'I See Francis as He Was in Parishes, But Now With More People'

Former Student of Father Bergoglio Shares Impressions

Rome, (Zenit.org) Rocio Lancho Garcia | 2336 hits

Guillermo Ortiz met Father Jorge Bergoglio in 1977, when he was provincial of the Society of Jesus in Argentina.

Ortiz wanted to be a member of the Society of Jesus, and eventually fulfilled this wish. 

Father Ortiz now works in the Spanish section of Vatican Radio, and talked to ZENIT about some of the things he remembers of those years and his impressions of Pope Francis.

ZENIT: When did you meet Father Bergoglio:

Father Ortiz: I met him when he was provincial of the Argentine Jesuits. The Society is divided into provinces, which in many cases coincide with the countries. Now the province is Argentine-Uruguayan. At that time it was only Argentina. He was in Buenos Aires in July of 1977, and he traveled to Cordoba as provincial. I met him to tell him that I wanted to enter the Society of Jesus. When someone wishes to be a Jesuit he must go to the provincial. I met him there, he was very affable, a person with whom one could speak perfectly without any difficulty. As I still had a year and a half to go before finishing my studies, he said: "If you repeat this to me after a certain time we'll see, because in that time many things can happen." He invited me to attend the Mass he had to celebrate.

I entered the Society of Jesus in January of '79; it was his last year as provincial. Sometimes he celebrated Mass in the novitiate, he also presided over the most important celebrations we had, which was when we saw him. And on Sundays he would go to the novitiate's recreation, which we had with those who were already in the Maximo, the philosophers and theologians.

ZENIT: How do you remember Father Bergoglio of those years?

Father Ortiz: He ended his term as provincial in December of '79. The office of provincial lasts six years and then one can go to a mission or somewhere else. In his case, when he finished as provincial, he began as rector and formator at the Colegio Maximo. Something very important is that, at the same time, in the year '80 the chapel that began to function at the end of the Colegio Maximo was designated a parish. At that time, there were some 10 hectares; that plot doesn't exist anymore. In front of the Colegio Maximo-University of Philosophy and Theology, where we also studied Humanities, in the area behind there was a shed where animal feed was kept. When I entered in '79 I was sent to work in the poor areas behind the Maximo, where the shed was, which had already begun to function as a chapel. Little by little it became a church and, soon after, [Bergoglio] being already rector of the Maximo, was also appointed parish priest. He was the first parish priest of that church, of a parish of the labor neighborhoods of San Miguel of some 30,000 inhabitants.

It was very important for me to have him as rector and formator, sometimes also as spiritual director. I was at the Colegio Maximo until 1984. That is why the pastoral part was very important for me, what we are now living with Francis' invitation to go out, to meet people without barriers, as he lives. He has not come with a secretary, and he didn't have one then.

I remember a story of a boy I knew in Buenos Aires, a boy who had been into drugs, and who listened to the radio program in which I was working. He came to visit me and every now and then we would chat. Some time went by when I didn't see him, and one day we met on the street and he said to me: "I've been with Cardinal Bergoglio." He told me that once he passed by the Curia, because he was a postman, and he left <the cardinal> a note because he wanted to speak with him. A few days later, it was his day off work and he was sleeping, his father told him he had a phone call, but he didn't want to answer because he was on his day off; however, his father told him it was Cardinal Bergoglio. That very day Cardinal Bergoglio dialed the number this boy had given him, and he spoke with him directly to ask him when he would like to come to the Curia.

ZENIT: In your opinion, what characterizes Francis most?

Father Ortiz: He is like that, an open person and he has always been caring of the other, stemming from his profound encounter with the Lord; he is a very spiritual person of much prayer. What he is repeating now, what he said during the Chrism Mass, his invitation to come out of oneself, the idea that the shepherd must smell of sheep, is something those of us who have worked with him have always experienced, with very particular care of people. When we were students, he sent us to find boys for catechism and to visit the sick. We had Saturday afternoons and Sunday mornings to go and visit people, although we were not yet priests, but he invited us to go out and get to know people. And it was not only a religious but also a social concern, because at that time he founded a soup kitchen for children, where many kids went. And during that time we grew in numbers at the Colegio Maximo he made an effort to get cows, pigs, and sheep so that we could have meat.

At that time there weren't scholarships as there were later, so we looked after the animals. We ate a lot of vegetables but the kids of the soup kitchen ate meat. Meat is very important for an Argentine, and that's why he made such an effort.

I also remember we had a laundry room there, where we left our soiled clothes. He would scrub them and let us know when they were ready, so that we could hang them up to dry. In the meantime, we were studying. In the afternoons, he would feed the pigs. He did all this naturally. The spiritual aspect was not separated from daily things. When we returned on Sundays from visiting people, he had prepared our dinner.

ZENIT: What did you feel when you saw him appear at the window of the Loggia?

Father Ortiz: He has always been a very particular person, very able, a person who governs. I always understood that as bishop he was a weighty person, also among the cardinals. I spoke with him the Saturday before the Conclave. When he came to Rome, I knew where he lived and how he had to go by the Via della Conciliazione. Rather than calling him and bothering him, I would go out to meet him on the street.

In the Vatican Radio programs in Spanish we have more than 20 countries, so there were about 25 cardinals. We couldn't interview some of those cardinals and not others. Moreover, I knew that he doesn't like to give interviews, so I didn't want to bother him. However, the Saturday before the Conclave I wished to greet him and we walked for some 15 minutes. I was impressed that day by his serenity and humor, talking about different things. We spoke about things that made us laugh and about serious things, but he always had the same serenity and joy. We spoke quite a bit about what the media was saying. And he continued to be at peace, moving and acting in a solid way, in the things he said, which came from a profound inner peace that I know he guards much.

I always thought [being elected to the papacy] was something possible, but because of his age, already 76, I thought he couldn't be Pope. But as a Jesuit, given our vow of obedience to the Pope, and in Vatican Radio where we are the Pope's voice, I had to be prepared for anything.

We had several languages during the Conclave, an hour and a half of broadcasting in moments in which there could be smoke, apart from what are our programs. We have 91 minutes daily of production at different times. Moreover, when there is a special activity of the Pope, we do reports that go to other channels for broadcasting stations that re-transmit what we send. So we had to do the news report on the Pope's election. I had decided that for our language, as soon as there was white smoke, I would go to the studio and do the broadcast until the Pope appeared and a bit more afterwards. I didn't expect the white smoke that day and we worked with an information file on all the cardinals. When we saw the white smoke, we began the broadcast. When Tauran appeared and said Jorge Mario, I couldn't go on broadcasting, I couldn't coordinate my ideas, I felt something very deep. Then, thank God, as time passed, before he appeared at the window, I stepped back, left the microphone because I couldn't react as I was so overcome. He began to speak in Italian and they were making signs to me to translate, but I wasn't thinking, because I was seeing someone I knew, I understood what he was saying, and I didn't realize I had to translate. When he left the window, I was able to react and I did a summary of what he had said.

What we saw there in a few seconds was very significant of his person. Afterwards I wrote a text titled "Francis Is Like This." It was a very emotional moment. These days I am broadcasting the celebrations, and homilies and I am seeing the same thing I saw in the parish but with more people.

ZENIT: So these first weeks of Francis are a continuation of what he was as priest, bishop and cardinal?

Father Ortiz: I have no difficulty in seeing him as parish priest of Rome, or parish priest of the world, because he has always seen himself as a priest. When he appeared as the new Bishop of Rome, he was on the same level as other bishops. He is Bishop of Rome but in addition he presides in charity.

He liked to be called Father when he was a cardinal; he would introduce himself as a priest. Once I went to greet him but the receptionist told me "Father is running two or three minutes late and asks that you excuse him." I said of course, that I could wait without a problem, but I told him, "Don't call him Father, he is Cardinal," and <the receptionist> said, "But he gets cross if we call him cardinal or monsignor."

When one is with him, one is with someone who makes Jesus Christ present, he invites one to celebrate the living Christ, to go out of the sacristy to meet the people. He used the subway; he created the vicariate for the Villas Miserias [slums], as a different place to offer special care. Every day after 6 o'clock in the afternoon, he would go out to accompany one of the priests, while the priests was doing his visit, on his return, he would find that Bishop Bergoglio had made his supper. He would also accompany sick priests at night. These gestures speak of this "going out."

Francis' way of being has already had an impressive response. 60,000 attended Monday's Regina Coeli, 300,000 the Easter Mass. This is an answer. I am called from Argentina and told that there are people who are returning to the Church after a time of absence. One person told me that she had fought with the parish priest and had stopped praying, and now she told me, "With Francis I realize that one thing has not to do with the other, and she is praying again."

ZENIT: What do you think is Francis' most Jesuit side?

Father Ortiz: My attention has always been caught, and not only now, by his capacity to put Ignatian spirituality at the base of anything of which he speaks, by the structure of his thought on the affective question, which is very important in the Spiritual Exercises. In his way of thinking, of feeling of acting, he has Ignatian spirituality. I have shared this thought with other Jesuits these days who didn't know him, and they have said that they see Ignatian spirituality in his homilies.

ZENIT: Have you had the opportunity to greet him since he has become Pope?

Father Ortiz: Yes, I had the opportunity to greet him twice. On the Saturday during the audience with journalists, which was very important for me, and last Sunday, doing the reports from the Hall of Blessings, next door to where the Urbi et Orbi blessing takes place. I was with him again there, and he gave me greetings for my mother. On the day of the audience I gave him the drawing of a 7-year-old girl, which I found out later from another priest that he keeps on his desk at Saint Martha's. I also gave him the holy cards of Father Brochero, who is our next Blessed, who will be beatified on Sept. 14. I know he is devoted to Father Brochero, so now he can give out his holy cards.

[Translation by ZENIT]