The new leader of the Catholic Church is a man of simple, austere habits. Father Guillermo Marcó, President of Fundación Pastoral Universitaria San Lucas and Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s spokesman from 1998 to 2006, says for the past 14 years as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, his daily routine remained unchanged. Father Marcó explains Cardinal Bergoglio would wake up around 4:30 or 5 a.m. and then conduct his morning prayers. By 7 a.m., after having a light breakfast, he would read the papers. Then, until 8 a.m., he would remain close to a land line telephone.
Every priest in town knew that phone’s number, and every one of them knew that they could call every morning between 7 and 8 if they had any problem. The Cardinal himself would pick up the phone. Not any secretary, not any clerical adjutant, but Archbishop Bergoglio. He would listen to their complaints and their requests and he would jot down his observations in a small pocket-book with small, almost microscopic handwriting. Only then he would walk down to his office, just a few steps away.
“Up until five days ago, this was his daily routine,” says Father Marcó.
The Archbishop of Buenos Aires is the country’s primate, and the job comes with some perks. Monsignor Bergoglio would have none of them, says Father Marcó. He could have let himself be carried around by chauffeurs in luxury European cars and dwelled in the Archbishopric’s aristocratic residence in one of Buenos Aires’ fancier districts. Instead, he rode the bus and the subway without custody and lived in a modest apartment next to the curia. He could have dined lavishly in the company of powerful businessmen and politicians, but he preferred a relaxed lunch and an apple and a cup of tea for dinner. “This routine is his life’s backbone, and he will try to keep it in place as much as possible,” says Guillermo.
Father Marcó defines his former boss as a through-and-through Porteño, as the natives of Buenos Aires are called. Pope Francis was born and reared in Flores, a former rural district consolidated with Buenos Aires when the city was declared Federal Capital of Argentina in 1880. Over the next few decades, Flores grew into one of the city’s largest middle class barrios.
Jorge Mario Bergoglio was born on December 17, 1936, into a typical middle-class, immigrant Argentine family. His parents, Mario and Regina, were recent Italian arrivals (Italy’s jus sanguinis legal tradition considers that the children of Italian citizens are Italians, regardless of their place of birth; therefore, Pope Francis is technically, if not actually— he carries an European Union passport—both an Argentine and an Italian national.)
Like every South American kid, he would soon discover the lifelong bittersweet condition of being a soccer fan. Jorge became a fervent cuervo (crow), as the hinchas or fans of San Lorenzo de Almagro are known (actor Viggo Mortensen, who grew up in Argentina, is the most famous Hollywood cuervo). The history of San Lorenzo, one of the classic teams of Argentine fútbol, is somewhat comparable to that of the Brooklyn Dodgers: They both lost their home stadiums (San Lorenzo’s fans recovered theirs). Hurling jokes about this misfortune and other teasers are common among rival team fans, and Bergoglio is known to indulge in them with friends and colleagues.
He is not into sports himself, though. However, Father Marcó denies that the new pope has only one lung. “Many years ago he had an infection that diminished the function of one of his lungs, that’s all,” says Marcó.
Instead of jogging or swimming, the 76-year-old Bergoglio enjoys long walks, says his former spokesman. He likes foggy days, and classical music, and fiction (he taught literature at a Jesuit school). Some of his favorite authors are Borges, Dostoyevsky, and Leopoldo Marechal, an Argentine Catholic novelist who is also a Peronist icon.
As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio had a rough relationship with the Peronist administrations of the late Néstor Kirchner and incumbent President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. “He speaks out his mind,” says his former spokesman, “not only to the government but also inside the church. Yet he is a compassionate man who organized the pastoral work in the villas miseria (slums) and who has a deep sympathy for all manifestations of popular faith.”
The name chosen by a pope encapsulates the program he hopes to carry out as pontiff. “I can see the Francis de Assisi in him,” concludes Father Marcó, “a humble servant of God with a powerful gift for prophecy.”
Claudio Iván Remeseira is a New York-based award-winning journalist, writer, and critic. Translator of the Spanish-language on-line section of The Nation and editor of Hispanic New York, an online portal and blog on current events and culture. Editor of Hispanic New York: A Sourcebook (Columbia University Press, 2010), an anthology of essays on the city’s Latino, Latin American & Iberian cultural heritage, and winner of the Latino International Book Award in the category of Best Reference Book in English (2011).