Bea Gormley tells the story of Pope Francis, known as the People’s Pope, who has humbly said, “My people are poor and I am one of them.”
Ordained as Pope on March 13, 2013, Pope Francis became the 266th Pope of the Roman Catholic Church. Known worldwide for his great humility and approachability, he is the first citizen from the Americas, the first non-European, and first Jesuit priest to be named Pope.
Gormley explores the pontif’s early years, growing up as the eldest of five children of Italian immigrants in Argentina, working as a chemical technician before venturing in the priesthood as a Jesuit novice. He went from Bishop to Archbishop to Cardinal—and gained a reputation for personal humility, doctrinal conservatism, and a commitment to social justice, which stands to this day.
Named Person of the Year by Time magazine in December 2013, Pope Francis remains outspoken in support of the world’s poor and marginalized people, and he has been involved actively in areas of political diplomacy and environmental advocacy.
Pope Francis CHAPTER 1 A POPE OF SURPRISES IN SPITE OF THE RAIN, one hundred and fifty thousand people thronged St. Peter’s Square, in Vatican City, on the evening of March 13, 2013. Many of them had been waiting all day, huddled under umbrellas. Around the globe—in Manila, the Philippines; in Nairobi, Kenya; in Buenos Aires, Argentina—Catholics were gathered in public places. Or they were in their homes and offices, staring at TV screens or hunched over their cell phones. They were all waiting to find out who the new pope would be.
Twitter feeds buzzed with guesses. Most popes of the last two thousand years had been Italian, and the Italian favored this year was Cardinal Angelo Scola, archbishop of Milan. Some felt it was time for a Latin American to head the Roman Catholic Church, and the name they talked about most was Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer, archbishop of São Paulo, Brazil. Or perhaps a pope from the United States? An unlikely pick, but still considered a possibility, was Cardinal Sean O’Malley, archbishop of Boston.
All that the people waiting could do was guess, because the 115 cardinals gathered to elect the new pope were locked inside the Sistine Chapel. They were sworn to absolute secrecy, and they had no way to communicate with the outside, other than smoke. For many centuries, at the end of a day’s voting, the electors had signaled the results through the chapel’s chimney. If white smoke appeared, that meant a pope had been chosen. If black smoke, the voting would continue the next day.
Shortly after seven o’clock, white smoke went up from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel. A pope had been chosen. The mighty bells of St. Peter’s began to clang the good news. The Italian crowd shouted, “Viva il papa!” (“Long live the pope!”) But still no one knew who the new pope was.
More than an hour later, a red-robed cardinal appeared on the central balcony of St. Peter’s. He spoke in Latin, the official language of the Vatican, the governing body of the Catholic Church. He announced that the new pope was Jorge Mario Bergoglio (pronounced “Ber-GOAL-io”), to be called Francis.
Who? Most of the crowd in St. Peter’s Square had no idea who Bergoglio was, or even what part of the world he was from. The name sounded Italian, but he was not one of the Italian cardinals. The TV commentators, who’d thought they were prepared to explain who the new pope was, stammered. They were learning on the fly, along with the rest of the world.
A Google search revealed that Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina. His nickname there was “Bishop of the Slums.” He would be the first pope from South America—in fact, the first from the Americas, as well as the first from the Southern Hemisphere.
More meaningful, perhaps, he was the first pope to choose the name Francis. Saint Francis of Assisi, a thirteenth-century monk, is revered by Catholics, and even by many outside the Catholic Church, as a joyful lover of God’s world. He was a rich young man who willingly threw away his possessions and threw in his lot with the poor.
When Pope Francis himself stepped out on the balcony, the onlookers saw immediately that he was not wearing the pope’s traditional red velvet ermine-trimmed cape. The cross hanging on the chest of his white cassock was not the papal jewel-encrusted gold cross, but one of plain gray metal.
In the dark, wet square, thousands of cell phones flashed like fireflies to capture this historic moment. Francis paused before speaking, looking out over the vast crowd. He gave the sign of blessing. To the millions of Catholics around the world watching this moment on television, his expression was tender, as if he was greeting his beloved family.
“Brothers and sisters,” Pope Francis said in Italian, “good evening.” He joked that his fellow cardinals had to go to the ends of the earth to find a new pope. He led the people in the familiar prayers: the Our Father, the Hail Mary, and the Glory Be.
At the end of his brief appearance, Francis blessed the people in a final prayer, as expected. But first, he asked the people to pray silently for him. The supreme pontiff bowed low, and a hush fell over the amazed crowd. Francis had been the head of the Catholic Church for only a couple of hours, but already he had surprised the world over and over.
• • •
The Argentinian cardinal Jorge Bergoglio had an Italian last name because his family had emigrated from Italy in 1929. Before that, his grandparents Giovanni and Rosa Bergoglio had owned a coffee shop in Turin, in the northwest Piedmont region of Italy. The Bergoglios were reasonably well off, and their twenty-one-year-old son, Mario, had begun a good job at the Bank of Italy. However, they decided to sell their business and leave Italy. Three of Giovanni’s brothers had already moved to Argentina, and Giovanni and Rosa wanted to join them.
In those days, the late 1920s, many Italians thought of Argentina as the land of opportunity. Stretching from the tropics almost to Antarctica, this second-largest South American country was rich in natural resources but sparsely populated. While Italy was suffering through an economic depression, Argentina offered a high standard of living and a good chance to succeed in business.
Furthermore, in Italy the dictator Benito Mussolini had seized power. He turned the country into a police state and would eventually lead Italy into World War II on the side of Nazi Germany. The Bergoglios were eager to escape Mussolini’s fascist regime.
Giovanni and Rosa Bergoglio and their son, Mario, made the trip from Genoa to Buenos Aires in 1929 on the Giulio Cesare. They had originally bought tickets for an earlier ship, the Principessa Mafalda. If they had sailed with that ship, the future Pope Francis’s story might have ended before it began.
The Principessa Mafalda was a luxury liner, but it was old and poorly maintained. On its last voyage, in October 1927, a propeller shaft broke and punctured the hull. The Principessa Mafalda sank near the coast of Brazil, and more than three hundred of its crew and passengers drowned.
But the Bergoglios had delayed their trip, waiting until they could sell their house and coffee shop in Turin. As a result, they made the five-week voyage across the Atlantic safely and arrived at the port of Buenos Aires, Argentina, on February 15, 1929. It was the middle of the summer in the Southern Hemisphere, but Rosa Bergoglio walked down the gangplank wearing her full-length fur coat. Although she must have sweltered in the steamy air, she kept the coat on—the family savings were sewed into its lining.
• • •
The Bergoglios didn’t settle in Buenos Aires, the capital city of Argentina, at first, but traveled on up the Paraná River to the city of Paraná. There Giovanni’s brothers welcomed the newcomers to their four-story, turret-topped home, which they jokingly called the “Palazzo [palace] Bergoglio.” They had built this fine house, equipped with the first elevator in town, with the profits from their paving company.
At that time, Argentina was prosperous from selling exports, including wheat and beef. Its economy was the eighth largest in the world. It seemed that Argentina was on track to become, as some said, “the United States of South America.”
However, the Bergoglios’ comfortable life in Paraná didn’t last long. By 1930 the Great Depression was sweeping over the world. Businesses failed, and workers lost their jobs. European countries no longer had money to buy goods from abroad, including exports from Argentina.
The government of Argentina, weak and corrupt, was unable to steer the country through the crisis. It could not even pay its own employees. In 1930 the army seized control of the government. For more than ten years afterward, the country was ruled by an alliance of the upper class and the military. Elections were held, but they were rigged to get the results the rulers wanted.
Meanwhile, the Great Depression deepened in Argentina as well as the rest of the world. No one had money to spend on paving work, and the Bergoglio paving company went out of business. By 1932, the family was penniless. They had to sell their fine “palazzo” for a tiny fraction of what it was worth. They even had to sell the family tomb. Giovanni, Rosa, and Mario Bergoglio left Paraná and moved to Buenos Aires in search of work.
Luckily, Mario already had a helpful contact in Buenos Aires. On business trips to that city, he had stayed in the guest house of the Salesians of Don Bosco, a teaching order of Catholic priests. Mario had made friends with Father Enrique Pozzoli, who was also his spiritual mentor. And Pozzoli, too, had immigrated to Argentina from Italy, some years ago, so he understood the struggles of immigrants.
When the three Bergoglios arrived in Buenos Aires, Pozzoli took them under his wing. As an important leader in the community, he was able to get them a loan of two thousand pesos, which was enough to buy a warehouse and begin selling goods. Mario could not do the work he was qualified for as a certified accountant, since he did not have Argentinian credentials. But to help support the family, he took any kind of job. He started out making deliveries on a bicycle.
The Bergoglios lived first in Almagro, an Italian working-class section of Buenos Aires. They were devout Catholics, and their social life centered on their church, St. Anthony of Padua. One Sunday in 1934, two of Mario’s friends introduced him to their sister, Regina María Sivori. The father of the Sivori family was of northern Italian descent, and the mother, like the Bergoglios, had emigrated from the Piedmont district of Italy.
The following year, in December 1935, Regina and Mario married. By this time Mario had found better work, as a bookkeeper for various businesses. The young couple were able to buy a modest two-story house at 531 Membrillar in the suburb of Flores. Flores was about five and a half miles from the Plaza de Mayo, the central square of Buenos Aires. In the 1930s, Flores was a lower-middle-class neighborhood, with small houses and unpaved streets.
One year after the wedding, on December 17, 1936, Regina and Mario Bergoglio’s first child was born at home. He was baptized Jorge Mario Bergoglio on Christmas Day, by the family’s good friend and priest, Father Pozzoli. Jorge’s godfather was his maternal grandfather, Francisco Sivori, and his godmother was his paternal grandmother, Rosa Bergoglio.
A year later, Jorge’s brother Óscar was born. To help Regina, Grandmother Rosa picked up little Jorge every morning and took him to her house around the corner. From age one to age five, Jorge spent most of his waking hours with Grandmother Rosa.
Many, many years later, two months after his election as pope, in a speech to a huge assembly in St. Peter’s Square in Rome, Pope Francis would say that everyone finds their faith through another person. “I had the great blessing of growing up in a family in which faith was lived in a simple, practical way. However, it was my paternal grandmother in particular who influenced my journey of faith.”
Beatrice Gormley has written a number of books for young readers, including several titles in the History’s All-Stars series, as well as biographies of Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Laura Bush, and John McCain. She lives in Westport, Massachusetts.
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