VATICAN CITY — An Argentinian priest, sent as a missionary to Japan, remembers fondly the spiritual direction he received from Father Jorge Mario Bergoglio and the way in which the future Pope Francis transformed a local neighborhood.

In an interview with L’Osservatore Romano, published Oct. 26, Jesuit Father Renzo De Luca recounted his experiences as a seminarian at the Maximo College of San Miguel in Argentina in the early 1980s. At the time, Father Bergoglio was rector of the seminary, which is located just outside Buenos Aires.

Seminarians studied Monday through Friday, Father De Luca remembered, but instead of free time on Saturday or Sunday, Father Bergoglio had them enter poor neighborhoods.

“It was part of our formation,” Father De Luca said. “An education is not only theoretical, but also practical.” As far as he is aware, no other institution at that time had such an initiative.

He remembered how, at the time in Argentina, local people were usually expected to present themselves in church, and no one went out to look for them; but Father Bergoglio had other ideas.

“It was a Copernican revolution,” Father De Luca said. “We had to go and really knock on the doors and say: ‘Look, here’s the Catechism. Send us your young people.’ It was also a way of keeping them off the streets.”

He remembered how he and his fellow seminarians had to knock on the doors of people “who hadn’t even got clothes on their backs.”

“You had to have a lot of nerve to invite them to church while it was obvious that they had the bare minimum to eat,” he said. “Yet people responded to our call.”

He remembered how, in one particular neighborhood, the locals did not even have a church. But, in a short time, one was built, and “hundreds of people began to take part in the Mass every Sunday.” In a few years, he observed, “what was once a center of degradation, without social cohesion, became vibrant and solid.”


A Lesson Learned

Looking back on his time spent discerning his vocation within the Society of Jesus, Father De Luca recalled how Father Bergoglio would “always get me to ask myself the reason for my decisions,” and it was one of the “most important lessons” the rector would teach.

He recounted an exchange after he returned to the seminary after spending two months in the United States to learn English. Father De Luca had missed two months of lessons, and he had a highly anticipated retreat coming up. “I went to [Father] Bergoglio to ask for advice,” he said. “It seemed natural to me that I had to choose one of the two: either the lessons or the retreat. He just said: ‘Think of resolving this problem yourself.’”

“Initially, I didn’t know what he meant, whether to skip the retreat and study or skip the classes and make the retreat,” Father De Luca continued. “I went back to him with the question and asked him explicitly: ‘So I can skip the retreat?’”

“I never said that,” Father Bergoglio replied. “I only said that you yourself must think about it.”

Father De Luca realized that Father Bergoglio meant that he had to find a way to meet both commitments which, at the time, seemed to the young seminarian to be “quite absurd.”

“I felt it was justified to skip the retreat on one occasion,” he said. “But in the end, thanks to his direction, I found a way of doing both things. And I knew that I had to start taking responsibility for my actions.”

Later, when he expressed his wish to go to Japan, he recalled how Father Bergoglio would get him to question his desires in order to never take decisions lightly. “Renzo, did you ask to go to Japan?” the future pope asked him. “Yes,” seminarian De Luca replied, to which Father Bergoglio answered: “Do you know what to expect?”

The young seminarian said he thought his spiritual director did not agree with his wish, but it wasn’t so. “It was a sort of test,” Father De Luca explained, “a sort of exercise to never take things superficially.”

Once in Japan, he said Father Bergoglio’s guidance and words helped him to carry out the great challenges of his mission. He was also struck by the fact that Father Bergoglio once said that his own generation never had the chance to go on a mission abroad and so the seminarian should be happy to have the opportunity.

“The words seem trivial, but I still remember them,” Father De Luca said. “They gave me a lot of strength to meet the challenges of a busy mission.” He was also deeply struck to find out, after he’d been elected pope, that Francis had himself wanted to be a missionary in Japan.


Pope Francis and St. Francis Xavier

Today, Father De Luca is the director of a museum commemorating the 26 martyrs of Nagasaki. Containing letters from St. Francis Xavier, it is also reputed to be the most important Christian museum in Japan.

The attraction is also located on the periphery of Japanese society and close to Fukuoka, the most populous city on Kyushu Island and a place that has the highest crime rate in the country. Father De Luca said that it is thanks to Father Bergoglio’s emphasis on going out to the periphery of society that brought him there.

“[Father] Bergoglio inspired me,” he said, adding that he saw a “perfect bond” between Pope Francis and the first Jesuit missionary to Japan, St. Francis Xavier.

“Francis Xavier went against the conventions of the Society of Jesus at the time,” Father De Luca said. “In the same way, Bergoglio can bring unexpected changes to the Church.”

Father De Luca said Father Bergoglio once visited him in Japan, in 1987. “I hope to see him again, maybe right here,” he said.

That may not be as unlikely as it may seem: Pope Francis has already said a visit to Asia is a priority of his pontificate. Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi reiterated the Pope’s wish on Oct. 28, after the Holy Father received Burmese Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi in private audience.

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.