Pontiff has special affinity for poor

“How I wish for a poor Church and a Church for the poor,” Pope Francis told some 6,000 journalists and media operators from 81 countries on March 16, in his first public audience since his election as pope three days earlier. 

That concern for the poor has been a constant in Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s life as priest, bishop and cardinal and it will, I am sure, also be one of the hallmarks of his pontificate.

Simple lifestyle

On becoming archbishop of Buenos Aires in 1998, Bergoglio moved from the archbishop’s palace to the diocesan curial offices in the city and took up residence there in a small two-room apartment: a bedroom with a shower and a private study where he read books and listened to music.  

When Pope John Paul II named him cardinal on Feb. 21, 2001, he took the cassock of his late predecessor, Cardinal Antonio Quarracino, and asked a seamstress to alter it to his size. He did not want to spend money on a new cassock so as not to divert funds that could be used to assist the many poor people in Buenos Aires, a city of some 12 million people.  

On hearing the news of Cardinal Bergoglio’s elevation, many Argentineans began making plans to travel to Rome to celebrate with him. But he instructed those booking flights and hotel rooms to instead give to the poor the money they had expected to spend on that trip.  

Pope Francis did exactly the same on March 13, hours after his election as pope. He phoned the apostolic nuncio in Buenos Aires, Archbishop Paul Tscherrig, and asked him to tell people there who were planning to travel to Rome for his inauguration not to come and instead to donate to the poor the money they would have spent on that trip. Most followed his instructions, including his sister. 

Just call him ‘padre’

On his return to Buenos Aires after receiving the red hat in 2001, people began calling the future pope “cardinal” or “your eminence,” but Bergoglio rapidly corrected that by telling them: “The name of Father — Padre — is more than adequate; it conveys what we should be as priests.” As a result everybody in Argentina calls him “Padre Bergoglio” or “Padre Jorge.” Indeed, until his election as pope, whenever he answered the phone, he would always respond as “Padre Bergoglio.” 

When Cardinal Bergoglio made the 13-hour flight from Buenos Aires to Rome, he would always travel economy class, wherever possible buying a low-cost ticket. He always sought to avoid being given places of privilege or honor; his preference is always for the lower place beside the nobodies of this world.

Frequent visitor

Pope Francis is a man who has walked the streets of Buenos Aires. He has seen the young and old cartoneros, or trash pickers, gathering cardboard boxes and newspapers on the streets every day in a desperate search to make enough money to buy food for their families.  

The new pope is a priest who has regularly gone into the shantytowns, where so many people live in poverty, to be close to them and to the many priests he has sent there to minister to them. On Dec. 8, 2012, for example, he visited the shantytown Villa 21, and gave the Sacrament of Confirmation to 400 young people and many adults too. Villa 21 is one of several shantytowns on the outskirt of the Argentine capital. More than 70,000 people live there, and Padre Bergoglio, a frequent visitor, is well-known and loved by its inhabitants.  

As archbishop, Bergoglio always traveled to the shantytowns by public transport, often to celebrate Mass, and to baptize and confirm the people. Afterward, he usually stayed to eat with them in their festive celebrations. He has told the priests who work in those shantytowns that he is always available to come and help them; they have the priority in the busy life of this tireless pastor. 

For this reason there was tremendous rejoicing not only in the shantytowns of Buenos Aires, but across the whole of Argentina and much farther afield, too, when the news broke that the cardinals in conclave had chosen Bergoglio as pope: the first pope from the New World, the pope of the poor. 

Gerard O’Connell writes from Rome.