Jorge Rouillon is a veteran Buenos Aires journalist who became acquainted with Pope Francis when the Pope served as archbishop of Buenos Aires from 1998-2013.
Rouillon has the distinction of being among the many people for whom the future pope has prayed for personally, after he mentioned to Archbishop Bergoglio that he was awaiting the results of medical tests for possible prostate cancer. Doctors subsequently gave Rouillon a clean bill of health, but not knowing this to be the case, the archbishop continued to pray for the journalist for several weeks afterward.
In this interview with Register correspondent Father Fernando Mignone, Rouillon shares memories of that incident and of other meetings with the man who would become the Church’s first Latin-American pope.
What is your background?
I was born in Rosario in 1949 and have lived in Buenos Aires most of my life. I studied journalism and law. For 15 years, I wrote a weekly column on religious news in the national daily La Nación. I headed the Journalists’ Federation of the International Catholic Press Union during two periods, between 2001 and 2006, and I accompanied John Paul II on three Latin-America trips as La Nación’s correspondent.
Now, I write mostly for AICA, an Argentinian Catholic news agency.
So you must have interviewed Archbishop Bergoglio.
I was never able to have him grant me a personal interview, as he never granted them. I can only recall two exceptions: a Q-and-A article written by young journalists of a Catholic youth magazine and a news conference for around 15 foreign correspondents, in which I did not participate, in 2001.
But you did meet him?
If memory serves, the only time I was in his office was precisely on the day in 2001 in which he was named a cardinal, in which he received the news in all simplicity; he was alone, and he had just prepared his own meal. But I have met him many times at the beginning or end of events, in visits to hospitals, care homes or churches, in receptions or meetings. In truth, he does not like social gatherings, and if he is obliged to attend, if he can, he leaves soon; but he is attentive, cordial and ready to listen. I have seen him serving little empanadas [stuffed pastries], coffee or a refreshment to his interlocutor (sometimes, myself). And I have noticed dealings that were affable, fresh, without complications.
Are there any occasions that stand out in your mind, even if they did not make the news?
One day, at a “Journalists’ Day” organized at a hall of the archdiocesan offices of Buenos Aires, between 100 and 150 colleagues showed up. The editor of a newspaper, which could be considered quite far from Bergoglio’s thought and which had questioned him often, advised that he had been detained and would arrive late. Going against his habit of leaving any meeting early, Bergoglio sat down, waiting for him for quite a while — perhaps between an hour and an hour and a half, after almost everyone had left.
When the editor arrived, he waited on him with all deference, serving him a small sandwich and cordially conversing with him, asking him about his family, showing interest in his children. They both chatted amiably. And the cardinal also thanked those three or four journalists who had stayed behind.
Any other special encounters?
Certainly, I saw him many times, like other journalists, in brief press conferences at the end of Argentinian bishops’ assemblies or official events, in universities, in academic congresses. I have seen him wash the feet of pregnant mothers in a maternidad publica [a public maternity hospital], of sick people in a home for the elderly, of kids in a children’s hospital.
And once I asked Cardinal Bergoglio to pray for me, because, in those days, they were going to give me the results of an analysis for possible prostate cancer. The result was negative, and I forgot about it. Two or three months later, I crossed paths with the archbishop. On seeing me, he asked, “Should I continue praying?” I had to think what he was asking me about. You could tell that he continued to have a prayer intention that, for me, had become unimportant.
But were you ever able to have an extended personal conversation with him?
I recall having been invited by him to share the table with a Catholic priest and a Protestant pastor during an ecumenical retreat for priests and ministers.
And there’s another story I could tell. It happened in 1999. He had become archbishop of Buenos Aires barely a year before. The door, with its paint peeling, of the Villa Devoto Penitentiary opened, and a priest in a dark suit came out alone, with his briefcase, into the dark evening. It was almost night, Holy Thursday, and he was heading to take the 109 bus, to go back home, in downtown Buenos Aires. He was leaving the jail, where he had celebrated Mass for the inmates and washed the feet of 12 of them. He had been there for two and a half hours, conversing with the detainees before and after the religious service.
On the sidewalk of the desolate street, beside a huge thick penitentiary wall, I was able to chat briefly with him. “I wanted them to feel that the faithful of Buenos Aires and Jesus were with them,” the clergyman said. He was Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio, two years before becoming a cardinal.
When he was leaving, I invited him to return to the center of the city in the car of my newspaper, in which I had gone, with a driver. He thanked me but said that he would return in the bus that stopped at the street corner. I had to insist several times, telling him that we were going in the same direction, until he finally accepted [my invitation] to climb in.
Before, on the sidewalk, he let it slip, calmly, almost whispering: “Jesus in the Gospel tells us that on Judgment Day we will have to render account of our behavior: I was hungry, and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me to drink; I was sick, and you visited me; I was in prison, and you came to see me.” And he pointed out that “the commandment of Jesus obliges all of us: and in a special way, the bishop, who is the father of all.”
“Some might say, ‘They are guilty,’” added Bergoglio. “I answer them with the words of Jesus: ‘Let him who is not guilty throw the first stone.’ Let each one of us look in our heart and discover our faults. Then our heart becomes more human.”
Was it not your instinct as a journalist to interview him then and there?
No, we did not talk much in a return ride, with an archbishop not given to interviews. Just small talk. I remember that we passed near a shopping center, and he commented in passing about “the new temples of consumerism.”
He did not allow us to make a detour of a few blocks to leave him at the door of his house. He got off at the pedestrian Florida Street and was swallowed up by the people. He said he preferred to walk several blocks to take advantage of the moment to meditate the third part of the 15 mysteries of the Rosary that he prays every day. Then, that night, he was going to walk around seven churches to adore Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, following the custom that many Catholics have on the night before Good Friday. Like any other Catholic, the archbishop would visit the churches without anyone waiting for him.
On getting out of the car, he told me: “You have achieved what no other journalist has ever achieved: to imprison me during 40 minutes. Usually, I run away from them.” Surely he did not imagine then that, 14 years later, he would have an honest and amiable encounter with some 6,000 journalists in Rome and would talk to them with ease just before Holy Week. That night, before saying good-bye, he wished the journalist and the driver, “Happy Easter!”
Father Fernando E. Mignone writes from Vancouver, Canada.