Saturday 20 January 2018

Cardinal Jorge faced up to Argentina's drug barons – so I don't think the Vatican is going to be a problem

On a wet Wednesday night in Rome, when Pope Francis appeared from behind a blood-red velvet curtain and stepped on to the balcony of St Peter's Basilica for the first time, he seemed almost as dazed as the thousands gathered below that he had been chosen to lead the Catholic Church.

The unassuming cardinal from Buenos Aires was barely on the radar of the religious pundits and featured on none of the front-runner lists.

Even seasoned Vatican observers had not entertained the chances of the "man from the other end of the world" becoming the 266th Pontiff. But in Dublin's seaside suburb of Shankill, an old pal of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who was also watching the proceedings, always suspected this moment would come.

Fr John O'Connor, the village's popular parish priest, spent 31 years working in Argentina, and during that time developed a family friendship with Cardinal Bergoglio, or Fr Jorge as he is known at home.

They first met in the late 1970s when the new Pontiff was Jesuit Provincial for Argentina. Fr John knew instantly that he was in the presence of somebody very special. As he got to know him better, when Fr Jorge was appointed auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires, he felt that one day he would be destined for Rome.

"I met him first because his niece and nephew were neighbours of mine," Fr John recalls.

The Dublin native went on to become parish priest of St Patrick's church in the bustling Argentine capital.

"I met him a lot more after that when I was in the parish of San Patricio and I would have celebrated Mass with him on a number of occasions.

"I always thought he was a very nice person and highly intelligent, but when he became bishop, I was so struck by his tremendous humility. You knew that this was someone very special.

"The thing that I found most extraordinary about him was his simplicity. He was never into all of the regalia. He had a very simple way of dressing, wearing just a grey suit and collar. He would always use public transport and lived in a very plain flat in the archdiocese offices."

As he adjusts to his new life in the Vatican, the first Jesuit Pope will wake up next week to an in-tray bursting with requests from royalty, heads of state and church leaders to meet him.

But those who know him well say he will be longing to be with those he feels his strongest obligation and connection to: the least privileged in his midst. In his home country, he has been vocal in defending church doctrine, frequently speaking out against socially liberal policies, but he is equally passionate about shifting the focus back to the needy.

Last year, he accused fellow religious leaders in Argentina of hypocrisy, reminding them that Jesus Christ bathed lepers and ate with prostitutes.

"He is very much at home with the poor," says Fr John. "In Buenos Aires, some of the priests of the archdiocese work in the villas de miserias – or shanty towns. It is a difficult situation for them as the drug lords are very present there.

"Fr Jorge was well known for dropping in and paying the priests a visit, checking on their well-being and defending their presence there. He would say Mass sometimes. He put himself in dangerous positions but he was always there to protect his priests and encourage them and be with them.

"Every priest in town had his personal phone number and they could call him any time of the day or night if they had a problem. He was always available for them. He would speak to them personally and listen to their needs.

"Then he would write down their requests in a notebook and would always follow through on whatever they needed. He was the sort of person who could make things happen.

"And he was always someone who led by example. He talked the talk but he also walked the walk. His fellow cardinals saw a man who is living the Gospel and the Gospel values, and that is why they chose him."

Although the new Pope has a preference for sitting in silence at the back row of meetings, and rarely doing interviews, he is said to be a superb negotiator and hugely popular with his fellow religious.

But some early assessments of the world's first Latin American Pope suggest he will be something of a fish out of water in Rome and might prove a pushover in the eyes of the curia, the powerful governing body of the Holy See. Fr John dismisses those portrayals.

"Anyone who thinks that is in for a very rude awakening. He certainly has the courage of his convictions and would have no problem standing up to anyone. You would swear butter wouldn't melt in his mouth, but he is as tough as nails. He was well able to stand up to politicians and drug lords in Argentina, so he will be able to deal with the Vatican. He will be the boss. He's a good Jesuit.

"He is also highly respected and very much admired by his priests, which is unusual. We once asked him what the relationship should be between priests and their bishop, and he replied – quick as a flash – saying my priests are my parish.

"He knew that if his priests were happy, his parishioners would be, too. His priests were his priority because they were the ones working at the coalface so he always made sure they were looked after."

Fr John is sure the world will see a very different papacy in the coming months and years, unlike anything witnessed before. Even within the first few days of his tenure, the 76-year-old Pontiff has tried to eschew the trappings of luxury synonymous with his new job, shunning security and limousines, and opting for simple robes.

"That's how it will stay," says Fr John. "Knowing him, I imagine he won't even want to live in the papal apartments. If you watch the way he will dress and so on, he will shun all sorts of superfluous stuff.

"We've seen it already when, on his first morning as Pope, he picked up his own stuff, packed his bags himself and paid his bill.

"He won't be returning to Buenos Aires to pick up his belongings but I'm sure he has very little there anyway. He has absolutely no interest in material things.

"But there are difficult times ahead for him. He's a prisoner now. He would love to be able to wander around the streets of Rome but he won't be allowed. He's a head of state. It won't be easy for him but he will do his duty.

"He will travel not because he loves travelling but because he has to. He loved nothing more than to be in Buenos Aires with his people, and I suspect a little part of him will always be hankering to be back with them while he is in Rome."

Irish Independent

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