A pope of the people
“I know that guy!” was my first reaction to our new Pope Francis I.
Like many people around the globe, I was anxiously awaiting the white smoke from the make-shift chimney atop the Sistine Chapel. I could not return to my work until I knew who the new pope would be.
A group of us at the provincial headquarters of the Claretian Missionaries in Chicago had just finished lunch when the white smoke appeared. When the new pope finally came out, wearing his white robes and simple cross, I was surprised that none of the so called “front-runners” made it.
I was even more surprised that the one chosen, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the Jesuit archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, was someone I had met in my previous job as a member of the general government of my religious congregation of Claretian Missionaries.
In that capacity, I lived in Rome for 12 years and, together with the other members of the General Council, was responsible for visiting our missionaries in the 63 countries where we are present and report on their missionary activity. This included Argentina. Part of my visitation was to present myself to the local ordinary and get his take on the work of our missionaries. So meeting the cardinal of Buenos Aires was just part of my job.
My brother missionaries from Argentina had told me that when it comes to bishops, he was “one of the good ones.” He lived a simple life, rode the bus to work, and spoke up in defense of the poor.
When I went to the chancery office to meet him, I never expected that he would be the one to answer the door and welcome me. Apparently, it was a holiday for the office workers, and the cardinal had come to do some work and meet with me. We were alone in the building and spoke for about an hour. It was a joy to talk with him and hear his views about our missionaries, the local church, and his relationship with the Vatican.
I left deeply impressed by his steadfast love for the church and his desire to give a good example for his priests and his people. From our conversation I learned that he saw himself as somewhat of an outsider to the normal Vatican politics and that the best place to find Christ is to ride the buses of Buenos Aires.
He is a man of the people, and I pray that he will be a pope of the people as well. I am so impressed that our cardinals chose a man like him. The fact that he is Latin American just makes him all the more endearing for me.
I’m just glad that they chose a man of deep prayer and conviction. Like many of the people of his archdiocese and city, I feel fortunate to have met him before he became pope.
My Claretian brothers in Argentina were quick to put up a picture of us with the then-Cardinal on their website. Pope Francis probably does not remember my visit with him, but his kindness toward me and his simple gestures of humility and reverence for the people make me want to be a better priest.
2004 photo by the Claretians.
From left: Father Rosendo Urrabazo, C.M.F. with then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires; Father Carlos Xavier Fernandez, C.M.F., at the time the provincial of the Argentine Province of the Claretians; and Father Gustavo Larrazábal, C.M.F., then the director of the publishing house Editorial Claretiana, which has published the new pope's books in Argentina.