The Christmas that Pope Francis held a nation together
It was in 2001 that Jorge Mario Bergoglio really showed his amazing strength of character on the world stage. The highly dramatic year began with a promotion and ended with him calming a storm.
The first months of 2001 were a time of joy and celebration for the then Archbishop of Buenos Aires. On February 21 he was summoned to Rome by Pope John Paul II to be made a cardinal. Bergoglio insisted that no new clothes be bought for him. He asked, instead, that the robes of the previous cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires be altered to fit his size.
Hundreds of Argentines were penny-pinching in order to travel to Rome and see their archbishop get his red hat. But Bergoglio implored them not to spend their cash on plane tickets and hotel rooms. He argued that the money would be better spent on the poor.
This was not merely some soft-hearted sentiment: there were then growing numbers of people living in grinding hardship in Argentina. The country was in its third year of raging recession that was getting worse and worse. In some places, as many as eight out of 10 children were being reared in extreme poverty. High percentages of people were eking out an existence on the streets. It would have gone against everything that Archbishop Bergoglio stood for had his followers paid money for airfare, instead of donating it to needy children.
Archbishop Bergoglio brought one companion to the Eternal City, his beloved sister, María Elena. She was proud as punch seeing him created a cardinal. While they were in Italy, they took a trip to the village in Piedmont where their father was born. The hamlet was where their grandparents had worked so hard running a cafe and their uncles had trained to be confectioners.
Despite his elevated status, Cardinal Bergoglio returned to Buenos Aires to live in his unpretentious apartment. Autumn came and it was time for him to attend the 2001 synod of bishops in Rome. With hardly any notice, it fell on him to serve in a leading role as general relator at the synod. He was asked to take the place of Cardinal Edward Egan, who was compelled to stay in New York following the atrocities of September 11.
Bergoglio had little time to organise the meetings and plan what he would say. He spoke from the heart, as opposed to delivering lectures, and impressed his fellow bishops so much that when they were electing the 15 members of the secretary’s council, he was awarded the highest vote. The part of his speech that stuck in their minds was when he said that each individual bishop is called to be “a prophet of justice”.
Little did he know that just around the corner in December that there would be a great catastrophe which would call on him to demonstrate what the words “prophet of justice” meant by his actions.
Every December is a month packed with anniversaries for Bergoglio. On the 13th he celebrates his ordination to the priesthood, and the 17th is his birthday. In December 2001 he turned 65 and celebrated 32 years as a priest. His three decades as a Jesuit in Argentina had made his political antennae very sensitive. That month he was propelled into the political arena during one of the worse economic storms the world has ever seen.
That month Argentina declared that it would cease paying the interest on the $94 billion that it owed a coterie of banks around the world. Ordinary people, the struggling working- and middle-classes, were the victims. Banks shut their doors, accounts were frozen, wages cut to paltry sums and millions upon millions of people lost their life savings.
That December was a sweltering Buenos Aires summer and tempers flared as hot as the sun. Riots broke out on the streets and there was widespread looting of supermarkets. Looters were joined by tens of thousands of protesters who took to the streets beating pots and pans and waving flags. The air was filled with the unremitting noise of honking car horns. Both aggressive and passive protesters were of one mind: they wanted the resignation of president Fernando de la Rúa.
The police reacted with brute force, employing tear gas and wielding batons. Twenty-seven people were killed by police. From his window, Archbishop Bergoglio saw a woman being beaten by a policeman. He sought to contact a government minister and would not rest until the politician personally answered his call. Bergoglio advised him to instruct the police to make greater distinctions between the group of thugs and vandals who were taking advantage of the chaos and looting goods for the sake of it, and the group of peaceful protesters who wanted to vent their frustration.
His intervention seemed to have an influence and fewer peaceful protesters were subject to sudden attacks from the police. As a direct result of the phone call, it is unknown how many people escaped being battered to death, and are alive today, thanks to the cardinal.
Bergoglio also delivered homilies in which he spoke about the futility of people engaging in violence on the streets as a means of vengeance for the economic punishments visited on them. Fernando de la Rúa resigned on December 21, assuaging the rioters. But de la Rúa was followed by a succession of presidents, none of whom were able to cope and had to flee office. Cardinal Bergoglio was to be the steadfast leader, the voice of calm who had an influence over his flock, the one who didn’t run.
Bergoglio met clusters of lay people who were starting new projects aimed at giving emergency aid to the people who needed it most. He worked with union leaders and acted as a mediator among politicians from opposing sides.
From the time he was made an auxiliary bishop in 1992 to his elevation as archbishop in 1998 and beyond, Bergoglio had developed many close relationships with politicians. Many of the more conscientious ones were now keen to involve Bergoglio in giving government finances to Catholic charities that would ensure it reached the poor. It was Bergoglio’s strictly honest, incorruptible character that appealed to them. They may not always have agreed with him, but they could always depend on him.
The future Pope did not seek to curry favour with the politicians. When he felt they were erring he confronted them with the teachings of the Church, using his bishop’s staff to poke the consciences of the political elite. “Keep in mind,” he told them, “what is taught by the tradition of the Church, which regards oppressing the poor and defrauding workers of their wages as two sins that cry out to God for vengeance.” On another occasion he said: “We are tired of systems that produce poor people so that then the Church can support them.” Inevitably, he was labelled as Left-wing by Right-wingers. But he insisted he was “a bishop of the centre”.
Bergoglio also did not hold back in criticising the wealthy upper echelon of Buenos Aires society, who he accused of ignoring the poor on their doorsteps. It irritated him that they enjoyed their “ill-gotten gains” when so many were going hungry at Christmas.
A prelate who is so critical of the rich has to give a personal example of unselfishness or else risk being called a hypocrite. But Bergoglio’s own Christmas routine could not have been more self-giving. He did not see his family on Christmas Day. Instead, he used his time to go deep into the slums and cook for priests and families. When the evening came, he retired to his sparsely furnished apartment to enjoy his one comfort: a quiet moment alone.
I wrote this article for the Christmas edition of The Catholic Herald.