Sunday 1 February 2015

The year Pope Francis came to live in Dublin

January 1980 marked a bleak beginning to a new decade in Ireland. Recession gripped the streets. The new year celebrations were short-lived as Charlie Haughey made his infamous television address to the nation warning that the country was living "away beyond our means".

The euphoria surrounding the visit of Pope John Paul II a few months earlier was all but a distant memory as families waved goodbye to their emigrant children after Christmas.

But amid the leafy avenues of Dublin 6, an Argentinian by the name of Jorge Mario Bergoglio had just landed in town.

Despite the economic anguish that engulfed the city, the imposing period homes and manicured parks of this affluent suburb must have seemed like a world away from the gritty barrios of Buenos Aires he called home.

And the shopkeepers of Ranelagh and local people he asked for directions as he strolled the tree-lined streets could never have imagined that this shy South American student would one day become pope.

But tomorrow morning, when Francis delivers his first Urbi et Orbi message to Rome and the world, listen out for his Irish brogue. For it was here, in Dublin, that the first pontiff of the New World learned his English.

Leaving the heat of the Argentine summer behind, he arrived at the prestigious Jesuit Centre in the Milltown Institute during the frosty days of winter to immerse himself in a language course with a local teacher.

At the time, the college of philosophy on the rambling Sandford Road campus was a hive of academic activity with Jesuit students coming from all corners of the earth to attend courses.

Nobody who lives there today remembers meeting their Latino colleague, but the July 1980 edition of the Jesuit bulletin, the Irish Province News, notes that among the "constant stream of visitors who found hospitality with us we may mention Fr Jorge Bergoglio, ex Provincial of Argentina and Rector of our Theologate in Buenos Aires".

An old ledger belonging to the community reveals that on January 21 he went to the bursar and borrowed £14 to buy language tapes.

At the time, Pope Francis was 43 and had just completed a seven-year spell as provincial (head) of the Jesuit order in Argentina. He left for Ireland at a time of profound danger in his home country, during the brutal military dictatorship.

During his three-month stay in Dublin, he attended daily classes and prayers, and in the evening mingled with other visiting students or was sat studying and reading in his room.

Fr Conall O'Cuinn SJ, the current rector of the Milltown community, which is the biggest Jesuit house in Ireland and home to 34 priests, was one of the first to discover the new pope had once stayed among them.

"When we found out he had stayed here with us, we were very excited," he says.

The origins of the Milltown Institute can be traced back to the 1880s when the Jesuits founded a School of Philosophy and Theology there.

Despite the changes to the campus since Bergoglio's visit, many of the buildings that he used during his stay are still the same: the vast dining room with its spotless parquet floors and huge arched windows, the marble-walled chapel, the heart of daily life for the community, and the magnificent library, which contains an exhaustive collection of theology tomes, including one written by the new pope shortly after his Irish visit.

While many of the bedrooms have been renovated, he stayed in a basic single room with little more than a lamp and chair for furnishings, in keeping with his austere tastes.

Irish Independent

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