An Argentine perspective on the new pope
Santiago Legarre, Faculty Contributor
I took my nephews to the Miami Seaquarium on Wednesday, March 13. I never would have dreamed that a few hours later I would receive the announcement that my compatriot Jorge Mario Bergoglio—my archbishop for some 15 years—had been elected as the new pope.
After returning from that watery, killer whalely entertainment, I was having a cup of coffee with my youngest sister. She lives in Florida with her husband and their 8 children (the rest of our family lives in Buenos Aires). Suddenly, my mother called from Argentina. She sounded very excited as she yelled over the phone to “turn on the TV: We have a new Pope!”
When the name of the new pontiff was proclaimed, we could not hear it very well. As a man in white emerged from the balcony, the reporter indicated that the new pope was Cardinal Bergoglio. I told my sister, “That is not him.” I thought this for three reasons: First, the white cassock confused me; second, the journalist confused me—he was hesitant and utterly surprised; third, and most significant, the person now speaking from the balcony had a broad, sweet smile.
Why did that smile strike me as surprising? I had some opportunities to see Cardinal Bergoglio at the annual Corpus Christi procession and at the Mass in honor of Saint Josemaría Escrivá that he sometimes celebrated in the Metropolitan Cathedral. I even spoke to him briefly once. His serious demeanor had always caught my eye, so I had some reason not to recognize that iridescent smile flowing from the balcony. Had I been misled in my previous observations, or was this a changed man? I am inclined toward the latter.
A few days before the conclave John Allen had stated in the National Catholic Reporter that some fellow Jesuits of the then-Cardinal would have asserted that “he never smiled” when he was the Provincial of the Order in Argentina.
Allen’s remark, which I read only after the election, confirmed my initial gut feeling. He was the same person, but now had been changed by the Holy Spirit. Such a drastic change in such a short period of time could not be produced by mere human will. For me this was a plausible reinforcement of my faith in God and in the Church. Even more so when this apparent change was confirmed in the subsequent days in which the same, radiant smile was featured everywhere.
I knew then in Miami, as I was headed to Notre Dame, that my trip had changed too. From now on I would be “the Argentine.” Everyone would—and did—ask me about the Argentine pope. And here I am writing this article at the kind request of the editors of the Rover.
I suppose that an Argentine can say more than others about Cardinal Bergoglio (though not much more than others about Pope Francis). Much of what I, as an Argentine, could say about Cardinal Bergoglio, however, you could read in the news. So let me give you a couple of first-hand (or more or less first-hand) anecdotes.
One of my outstanding Argentine students, Nacho Ibarzábal, founded “Grupo Sólido” a few years ago, an Argentine love and fidelity network similar to the one based in Princeton. (I wouldn’t like to be accused of an oversimplification, so you may want to check their webpage: http://www.gruposolido.org/). In 2011 Grupo Sólido put on a fundraiser in Washington DC. George Weigel was one of the keynote speakers at the event. After the event, he asked Nacho, “Does Cardinal Bergoglio know about these great things you are doing?” As soon as he returned to Buenos Aires, and with Weigel’s encouragement, Nacho wrote a formal letter to the Cardinal describing the group. As is customary, the letter included his contact details. Shortly after, he got a call on his cell phone: “Hello, this is Jorge Bergoglio. Thank you for your letter. Would you like to meet to talk about Grupo Sólido?” These were the simple words of someone who was already a public figure of remarkable significance in Argentina. The meeting, I’m told, was as simple and as agreeable as the telephone conversation.
My friend Jorge Rouillón, a journalist who covers religious affairs for one of the leading Argentine newspapers, had known Cardinal Bergoglio for decades. His older articles on the then-Cardinal are now being reprinted in Argentina and all around the world. When I gave him a celebratory call from Miami on the day of the election, he told me this revealing anecdote. Not many years ago he received a call from the archbishop: Cardinal Bergoglio was going to say Mass at a side chapel of the Cathedral and he was wondering whether Rouillón (my friend) would like to be the altar server. After the Mass had taken place, Monsignor Bergoglio asked the routine question, “How are you doing?” My friend, however, was very specific and shared with him that he was a bit (perhaps excessively) worried about a minor surgery that he might have to undergo. A few months later the two Jorges met again. The first words of the archbishop were: “So Jorge, do I still need to pray for your gallbladder?”
Perhaps this last anecdote may serve well to close these lines. The idea of a “cordial memory”—the notion that he, who we today call Pope Francis, remembers those things that he holds dear—should be quite comforting now for all Catholics. For all men and women of good will that idea, coupled with the generous smile of the new Pope, gives further reason to believe that, contrary to common perceptions, God indeed lingers in our midst.
Santiago Legarre is a Visiting Professor at the Law School, teaching an enthralling class titled Law and Morality in Contemporary Jurisprudence. Contact him at email@example.com.