My Search for the Real Pope Francis

An excerpt from “Pilgrimage”

By Mark K. Shriver

When you stand in the middle of the Plaza de la Misericordia, in the Flores barrio of Buenos Aires, and see the kids playing soccer, and watch the rickety old carousel spin, and smell the fragrance of the purple jacaranda tree; when you see the statue of a mother embracing a child with the inscription “May the son that is brought up by the mother, with infinite tenderness, to be a source of love and peace, never become an instrument of hatred that generates destruction”; when you look at the tall, slender palm trees whose spiderweb of shadows dots the red gravel paths — you have got to believe in something. Be it God, or merely the grandeur of nature or the goodwill of mankind, the park elicits an irresistible feeling of goodness.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s childhood home, about two blocks away, today is a simple two-story semidetached house with a nondescript white concrete balcony running the length of the second floor. The second floor is made of bricks; the first floor has faux marble covering what must be cinder blocks. The garage takes up about one-third of the first floor and is covered with wood panels. A sign is nailed to the house: in this house lived pope francis. legislature of the autonomous city of buenos aires, march 2013.

Just a block down from the Bergoglio house is a small triangular park, Herminia Brumana Square, which was under construction when I visited. When Jorge was young, this small area was a place to kick a soccer ball. If you wanted more space, you went two blocks up to the Plaza de la Misericordia.

The plaza is where, as a boy, Jorge played soccer and no doubt paused every once in a while to sniff the jacaranda’s fragrance.

The people who label neighborhoods by economic categories today call Flores lower middle class. When Jorge was a boy there in the 1940s, they would have called it middle class, as that socioeconomic category was much more pervasive during Argentina’s wealthier heyday. As I stood there in November of 2014, I called it bliss.

Flores lies between two distinct sides of Buenos Aires — a part that people say reminds them of central Paris and a part that reminds them of some neighborhoods of Lima, Peru. That is to say, to the northeast are the gorgeous buildings from Argentina’s Belle Époque glory days, the wide boulevards that resemble those of Paris, and the coffee shops and steakhouses. To the southwest are slums that rival the worst urban pits of Latin America — multilevel apartments slapped together al- most upon each other, separated only by tiny alleys. Trash fills the gutters, and the sidewalks teem with people waiting for buses and makeshift food vendors. Razor wire sits on top of many walls to keep would-be thieves away, and there are police decked out in riot gear at random checkpoints.

Anyone seeking to understand the zealous faith and socioeconomic commitments of Pope Francis, as well as his geniality and discipline, must visit his homeland, stopping first in this barrio called Flores where he grew up and where his heart and imagination still wander.

I have spent more than two years visiting Jorge’s haunts, reading his letters and speeches, and thinking about his life and its effect on our world. Each of us is formed in the cauldron of our experiences; for Francis, at least six experiences from his boyhood in Flores helped define the man who would bring me, and I believe much of our world, to rethink our lives and faith.

First, he grew up in the enchanting, almost magical realm created by his charismatic Italian grandmother, Rosa. Many of us can relate to this experience, and it is worth understanding the first and most powerful influence on young Jorge in order to grasp the uniqueness of his youth.

Second, from his schools to his streets, from his family to his friends, Jorge experienced a fundamental and privileged serenity that has powerfully shaped his demeanor and perspective. I first felt it at that park in Flores, but I experienced it again and again as I moved through his world. Though his youth was not a privileged one financially, it surely was emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually se- cure.

Third, Jorge was raised at a moment in Argentine history when a sociological, as much as a political, phenomenon called Peronismo was born. Of course, Juan and Eva Perón were at the center of this cultural earthquake. Peronismo continues to undergo many iterations, but the era during which the Bergoglios and millions of other hardworking immigrant families embraced Peronismo heavily influenced Pope Francis’s worldview.

Fourth, there are more Italian immigrants in Argentina, and particularly in Buenos Aires, than there are people from any other country. Pope Francis grew up in the golden age of Italian immigration to Argentina. The people of Buenos Aires are called Porteños. The word, meaning literally “people of the port,” feeds the notion of Buenos Aires not so much as a capital but as a city-state, a stand-alone realm apart from, if not superior to, the rest of Argentina and especially Latin America. And the customs and culture of Buenos Aires, more unique and powerful than those of any other place I have ever been, are illuminating, for they help explain how a pope like no other comes from a place like no other.

Fifth, Jorge was a budding man of science. His job in a chemistry lab in Flores and his first mentor, Esther Ballestrino, his boss at that lab, impressed him with the value of scientific thinking and logic and shaped his rational worldview and practical approach to being a leader.

Sixth, so many of the stories in the history of Catholic experience, from Saint Paul to Thomas Merton, from Saint Augustine to Saint

Ignatius of Loyola, entail a conversion, an often sudden, startling event that transforms the trajectory of a life. Jorge heard his life- changing call at age sixteen in Flores, and a view of it from the very confessional in the basilica where it occurred sets the stage for Jorge Mario Bergoglio to become Pope Francis.

By opening these six windows and looking at his boyhood through them, we can better comprehend how and why an eighty-year-old man is joyfully reforming a two-thousand-year-old institution, one person at a time.

Mark Shriver

From the book PILGRIMAGE: My Search for the Real Pope Francis by Mark Shriver. Copyright © 2016 by Mark Shriver. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.