An image that sums up both the task awaiting Pope Francis and his manner of tackling that task is an amazing painting, from around 1700, by the German artist Johann Schmidtner. While he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires, then-Cardinal Bergoglio came across this painting in a church in Bavaria. Immediately, he acquired a copy, which he brought back to Argentine. Since then, he has helped to promote popular devotion based on the message underlying Schmidtner’s painting throughout Argentina, and beyond.
The image is, to a large extent, self-explanatory. Firstly, it acknowledges that life is indeed full of knots. Secondly, it recognises that, very often, we find it impossible to untangle the worst of these knots by ourselves. And, finally, it presents Mary as an expert undoer of knots, always ready and willing to lend a helping hand.
Pope Francis is no stranger to intransigent knots! In his biography (entitled, simply, ‘The Jesuit’) he readily admits that he has often found that his own resources were insufficient when it came to finding solutions for the most urgent problems. Probably, the most difficult period in his life to date was in the 1970s, when he was Provincial of the Jesuits in Argentina.
His term of office coincided with a horrendously violent episode in recent Argentine history, marked by political chaos and a series of military coups. In the mid-70s, the repression unleashed by the military against anyone suspected of left wing sympathies led to thousands of people being tortured or murdered. Many simply ‘disappeared’. Among the victims of the repression were countless members of the Catholic Church, including laity, religious, priests and bishops.
Jesuits were far from immune. On the contrary, any Jesuit living or working with the poor was under constant surveillance and threatened with arrest, or worse. In one case, two Jesuits who lived in one of the poorest areas of Buenos Aires were kidnapped, tortured and held incommunicado for almost five months. During that time, Fr. Bergoglio was under intense pressure to speak out in a prophetic manner in defence of the Jesuits and other prisoners, including personal friends of his.
He opted, instead, to work quietly for their release. He also arranged for some people pursued by the military to take refuge in a Jesuit spirituality centre, under the pretext of doing prolonged retreats. He helped others to escape to neighbouring countries, in one case successfully using his own identity papers to help a man who vaguely resembled him.
But this quiet, diplomatic approach was not to everyone’s liking. His critics included some fellow-Jesuits. In his biography, he implies that, to this day, he can’t be sure that he made the right choice, and simply asks forgiveness from anyone who may have been hurt as a result of his own inadequacies. Not surprisingly, the theme of God’s mercy and the need to mirror it in our own lives, figured prominently in the addresses and homilies of his first days as Pope Francis. He speaks from long and painful personal experience of the need to be forgiven and to forgive.
His present more relaxed and informal pastoral style has developed over the past twenty years, since he was named Auxiliary Bishop in Buenos Aires. From that time on, he has had a lot more regular contact with the poor and marginalised. He became a frequent visitor to the city’s slum areas, usually travelling there by bus or metro. In his personal lifestyle, he shunned all ostentation and unnecessary comfort, in solidarity with the poor.
While maintaining an orthodox line in doctrinal questions, notably those concerned with moral issues, his pastoral practice as Archbishop has characterised by the greatest possible flexibility, placing the immediate needs of each individual before anything else. He was quick to criticise some priests who had refused to baptise children of single mothers on the grounds that they lacked the necessary paperwork. Cardinal Bergoglio compared such priests to Pharisees who value the letter of the law more than “God’s treasure”, the poor.
Jorge Bergoglio brings the experience of long years confronting violence, poverty and his own limitations to his new global mission. As Pope Francis, he has been called by God to heal a Church threatened with ruination. He is a humble man, with a personal simplicity and approachability that will delight many people. But he is also a strong and very determined man.
Once he has had time to discern what needs to be done and how it might be achieved, he will embrace his mission willingly and pursue it with every ounce of strength at his disposal. If, as is certain, his own resources prove to be insufficient, he will surely enlist the formidable help of Mary, the expert in untying even the most difficult knots. Through her intercession and with the help of our prayers, may the Lord bless and strengthen him on the road ahead.
Kevin O’Higgins SJ
Jesuit University Support Trust