Pope Francis must be receiving the comforts of the Holy Spirit, because he looks to have shed 10 years, according to the administrator of the Argentine Catholic News Agency (AICA) of the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires.
Journalist Eduardo Woites talked with ZENIT about his former archbishop’s style, and the impression that people in Buenos Aires have on seeing the Pontiff on television.
“I don’t say his personality changed, but we see him smiling more. With the eyes of faith, we see that the Holy Spirit comforts him. When he left, we saw him tired, as a 76-year-old, and now he seems to have shed 10 years. ‘It’s true,’ is the comment made in the Curia, here in AICA and everywhere,” he says.
ZENIT: Are they missing him?
Woites: Yes, they’re already lamenting his absence, although I see in other bishops who, following in his steps, go twice a month to the slums in the different bishoprics of the metropolitan area, those that are in the belt outside the city of Buenos Aires. Because in their narrow streets, the police are unable to enter and drugs are sold, “the package,” there are school drop-outs, etc. The bishops do missions in the slums without much press because that is Bergolio’s style. So many times we got wind of [his activities] after he had already finished.
ZENIT: What is the situation of the poorest, of the homeless etc?
Woites: Argentina has had an influx of immigrants in recent years from neighboring countries: Peru, Bolivia, Paraguay etc. And slums or emergency neighborhoods were formed. Many belong to specific countries, for instance, slum 21 is of the Paraguayans.
ZENIT: And the archdiocese in which Bergoglio worked?
Woites: Buenos Aires spans 200 square kilometers [about 80 square miles] and has 3 million inhabitants, 85% of whom are Catholics, 190 parishes, 70 churches, 4,800 diocesan priests and 380 religious priests. In Argentina, between the capital, which is the archdiocese, and the greater Buenos Aires area, which is the rest of the diocese and several million more inhabitants, is constituted 50% of the country.
ZENIT: What was the style of government of Cardinal Bergoglio?
Woites: He was an early riser. After his prayers, at 7:00 a.m. he already began to receive people. He received everyone. Sometimes they had to wait a bit but he received them. He was well organized and delegated some functions in order to have time for prayer, to receive people and to be able to visit the parishes and places where he was invited.
ZENIT: How did he manage his work in the diocese?
Woites: Although they said that he paid attention to the smallest details, Bergoglio had four auxiliary bishops in charge of the four vicariates in which the diocese of Buenos Aires is divided. [Then] at his headquarters as archbishop, he had two right-hand men: the vicar-general, Bishop Joaquín Sucunza, and, following Archbishop Bergoglio’s idea of going out to the street, he also had a pro vicar-general, Bishop Eduardo García, vicar for youth who prepared the Feast of Corpus Christi, the children’s Mass, the procession to Lujan, and the Palm Sunday procession through the streets, etc. Bishop García went to Rome to greet him personally on behalf of the whole archdiocese.
ZENIT: What did this system of delegating functions allow him to do?
Woites: Without this organization he would not have been able to take the bus because time is lost. Nor could he have been able to give a home to the poor. Once a month he had a meeting of the Presbyteral Council — some 30 priests chosen by his priests, close to 500 diocesan priests, in other words a collegial part of the archdiocesan administration.
ZENIT: What economic priorities did he have?
Woites: His right hand in that area was Bishop Sucunza because he has a post in the Episcopate as Vicar for Economic Affairs of the Episcopal Conference. However, if cuts had to be made, Bergoglio used the scissors.
For instance, he had a car that he never used. There was no official car, he was always austere. The archbishopric’s building in front of the Casa Rosada is not a luxury building. On the floor where he received people, he had no big office. He received them next to the Secretariat, on a small chair.
ZENIT: And in his personal life?
Woites: He began audiences at 7:00 a.m.; he spent much time giving audiences. He was very pastoral. He [lunched] very frugally. He slept some 40 minutes and in the afternoon he visited the parishes. He would not agree to large meetings, forums, but preferred meetings of priests or patron saint day [gatherings]. He always tried to stay in contact with the parish. That is why he surprised people, because he would arrive in a bus when the carpet was being laid down yet he entered by the door next to the sacristy. And he always tried to greet everyone. He always did so here at the door of the Cathedral at the end of the Mass. We have also often seen him praying in a pew in a parish.
ZENIT: In Argentina, there is a big problem with kids dropping out of school?
Woites: Yes, and he was aware of the problem, and created the Vicariate of Education, which worked with other vicariates such as that of Youth, the Social, the Charitable, etc. One vicar more for the slums than for the capital.
ZENIT: Where did he motivate solidarity?
Woites: He promoted a Holy Thursday collection [an archdiocesan solidarity initiative]. Each parishioner was given an envelope and what was collected went to initiatives decided by the presbyterial council. In recent years they were allocated to people in situations of extreme poverty, to people rescued from drugs, to the construction of chapels in the slums, etc.
ZENIT: Let’s go back a bit to the terrible period when everything was very polarized between those who favored military repression and those who supported Liberation Theology.
Woites: He was not a bishop. He was Provincial. He did not have access to the military top brass governing the country. Now people are beginning to learn about it. He took care of his seminarians individually. [One day] he saw a news report on television of a doctor who was involved in human rights and who had her sons in El Salvador [the Savior] School. He facilitated her entry to the school secretly so that she could see her sons.
ZENIT: El Salvador School was in the sights of the military, no?
Woites: Yes, because the Jesuits, let’s say some 40 priests, each was doing his own thing, as opposed to other Congregations in which all worked together. Among them, there were persons of opposing thought and so both El Salvador and the Catholic University of Cordoba were in the sights of the military.
ZENIT: It seems he was able to maintain a balanced position.
Woites: He really did succeed here. He came out without a stain. Let’s keep in mind that today everything is looked into and although there are those who have tried to sully him, the very same human rights persons have come out to defend him. We must realize that sometimes there are people outside the Church who do not attack Bergoglio himself but the Church. He handled it very well, always looking at things with the eyes of faith, helped by the profound prayer he has always had and God helps in decision making.[Translation by ZENIT]