Amedeo Lomonaco/Vatican News

THE VATICAN — In his homily on the occasion of the ordinary public consistory, February 21, 2001, Pope John Paul II stressed that it was a special day: “Today is a great celebration for the universal church, which is enriched by 44 new cardinals.” Among the new cardinals was the then-Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who would be elected Supreme Pontiff on March 13, 2013.

Pope John Paul II embraces then Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio
CNA photo

           Pronouncing words that already looked to the future, Pope John Paul said, “This morning ‘Catholic’ Rome warmly embraces the new cardinals with the same enthusiasm, knowing that another important page of her 2,000-year history is being written. The mystical barque of the church,” he added, “is preparing anew ‘to put out into the deep,’ to bring the message of salvation to the world. Together let us unfurl her sails to the wind of the Spirit, examining the signs of the times and interpreting them in the light of the Gospel, to answer ‘the ever recurring questions which men ask about the meaning of this present life and of the life to come’ (Gaudium et spes, n. 4).”

          Twenty years ago is a distant but still relevant date. Referring once more to Gaudium et spes, Pope John Paul in his consistorial address said, “The world is becoming ever more complex and changeable, and the acute awareness of the existing discrepancies creates or increases contradictions and imbalances.” That world, like today’s world shaken by the pandemic and a rampant culture of waste often denounced by Pope Francis, was in need of love.

          “It thirsts for a heart that welcomes, that opens doors,” for a “healing of the human person through hospitable love,” the Archbishop of Buenos Aires wrote on March 28, 2001, in a message addressed to educational communities. His heart beat for wounded and discarded humanity, for a humanity that can be welcomed by a church that would be “a field hospital,” but also by a “poor church for the poor.”

          When Jorge Mario Bergoglio — born on 17 December 1936 in Buenos Aires into a family of Piedmontese emigrants — was appointed archbishop of the Argentine capital on February 28,1998, he chose to live in a flat and to prepare his own meals. “My people are poor,” he once said, explaining his decision, “and I am one of them.”

          As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio envisaged a missionary program centered on communion and evangelization. The program had four main objectives: open and fraternal communities; the leading role of a conscientious laity; evangelization aimed at every inhabitant of the city; and assistance to the poor and the sick.

          Ordained a priest on December 13, 1969, four days before his 33rd birthday, Cardinal Bergoglio always indicated to his priests the path of mercy, open doors and compassion. When he ascended the throne of Peter, he kept the motto of the coat of arms he had chosen for his episcopal consecration: “miserando atque eligendo” — “by having mercy and by choosing,” from a homily by St Bede. Mercy has a special significance in his spiritual journey. On the feast of St. Matthew in 1953, the young Jorge Bergoglio experienced, at the age of 17, in a very special way, the loving presence of God in his life. On that day, he felt his heart touched. He felt the descent of God's mercy calling him to religious life following the example of St Ignatius of Loyola; and on March 11, 1958, he entered the Society of Jesus as a novice.

         During his years as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio was a leading figure in Latin America. A much-loved pastor in his own diocese, he traveled far and wide, often by metro and bus. Before leaving for Rome for the consistory of  February 21, 2001, he did not buy new robes, but had those of his predecessor, Antonio Quarracino — who had died in 1998 — altered. Pope John Paul II assigned him the title of cardinal-priest of the Roman Church of San Roberto Bellarmino, dedicated to the Jesuit saint and doctor of the church.

          Perusing the homilies and speeches delivered by Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, themes and reflections that are also central to his pontificate are evident. At the Easter Vigil of 15 April 2001, the Archbishop of Buenos Aires stressed that "we live in a situation in which we need a lot of memory." One must therefore "remember, carry in one's heart the great spiritual reserve of our people." These words are linked to the invitation, expressed several times during his pontificate, to reinforce the sense of "belonging to the people," to "be mindful of the people of God." In a letter addressed to catechists, published in August 2002, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio quotes the saint who would be a source of inspiration for his pontificate. "To adore," he writes in the letter, "is to approach unity, it is to discover that we are children of the same father, members of the same family… It is as St Francis discovered: singing praises united to all creation and to all men."

          In 2003, during the celebration of the Te Deum, the primate of Argentina stressed that we are called to reject what he, as pontiff, would define on several occasions as a “culture of waste.” The inclusion or exclusion of the most fragile, he said on May 25 of that year, "defines all economic, political, social and religious projects. Every day we all face the choice of being good Samaritans or indifferent travelers who pass by."

          “To protect” is one of the words that can help interpret the pontificate of Pope Francis. On 25 March 2004, the day of the Day of the Unborn Child, the Archbishop of Buenos Aires expressed the hope that the Virgin Mary "might make attitudes of tenderness, hope and patience grow in our hearts to protect every human life, especially the most fragile, the most marginalized, the least able to defend itself."

          Among the afflictions Jorge Bergoglio denounced repeatedly as cardinal, and later as Pope, are those of poverty and injustice. In 2007, speaking at the Aparecida Conference, he denounced ever more severe inequality: "This globalization as an economic and social ideology," he said, "has negatively affected our poorest sectors. The injustices and inequalities are ever greater and deeper . . . The powerful eat the weakest. As a consequence of this situation, large masses of the population are excluded and marginalized."

          In 2008, reflecting on the theme "culture and popular religiosity," the Archbishop of Buenos Aires stressed that "a culture of death" is advancing. Among the most obvious signs of this culture are the increase in poverty and the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, but also environmental pollution, as the encyclical Laudato sí reminds us several times. Another distinctive feature of Pope Francis' pontificate is linked to the concept of fraternity, which is at the heart of the encyclical Fratelli tutti. "Brotherhood in love as Jesus lived it relieves us, makes the yoke light," Cardinal Bergoglio said on May 25, 2011, during the celebration of the Te Deum. “God does not tire of forgiving, it is we who grow tired of asking for forgiveness.”

          Before leaving for Rome for the 2013 conclave, the Archbishop of Buenos Aires prepared a homily that he intended to deliver on March 28, 2013, during the Chrism Mass. But on March 13 of that year he ascended to the throne of Peter. The text of the homily, which was not delivered, revolves around a fundamental concept: the church's mission to the peripheries.

         “It is to the peripheries,” the text reads, "that we must go in order to experience our anointing, the power of the Lord and his redemptive efficacy." The path indicated, then, that of a church going forth — "a journey of fraternity, of love, of trust among us,” as Pope Francis recalled on March 13, 2013 in his first greeting as pontiff.