“I felt joy and hope knowing that it is a man of God charged with the cross of the service of the Church and the world, in love.”
-Bishop Virginio Bressanelli, SCJ
Last week we published a few brief thoughts from Bishop Virginio Bressanelli on the naming of fellow Argentine, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, as pope. The following is excerpted from a more extensive interview that he did for the German Province.
QUESTION: What was your first reaction upon hearing the news of the election of Bishop Bergoglio?
BISHOP BRESSANELLI: My first reaction was one of surprise. I did not expect that Cardinal Bergoglio would be elected even if I believed that it could be a very good choice. We thought that his age  might be one reason why he would not be elected.
Feelings of surprise were taken over by the fear that he would suffer greatly as pope because I saw suffering in Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI. These men accepted their call with faith and love but I saw them suffer under constant criticism from many sectors, especially from inside of the Church itself, and even sometimes by religious.
Finally, I felt joy and hope knowing that it is a man of God charged with the cross of the service of the Church and the world, in love. He will listen to the Lord, who will tell him how to follow Peter. The joy of the people in my diocese has had a strong impact; people poured into churches and chapels to celebrate his election. I myself celebrated in the cathedral, which was filled.
The joy of the people is great but also measured. There was the euphoria that you see after football matches. It’s a joy full of hope but also a sense of responsibility to support and accompany Francis in his ministerial service.
QUESTION: What was your relationship to Cardinal Bergoglio?
BISHOP BRESSANELLI: He was a great pastor, a great bishop, a true leader in the church in Argentina. He had a style of closeness to people, collegial governance, communion between the bishops and laity in all areas of ministry. He reflected and responded to the socio-political and cultural challenges of an emerging culture.
I’ve known him since the 1980s. We lived in the same city [San Miguel] in Buenos Aires, 40 kilometers [about 25 miles] from the capital of Argentina. I was a formator and he was rector of the Jesuits’ seminary. Then I saw him in Rome at the 2001 Synod. He was already a cardinal in Buenos Aires and I was superior general of our congregation.
I’ve seen him other times in Rome, and then in Argentina when I was appointed bishop [in 2005]. We worked together in the Episcopal Conference for eight years on a standing committee.
I’ve always seen him as a teacher and as a counselor. I have often discussed pastoral problems with him. He is a man who listens with great attention. He then takes a long time of silence before speaking. He practices good Jesuit discernment.
I am one of the seven bishops in Patagonia, a vast region that is about one third of Argentina. Patagonia has few priests. Many areas are inhospitable. We often lack human and material resources. Cardinal Bergoglio was close and always helped us. He promoted a sense of mission in his priests by sending the best. He would not send us just anyone. His policy was to send priests who were balanced, and filled with apostolic zeal and a good spiritual life. He also helped us economically. We have our seminarians in Buenos Aires, at the Theological Faculty of the Catholic University of Argentina, due to the fact that Cardinal Bergoglio loaned us a big house without cost and also paid the tuition of our seminarians at the university. We hope that his successor will continue this.
QUESTION: Cardinal Bergoglio was known as a bishop of the poor. What do you think will be his contribution to the Church?
BISHOP BRESSANELLI: Cardinal Bergoglio lived a simple lifestyle; sober and austere. He left his episcopal residence to live unpretentiously at the curia. He used some of the liturgical clothing of his predecessor, refitting it for his smaller frame. His episcopal insignia is simple.
He used public transportation (subway or busses) in the city. There are some nice anecdotes of his travels on public transportation on early Sunday mornings; he often visited with young people who were returning home after a late night of dancing and fun.
However, what was most significant was his approach to the poor, those of the slums. He supported priests who worked with the poor, and fought to end the exploitation of people that took place in human trafficking. He fought against drugs and against those who denied rights to others. He preached on equality of all and against the inertia of bureaucracy that can perpetuate the dire situations of the poor.
He gave very beautiful homilies and reflections on all these issues.
Cardinal Bergoglio also visited people in prison and people in difficulty. He was never at the cathedral on Holy Thursday. He always chose a place where he could wash the feet of the most humble and the poor.
His love for the poor led to criticism of the root causes of poverty. Together with the other bishops, he addressed this issue many times, trying to be proactive instead of simply diagnosing the social, political and economic problems of Argentina. His interventions were not always reflected accurately in the media.
Cardinal Bergoglio is a spiritual man. He is a pastor. He is an intellectual who is well read. He is not naïve; not easy to fool.
Certain sectors who are very critical of the Church, and unfortunately, close to the government, accused him of not having done more when two Jesuits were kidnapped and tortured when he was provincial superior. However, extensive investigations, including work by Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolf Pérez Esquivel, revealed that such accusations were without merit and that instead, during that time, Bergoglio saved many people by hiding them within his community.
Continuing to reflect on his solidarity with the poor, he contacted us, his fellow bishops in Argentina, knowing that we would like to go to his inauguration in Rome. He asked us to pray for him and instead use the money that we would have spent on travel to benefit the poor. It is a message to the Church and to the world of simplicity and austerity.
In his first words he spoke of himself as the “bishop of Rome;” he did not use the word “pope.” Does this have a meaning? Does it speak to the relationship of local churches and the Church of Rome? It is also interesting that he speaks of Benedict as the “retired bishop of Rome.”
Spiritually and theologically I think he wants to first be thought of as a shepherd who “walks with his people,” whose power is not based in government or political interests but it is only the power of the Gospel, grace and charity.
Francis identified the call to serve in communion with Christ. Asking for the blessing of the people before he gave them a blessing as the pastor of the Church of Rome and the world, this reflected how he will think and live as the successor of Peter.
In Argentina, Cardinal Bergoglio was famous for his homilies: short, precise and with many messages attached. He is a person who speaks what he lives. The Spanish language is very nice, and can be original. It is a language close to the young. He had a way of talking about important issues by speaking the essence of the Gospel.
In regards to evangelization he spoke of popular Catholicism and popular spirituality, not simply of “popular religion.” He embraced an urban pastoral style that is characterized by joy, enthusiasm and a proximity to people. He was open to new forms of presence and innovative apostolic initiatives.
Finally, I will tell you that Francis can make major changes in the Church. But I think that he will make them in his own way, through a slow process. He is a man with a firm hand, with determination, sustained by faith in Jesus Christ and an ability to see the design of the Spirit in current history.