a neighborhood of populous Buenos Aires. Here he learned the family virtues of respect and affection for parents, hearty fraternity, and mutual help. He was also given a taste for culture. His mother had her children listen to the opera programs broadcast by the National Radio, explaining the plots and telling them when the most important scenes were coming. As a good Buenos Airean, he also learned from his father to follow a soccer team – in his case San Lorenzo de Almargo’s – and to actively take part in sports.

It was a healthy family environment: a culture of work and honest recreation. Suffering also touched them. I recall one day when I was walking with the cardinal from the hotel at the Shrine of Aparecida, a few hundred yards. It was hot, and the cardinal was rather heavily dressed. When I asked him if he didn’t feel warm, he told me that he was missing half a lung and so had to be careful. Later I learned that when he was twenty-one he had a very serious lung infection, which forced the doctors to remove the upper part of his right lung. The youth suffered a lot and none of the consolation he received from his relatives and friends helped very much until a nun told him that with his suffering he was imitating Jesus in his Passion. This supernatural reasoning was what really gave meaning to this very painful episode, and he came to see the sufferings of human life from this Christ-centered viewpoint.

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Excerpts from Pope Francis: Keys to His Thought, by Msgr. Mariano Fazio, Vicar General of Opus Dei. The book is available, in print or as an eBook, for purchase through Scepter Publishers.


[1] S. Rubin and F. Ambrogetti, The Jesuit: Conversations with Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, SJ (Buenos Aires: Vergara, 2010), p. 45

[2] Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Mente abierta, Corazón creyente (Buenos Aires: Claretiana, 2013), p. 154.