Pope Francis: The Man behind the name and his journey to Vatican


A little over 30 moons ago, the Cardinal-electors had gone to “the ends of the earth” to get a Bishop for Rome, who, as per tradition, became the 266th Pope for the entire Catholic Church. The new Pope-elect was Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio from Buenos Aires, Argentina.

The first non-European Pope in over 13 centuries had chosen for himself the name of a saint known for his humility and simplicity: Francis.

Two years into his papacy, Francis is now nothing short of a celebrity. And he is now coming to Africa for the first time. The five day visit will begin in Kenya on November 25, and end in Central Africa Republic on the 29th, with a stopover in Uganda in between.

Who is this Pope Francis that Kenyans are privileged to host – Kenya being only the 18th country to welcome the present Pope? Who is this man behind the name?

Who is Jorge Bergoglio?

His father, Mario Bergoglio, had migrated to Argentina as part of the large exodus of people from Italy escaping the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini. The young accountant met his wife, Regina Sivori, also an Argentine of Italian-Piedmontese descent, in 1934.

They married the next year and had their firstborn, Jorge, on December 17, 1936. The couple would go on to have four other children, of whom only Jorge’s sister María Elena Bergoglio still survives.

As a young boy, Jorge Bergoglio was very much influenced by the Salesians of Don Bosco as he frequented their youth centre, and briefly studied at their boarding school at Ramos Mejia, Argentina. Salesians of Don Bosco are members of a religious order within the Catholic church, who work with youth.

At the Don Bosco youth centre Jorge Bergoglio began to play football, and became a fan of the San Lorenzo football club.

Early career and vocation

Jorge graduated from college with a diploma as a chemical technician and soon after took up a job in a lab. He also worked briefly as a janitor and nightclub bouncer. He loved to tango and even had a girl-friend. Otherwise, he was just an ordinary young man growing up in a strict Catholic background.

Everything seems to go on uneventful until one day, on September 21, 1954, on his way to see his girlfriend, he decided to drop in at a church in order to make his confession to a priest. Speaking about this experience to his biographers in 2010, he said: “Something strange happened to me in that confession. I don’t know what it was, but it changed my life. I think it surprised me, caught me with my guard down. You search for Him, but He searches for you first. You want to find Him, but He finds you first.”

For over three years he would do nothing about the experience. Meanwhile, at the age of 21 he suffered from a life-threatening pneumonia and, as a result, most of his right lung had to be removed. Since that operation, it is said that he suffers from a chronic back-pain.

Again God would search him out. In 1957 he decided to join the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). At the conclusion of his novitiate – the period of intense preparation – Bergoglio officially became a Jesuit on 12 March 1960. The Jesuits are members of a religious order within the Catholic Church that was founded in the 16th century.

The Jesuit Priest

As a Jesuit, he furthered his education with a Master’s degree in philosophy and theology. In between he also spent some time teaching literature and psychology. He was ordained a priest in 1969, after which he went on to be a lecturer in a seminary. Hardly after three years as a priest, Bergoglio was appointed as the head – or the provincial, as they are referred to – of the Society of Jesus in Argentina. The office, in which he served from 1973 to 1979, came with huge responsibilities and, as it turned out, with some turmoil in his life.

This period coincided with what was referred to in the Argentinian history as “the Dirty War”. The military led right-wing government hunted down and killed left-wing guerrillas, together with those who were perceived to be sympathetic to socialism.

The crisis for Bergoglio centred around two Jesuits, Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics, who refused his orders to leave the slums where they served since they were considered by the military as rebels. Eventually, the two Jesuits were arrested and subjected to torture.

Some Jesuits and the relatives of Yorio (who died in 2000) accused Bergoglio of virtually giving up the priests to the junta. Bergoglio himself has maintained innocence in the imbroglio, while claiming to have affirmatively worked towards their release. Father Jalics, the other victim of the drama, who still lives in France, has defended the Pope on his claim.

The other trying period for Jorge Bergoglio was between 1990 and 1992. After his term as the provincial, he went on to serve in different capacities, while also attempting to complete his PhD in theology in Germany. While he was a theology lecturer at a Jesuit seminary in Buenos Aires, he came into conflict with his provincial and was “exiled” to Corboda, a little town about 600 kms northwest of Buenos Aires.

He had to live in this farm-house without a specific portfolio. According to some biographers, these two years were very painful for Bergoglio, but something deep seems to have happened to him. The Pope himself has referred to these two years as a “time of purification.”

Bishop to Pope Francis

In 1992, rather by a divine intervention, he was appointed as the Auxiliary Bishop of Buenos Aires. Soon he became the archbishop, and by 2001 he was offered a Cardinal’s hat by Pope John Paul II. While being in these responsibilities, Bergoglio was known for his frugality, for taking the bus and the subway, for living in a simple apartment, and cooking for himself. That kind of humility increased his appeal not only with ordinary Argentines but also among his fellow bishops.

It is rumoured that at the conclave in April 2005, following the death of Pope John Paul II, he emerged as the runner-up as Cardinal Ratzinger emerged as the Pope. Hence, following the surprising resignation of Pope Benedict, given also that there was a felt need for some reform within the Vatican, the septuagenarian Bergoglio was considered a promising candidate. And the rest is now a history.

Angel Rossi, a Jesuit who was received into the Order and groomed by Bergoglio, speaking to a media reporter, summarised the personality of the man behind the name Pope Francis: “He is humble but confident, a disciplined rule-breaker. He is quiet but freely speaks his mind. He is deeply spiritual, but crafty – a cross between a desert saint and a shrewd politician. He is a man of power and action, who spends a great deal of time in prayer and contemplation.”

It is this “shepherd who knows the smell of his sheep” whom the Kenyans will host in a month’s time.