Greetings from The Pampas from a Pallottine Father who has spent 42 years ministering in parishes in Argentina which has been served by that order since 1929, where Spanish is the spoken language.
I would love to join the Argentinian families who will attend the World Meeting of Families in Ireland this week but will not be able to travel. My fellow priest Fr. Johnny Sweeney will be in Dublin to assist at Mass with Pope Francis from Argentina. (Fr. Sweeney is from Doon and came here 3 years ago and is happy to be here).
On the day of his consecration as Bishop he came across as dour and distant but it wasn’t long before I changed my mind about my first impression of him. When he came to preside at a Confirmation Mass he declined the offer of transport and opted to come under his own steam firstly by train and then by bus No. 76. He recalled many visits to St Patrick’s Parish, one of the 200 parishes in the 11 million packed Capitol of the Pampas. His most poignant memory was of the funeral Mass for the 5 Pallottines who were killed by the military on the 4/7/1976.He had been Spiritual Director to Fr. Alfie Kelly one of the slain whose grandparents emigrated to Argentina from Westmeath . At a Mass to commemorate those who died he said “That the parish had been blessed by the lifestyle of those who lived together and died side by side. I got to know them through Fr. Alfie who had a kind and generous heart”.
Buenos Aires has over 200 parishes and 1000 priests but Bishop Bergoglio knew each one of them by their first name and was a regular visitor to every parish, prison and homes for the elderly and under-privileged. On Holy Thursday he would visit the prison in Villa Devoto and wash the feet of 12 inmates and then join them for Mate-a herbal tea traditional to Argentina.
His free time was spent visiting the priests and the sick who were housebound browse in bookshops, walk Avenida de Mayo and enjoy 2 portions of pizza and a glass of wine on his way home, these meagre indulgences he missed, ‘being away from his dear Buenos Aires’- as he mentioned in a recent interview.
He was the superior of The Jesuit order in Argentina and a teacher. Before his appointment as Bishop he gave retreats. He is highly respected by his fellow bishops in Argentina and South America He was selected to prepare the final document with other Bishops at the Latin American and Caribbean bishops Conference held in Brazil from 13- 31 of May 2007. Brazil alone has 261 dioceses and over 400 catholic bishops. This handbook is used for Catholic teaching and pastoral activity in the church. He also had a very positive relationship with other creeds based on dialogue and praying together in public. Pope Francis and Rabbi Abraham Skorka co-wrote a book on Judaism and Roman Catholicism. He travelled to Malmo, Sweden on 31/10/2016 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Luther’s protest at Wittenberg in 1517. Speaking in Spanish he mentioned two positive consequences of the Reformation. He said “While separation has led to suffering and misunderstanding it has also led us to recognise honestly that without Jesus we can do nothing and it has enabled us to understand better aspects of our faith” and also “helped give greater certainty to Sacred Scripture in the Churches life”, he said.
He participated in the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in Buenos Aires and was quite close to some of the Pastors in particular the Anglican Pastor of St. Saviours Parish, Rev. Charlie Halperin who retired at 75 and was placed in a nursing home by his Anglican community. Cardinal Bergoglio visited him and sensing Charlie’s unhappiness in his new abode transferred him to the home for retired priests in Buenos Aires where he lived happily with the other priests. This he did with the blessing of the Anglican Community. Sadly Charlie didn’t live to see his friend and Good Samaritan elected Pope on the 13/3/2013.
In 2010 Fr. Jacob Nampudakam S.C.A invited Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio to visit him at the Pallottine Head house in Rome and he accepted and joined the community for Mass and Supper and in turn invited Jacob to visit him when he came on Pastoral visitation to the 10 Pallottine Communities in Argentina. So in 2011 Fr. Jacob arrived in Buenos Aires and requested a visit to the cardinal and he acceded to his wish and I went with him. On leaving him he accompanied us to the street below, showed us some of the sights of Plaza de Mayo, thanked us for visiting him and bade us “Adios”. Jacob mentioned that it was the first time that a bishop (and he visit`s over 20 every year as superior of the Order) had accompanied him to his car on leaving The Curia.
On the 30/12/2004 194 people died and over 300 were injured in a fierce fire that took place in Republica Cromagnon dance hall in the centre of Buenos Aires. He met with their family members and supported their cause and fight for justice. If he couldn’t meet them in person he ensured that an auxiliary Bishop met them in his name. Thanks to his support and encouragement those responsible were imprisoned and the families got some compensation.
The humility of the man and his lack of value on worldly goods is demonstrated by his silver episcopal ring and his well-worn old black shoes-the latter he requested to be sent to Rome from his bedroom in Argentina. When requested by a bishop to appoint 12 monsignors for a particular diocese he refused saying that “All priests should be treated equally”.
On his birthday he shares breakfast with a group of homeless people and they are invited to stay on and cut the birthday cake with him. He has made sure that those who live rough in the area are provided with proper toilets and hygiene facilities giving these unfortunate people proper dignity.
His kindness to a Swiss Guard further demonstrates his humanity. Noticing that the guard was in a state of collapse he provided him with a chair. When the guard protested that he was on duty and couldn’t accept the help the Pope assured him that he would make thing okay with his boss. On another occasion noticing a guard who hadn’t eaten for a time he personally provided him with a sandwich.
I set out to provide a pen picture of a much beloved Pope Francis, his humility, his humanity, his kindness, his generosity and his strong faith, I hope I have succeeded. Without a doubt since being elected he has not changed his lifestyle but has shown a humbler, less formal approach to his office than his predecessors-a warm style that has been referred to as “no frills”. His common touch and insistence that the church be more open and welcoming has quickly endeared him not only to Roman Catholics but to millions of others around the world.
Fr. Tom O’Donnell, SAC,