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FRANCIS MAN OF PRAYER
By MARIO ESCOBAR
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2013 Mario Escobar Golderos
All rights reserved.
THE LANGUAGE OF HIS MEMORIES
A FAMILY OF ITALIAN IMMIGRANTS
When I was thirteen months old, my mother had my second brother; there are five children in all. My grandparents lived nearby, and to help my mother out, my grandmother would come get me in the morning, take me to her house, and bring me back in the afternoon. They spoke Piedmontese to each other, and I learned it. They loved all my siblings, of course, but I had the privilege of entering the language of their memories.
The story begins in 1934, in the Salesian prayer chapel of San Antonio, in the neighborhood of Almagro in Buenos Aires. A young man of Italian origin named Mario José Bergoglio and a young woman named Regina Maria Sivori, also of Italian background, stole secret glances at each other while the priest celebrated mass. In something of a premonition, one year later the couple married and started what would eventually become a family of five children, the oldest of whom would become the future Pope Francis.
Mario José Bergoglio came from a well-to-do family in Piedmont, Italy. His father ran a candy store in Portacomaro, in northern Italy. Europe was still trying to heal from World War I, and a devastating economic crisis was about to hit around the world.
Toward the end of 1928, the Bergoglios boarded the ship Giulio Cesare, and one hot morning in January 1929, they finally glimpsed the port of Buenos Aires. Jorge Mario's grandfather was hoping to reunite with his three brothers who had been running a pavement business in Paraná since 1922.
Their beginnings in Argentina could not have been more promising. The recently arrived family settled in the Bergoglio palace, a luxurious four-story residence with the only elevator in the city. The immigrant family lived on one of the floors and began working in the family business.
The crisis of 1929 was slow to hit the prosperous Argentina, but in 1932, the Bergoglios had to sell the family home. One of the brothers went to Brazil to seek his fortune; another died of cancer, and while Jorge Mario's grandfather tried to stay afloat, his father had to seek work elsewhere. He was finally able to find a job with a new business and worked as an accountant for the company.
A PEACEFUL LIFE
Jorge Mario Bergoglio did not live through those years of crisis, but a new specter was beginning to emerge on the international scene: Nazism. Bergoglio was born in 1936, when it seemed as if the world was gradually recovering from the Great Depression.
Jorge Mario's family was modest and never faced great hardships. His grandmother, of whom he has fond memories, instilled the Piedmontese spirit of the family into her grandson, tying the immigrant child to his Italian roots. His father took all the children to watch him play basketball in the club of San Lorenzo. Both his parents played cards with the five children, and his mother cultivated their interest in opera. On Saturday afternoons they all would listen to public radio, and Regina would float away with the music as her children watched, entranced.
Jorge Mario's father also cooked. As a result of complications in the delivery of her fifth child, Regina suffered from a degree of paralysis, so Mario José had to prepare the food. While his wife gave him instructions on how to cook their delicious Italian meals, the children paid close attention to the recipes, and eventually everyone learned to cook a few dishes.
Jorge Mario even became something of a chef when he lived at the Máximo school of San Miguel and cooked every Sunday for the students.
Though the Bergoglio family enjoyed a comfortable life without economic hardship, Mario José thought it best for his oldest son to learn the value of hard work and sacrifice. When Jorge Mario finished primary school, his father encouraged him to find a job. As Pope Francis recalled, his father said, "Look, since you're about to start high school, you need to start working. Over your break I'm going to find something for you to do."
His father's suggestion came as a surprise. The family could not afford the luxuries of owning an automobile and taking lavish vacations, but it was far from needing an extra salary. Jorge Mario spent a few years cleaning the offices where his father worked as an accountant, and during his third year of high school, he assumed administrative duties. By his fourth year he was juggling work hours with trade school and time in the lab. The young student was in the office from 7:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., then dashed off to school, ate on the run, and did not return home until his classes ended at 8:00 p.m.
The experience toughened up the young man who, once he became cardinal, reflected on what he had learned during those years: "I'm so grateful that my father made me work.
Work was one of the things that improved me in life. In the lab especially I learned the good and the bad of human effort."
The Argentine adolescent learned the value of work, and his work ethic has made him indefatigable. Regarding the value of work, Pope Francis remarked:
Neither inheritance, family upbringing, nor education bestow the anointing of dignity. It only comes through work. We eat what we earn; we maintain our family with what we earn. It matters not if it is much or little. If it is much, all the better. We might have a fortune, but if we do not work, dignity crumbles.
Friends and schoolmates in the Buenos Aires neighborhood of Flores remember him during those juvenile years. Amalia, one of his childhood friends and perhaps his first girlfriend when they were twelve or thirteen years old, told several journalists that the young Jorge Mario came to ask her hand in marriage. She said that her suitor told her that if he did not marry her, he would become a priest.
Susana Burel, one of his neighbors, told the EFE News Agency that Jorge Mario was "studious and full of curiosity. He was raised in a good home, and that's key; the family is very important."
Located near the Antonio Cerviño public high school, where he studied and proved to be a model student, is the parish of Santa Francisca Javier Cabrini. Jorge Mario officiated his first mass there when he was regional vicar in his neighborhood of Flores.
Bergoglio's early life was relatively peaceful and simple, as was life for most adolescents in Buenos Aires in the 1950s. The world was slowly healing from World War II, but the Cold War was on the rise. Juan Domingo Perön governed a prosperous Argentina, which, thanks to the war, had recovered its industry and commerce. The city of Buenos Aires grew ever larger and more beautiful, becoming known as the "Great" Buenos Aires. Meanwhile, one restless youth walked the streets with his heart torn between a girl and his priestly vocation. Unbeknownst to him, he was about to make a decision that would change his plans for the future and set him on a course to make history.
THAT SPRING DAY
VOCATION AND SURRENDER
In that confession, something strange happened to me. I don't know what it was, but it changed my life; I would say that it caught me with my guard down.... It was the surprise, the astonishment of the encounter. I realized that they were waiting for me. That is what religious experience is: the shock of finding yourself with someone who is waiting for you. From that moment on, for me, God is the one who seeks you first.
The Dia de laprimavera, "first day of spring," is a popular and important holiday in Argentina, celebrated on September 21. That afternoon in 1953, Jorge Mario Bergoglio tidied himself up a bit more than usual. He was going to see his girlfriend. But on the way something must have occurred to him. He began to worry, and stopping at the church in San José de Flores, he decided to go to confession.
The brief exchange between the priest and the young man led to a radical change in Jorge Mario's life. The decision to become a priest was not an easy one to make. It meant abandoning his entire life and giving up the dream of having a family. Jorge Mario Bergoglio was only sixteen years old, and he had a girlfriend. With a promising future ahead of him, he could be a respectable Catholic without becoming a priest. Yet on that bright spring afternoon he felt what he beautifully describes as a spiritual calling: "God is the one who seeks you first. You are looking for him, but he finds you first. You want to find him, but he has already found us."
Bergoglio has referred frequently to this unexpected encounter with God. In the book he coauthored with Abraham Skorka, Bergoglio remarked on religious vocation, "Instead, everything happens from being called, summoned, touched by God."
A short time after making his decision for the priesthood, Jorge Mario Bergoglio broke up with his girlfriend. He knew that God was calling him to a ministry and that his life had to change. But wanting to be completely sure, he took his time before entering seminary.
When he told his parents of his new plans, he was surprised that his father supported him unconditionally while his mother disagreed with him. She wanted Jorge Mario, the eldest boy, to finish his degree, and she was tormented by feelings of losing her son forever. His grandmother was much more understanding. He recalled her words: "Well, if God calls you, go with our blessing.... Please, never forget that the doors of this house are always open and nobody will blame you if you decide to come back."
Jorge Mario's grandmother was exemplary in wisdom. Her advice helped shape his ability to support and counsel the people who eventually sought his help in making important decisions in their lives.
Before starting seminary Bergoglio finished his studies and training in the lab. He breathed not a word about his vocational plans to the people around him as his thoughts formulated within. He slowly began to step back, desiring a purposeful solitude to help him solidify his plans.
The four years before he entered seminary were a time of great reflection. During that period he formed his political identity and studied certain cultural matters that greatly interested him. When he finally took the next step, Jorge Mario had experienced what life outside of religious service was like, and he had something with which to compare life inside the Catholic Church. While there is no proof to support their claims, some have asserted that in this time frame he flirted with politics and was active in Peronist youth movements, similar in many ways to fascist Italian youth movements.
At age twenty-one, Bergoglio entered seminary and chose the Order of the Jesuits. He first enrolled in the archdiocesan seminary of Buenos Aires but was eventually drawn to the seminary of the Society of Jesus.
In the second part of this book, the Society of Jesus is discussed in depth, but it is worth mentioning here the incredible power and prestige that the Society of Jesus has had in Latin America. It was the followers of St. Ignatius of Loyola who served as the pope's army to stop the Protestant Reformation in Europe and as a tremendous evangelizing force throughout Asia and the Americas. That small group of priests, who used their famous spiritual exercises to seek an encounter with God through a personal spiritual experience, became the cultural elite and the pope's vanguard. They have always followed the pope in absolute obedience.
Jorge Mario Bergoglio recognized that what most attracted him to the Society of Jesus was the discipline it required:
Honestly I didn't really have a clue what direction to go in. What was clear was my religious vocation. In the end, ... I joined the Society of Jesus, attracted by how they are a force for advancing the Church, speaking in military terms, growing through obedience and discipline. And therefore they are oriented toward missionary work. Over time, I wanted to go on mission to Japan, where the Jesuits have been doing very important work for a long time. But because of the severe health problems I've had since I was young, I wasn't allowed to go. Quite a few people would've been free of me if I'd been sent over there, wouldn't they?
The first few years in seminary were hard for the young Jorge Mario. His mother did not accompany him to enroll that first year. She later became used to her son's vocation but only from a distance. When he was ordained as a priest, she attended the ordination and, at the end of the ceremony, knelt to ask for his blessing.
Through it all, as Jorge Mario Bergoglio recounted to the journalist Sergio Rubin, God's calling was irresistible:
Religious vocation is God's calling on a heart that is waiting for it, knowingly or not. I've always been struck by a reading from the breviary that says that Jesus looked at Matthew with an expression that, when translated, would be something like "mercying" and choosing. That is precisely how I felt God was looking at me during that confession. And that's the way he always asks me to look at others: with great mercy and as if I were choosing them for him; not excluding anyone, because all are chosen to love God. "Mercying and choosing him" was the theme of my consecration as bishop and is central to my religious experience.
One of Pope Francis's ideas about vocation, or God's calling, comes from the prophecies of Jeremiah and his vision of the branch of an almond tree, the first to flower in spring (Jer. 1:11). Another is from a paraphrase of the apostle John: "God loved us first; love consists of this, that God loved us first."
To find God, we must stop and listen. There is no other way. Young Bergoglio came to this understanding of God as he sought a haven for rest. For him, prayer is far from being merely a way of asking God for things. Prayer, above all, is a form of submission. When we admit our powerlessness, God acts in our lives.
Jorge Mario Bergoglio has always had a deep appreciation for being knowledgeable. His educational background is well-rounded, and he is, in a way, a man of both science and letters. He has been both a student and a strict professor.
At the beginning of his ecclesiastical career, Bergoglio had to face a difficult lesson, perhaps the most difficult of all: pain. Fearing death during a long, agonizing illness that included high fevers, he clung to his mother and anxiously asked what was happening to him. The doctor, however, had no diagnosis for his illness, so his mother could not answer her son's fearful question.
Many times in the face of pain we ask, why? Why am I suffering? Why do I have to die? Why did these people I love so much have to die and in such a painful way? Humans want to discover the reason for their suffering. Yet God seems to be focused less on why and more interested in our reactions to pain.
Jorge Mario was suffering intense, unbearable pain. At age twenty-one he was a strong young man who felt God's calling on his life. Yet this same God seemed to have thrown him onto a bed of agony. Bergoglio said those who came to see him in the hospital repeatedly said things were going to get better, that his pain would go away, yet their words held little comfort for him. Then a nun he had known since he was a child said something that quieted both his body and soul. "She told me something that really stuck with me and gave me a lot of peace. She said I was imitating Jesus."
Jorge Mario was learning the most important lesson of his life: pain and suffering draw us closer to God. Through the incarnate Jesus Christ, God had suffered. How then could the future pope ask for a life without suffering? Physical limitation stayed with him the rest of his life and ended his hopes of mission work in Japan, but it showed him a path that he would otherwise never have trod. He expressed it in the following words:
Pain is not a virtue in and of itself, but the way we deal with it can be virtuous. Our vocation is fullness and joy, and along the way, pain is a border, a limiting factor. Therefore, we understand the sense of pain in fullness through the pain of God in Christ.
Bergoglio's words seem out of place today. We live in a hedonist society in which pleasure seems to be the only goal of humanity. People constantly anesthetize themselves to both physical and emotional pain. Yet when we lose the capacity to feel pain and suffering, we cease to be truly human. Though perhaps one of the least publicized, this is one of the greatest teachings of Christianity.
The other great lesson Bergoglio learned through this experience was not to wallow in the pain. In view of what Christ underwent on the cross, there is a resurrection for Christians after the pain. As he described it, "That's why I think the key is to understand the cross as a seed of resurrection. Every attempt to endure pain produces only partial results unless it is based on transcendence." His theological education taught him how to construct and order this experience, but it could not provide the experience.
Bergoglio first studied in the Jesuit seminary of Santiago, Chile, which was located in the old retreat house of San Alberto Hurtado. This was a special place for the Jesuits. San Alberto Hurtado was a Chilean Jesuit who founded the Hogar de Cristo, "Home of Christ." Besides being a well-known Jesuit, Hurtado spent his life improving the situation of Chilean workers. His spiritual director, the Jesuit Fernando Vives, had taught him the importance of social responsibility.
Excerpted from FRANCIS MAN OF PRAYER by MARIO ESCOBAR. Copyright © 2013 by Mario Escobar Golderos. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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