BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Antonio Petta, an Italian-Argentinian industrialist and publisher, became friends with Pope Francis while collaborating on charitable outreach in the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires.
After their late-night committee meetings, then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio would walk through downtown Buenos Aires to his apartment off the Plaza de Mayo, and he told Petta of the suffering he encountered during these nocturnal journeys home.
"At that hour, he saw with much sadness how many families camped and slept on the streets or near metro stations. He has insisted constantly on the duty that the Church has to help those in such dire need," Petta said.
So it’s no surprise that during Holy Thursday liturgies in Buenos Aires, Cardinal Bergoglio washed the feet of AIDS patients and others on the margins of city life, just as during his first Holy Week as pope he washed the feet of incarcerated youth in a juvenile detention center in Rome.
Petta was one of several prominent Catholics in Buenos Aires to speak with the Register about a local Church leader largely unknown outside Latin America, even as the faithful across the world embrace his distinctive pastoral style.
These Argentinians describe an evangelist with a deep Marian devotion. As the archbishop of Buenos Aires, he offered God’s mercy to all and could be found hearing confessions in shantytown parishes. He knew the name of every diocesan priest, and he asked each to know the name of every parishioner by getting out of the rectory and into the community.
They speak of a leader who prefers dialogue to confrontation. He arrived at meetings by bus and elicited all viewpoints before issuing a "charitable" but precise judgment.
"He has a very personal style that emerges from his desire to imitate Christ as perfectly as he can," observed Jorge "Giorgio" Sernani, founder of the Order of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, a lay group confirmed and encouraged by Pope John Paul II.
"It is to be lamented that some want to spin his modesty and humility as a concealed criticism of his predecessors. Bergoglio is just what he is: himself. He has never played counterpoint to anything or anyone."
Jorge Mario Bergoglio was born on Dec. 17, 1936, in Buenos Aires, one of five children in a family headed by an Italian-born father, a railway worker who immigrated to Argentina.
Jorge Mario entered the Society of Jesus in 1958 and was ordained in 1969, later serving as the provincial of the Jesuit order in Argentina. In 1992, he was appointed auxiliary bishop in Buenos Aires and then archbishop in 1998. Blessed John Paul II made him a cardinal in 2001.
From the time of his appointment as an auxiliary bishop onward, Bergoglio retained a simple way of life, living in an apartment, cooking his own meals and traveling by mass transit.
Father Marcelo Pettinaroli, now pastor of Nuestra Señora del Carmen parish in a northern Buenos Aires neighborhood, recalled that Bergoglio made his mark soon after his episcopal appointment.
He "visited elderly members of the flock who lived alone, retired priests and religious in the area, especially those who were hospitalized or sick," said Father Pettinaroli.
"At that time, everyone close to him noticed he lived an austere, almost spartan life, but not devoid of joy and good humor. He was known for peppering his chats with anecdotes and an occasional funny story."
Later, when Father Pettinaroli served as a seminary instructor for the archdiocese, he came to appreciate the archbishop’s "open door" policy: "Any request for an audience was granted within two days at most and very often immediately."
Father Peter Short, a U.S.-born priest who serves in the Archdiocese of Cordoba in Argentina, benefited from the archbishop’s generous spiritual counsel while weighing the possibility of transitioning from a religious order to a local diocese.
"There are bishops you can’t get an interview with for months, even if you are one of their priests," said Father Short.
"Priests from his diocese say he is not keen on the bureaucratic aspect [of Church administration]," he added. "He wants things to be more direct and simple."
In meetings, Father Pettinaroli reports, the new Pope "listens first to all the points of view and allows some time for everyone to grasp the problem at hand. Then he … gives counsel, which is most frequently on the spot," said the priest.
He suggested that Pope Francis would move prudently before taking decisive action in the Vatican: "He does not like drastic changes, so we should expect him to take some time to understand the situation and then effect whatever changes are needed with charity and love."
Pope Francis will face fresh challenges as the Vicar of Christ, and this humble Church leader will soon be a familiar figure on the world stage.
But Father Pettinaroli is certain of one thing: The man he knows will "not change."
"He is a hard worker and merciful man as well," he said. "He lives what he preaches and leads by example. Rome will not change him."
People who follow him closely, like Antonio Petta and Giorgio Sernani, who has written extensively on Marian subjects, say that Pope Francis’ pastoral approach is the fruit of his deep devotion to the Virgin Mary.
"Rome and the world should make an effort to understand that Pope Francis is going to be a Marian pope," Sernani noted.
"In my opinion, he is confirming the presence of Mary in Rome," he said. "He insisted on visiting St. Mary Major as soon as possible to entrust the Roman people to the care of our Blessed Mother."
Petta assisted Cardinal Bergoglio while serving on the organizing commission of the Corpus Christi procession at the cathedral of Buenos Aires. He expresses gratitude for the cardinal’s decision to include the Virgin Mary in the Corpus Christi celebration, a traditional expression of popular piety fostered by the Buenos Aires archbishop.
Petta has been involved in the ecclesiastically approved apparitions of the Virgin Mary in the city of Lanús, south of Buenos Aires, where she has appeared regularly as St. Mary of the Holy Spirit. And though Lanús is not in the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Bergoglio asked Petta to keep him informed in detail of everything happening at the Marian events there, and the cardinal attended a few pilgrimages.
"Today we are at the house of our Mother to ask her something: that she will help us work for justice," said Cardinal Bergoglio during an October 2012 pilgrimage to the shrine. On that occasion, he asked the Virgin Mary to give the faithful "strength to work for justice, serenity when we are going through difficulties, and that we know how to be good brothers so we can share our pilgrimage."
Noted Petta, "Cardinal Bergoglio and I share a profound devotion for the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph and St. Thérèse of Lisieux. The way he conducts himself is very influenced by St. Thérèse’s ‘Little Way.’"
That devotion to the Little Flower helps explain why Cardinal Bergoglio looked for opportunities to serve rather than to be served.
"When the pastor of the cathedral, Father Alejandro Russo, was installed, we had a small gathering to greet him. Imagine my surprise when I saw that the man serving the tables and bringing the refreshments was Bergoglio himself," recalled Petta.
That humility has drawn respect and loyalty from local Catholics, but also suspicion and antagonism in the deeply politicized and economically stratified city of Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina. Still, local Catholics like Petta say that Cardinal Bergoglio’s penchant for dialogue extended to his critics.
"He believes in reaching out to others, even the bitterest enemies of the Church. He never responds to insults or defiant attitudes from the left and right," said Petta.
"He sees no use in angry confrontation, but believes the Church can enter into a merciful dialogue without compromising her doctrine or ideals."
But Petta also made clear that Pope Francis did not view the path of dialogue as a retreat from the challenges that face the Church as the "dictatorship of relativism" and other threats to religious liberty gain ground in the West, including the Americas.
"He believes those evil powers must be confronted with sacrifice, penance, prayer and the help of the Virgin Mary," said Petta.
"I believe he knows he has a mission of capital importance in Rome, and he will get things done. He will attack the problems one by one and solve them, always relying on the help of the Blessed Virgin and trusting God."
Carlos Caso-Rosendi reported for this story from Buenos Aires.
The founder and editor of
Primera Luz, a popular Catholic webzine published in Spanish,
he is researching a book on the life and mission of Pope Francis. His website is CasoRosendi.com.
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.