Olga Wornat, an Argentine journalist and writer, is one of the few people outside the Church that has interacted closely with Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the current Pope Francis. She interviewed him while researching her book “Nuestra Santa Madre, historia pública y privada de la iglesia católica,” (“Our Holy Mother, A Public and Private History of the Catholic Church), and they’ve been close since then.
Huffpost Voces spoke with her about his personality, the controversies that surround him, and about the dark side of the man who is now known as the “Pope of the poor.”
Who is the man behind Pope Francis?
Like all Jesuits, he is a fascinating character. He belongs to a congregation of intellectually brilliant people, and he is that way. He is a very enigmatic man, who keeps a low profile. The Jesuits are the Church’s most brilliant, they really like the Church, and they are interested in politics. His appointment is very curious because it is the first time that a Jesuit reaches such a high position, especially taking into account that the Jesuit congregation was chastised by John Paul II. He practically forced them to disappear because he saw them as a congregation of Marxists, rebels, revolutionaries.
How did you become his biographer?
I met Bergoglio when he was at the Buenos Aires’ archdiocese and he was the right hand of Cardinal Quarracino. He worked a lot with the poor. He is an austere man with a very fragile health. He is the son of an Italian family. His mom was a middle-class Italian.
Why do you say he is health is fragile?
He had tuberculosis when he was a child, and that had important consequences. He lacks the upper side of his right lung and he has angina pectoris. That is why he swims a lot.
How would you describe him from your perspective?
He is a difficult man because he didn’t speak much. Rather, he listens. He is a man of few words, and contrary to John Paul II he is not a great conversationalist. He is very distrustful. When I was researching my book, I am not sure if he liked the fact that I was writing about the Argentine Catholic Church, but he agreed to talk to me. I told him that there was going to be an important chapter that would be about him, and he got nervous –especially because there is a dark time in his life that has to do with the military dictatorship.
What was Pope Francis’ position during Argentina’s military dictatorship?
There are very contradictory accounts about the degree of collaboration that he maintained with the dictatorship during those years. I spoke with Jesuits, with members of the congregation, which point him out as a collaborator. Bergoglio was a man who at that time was the director of the Colegio Máximo, which is a school in the province of Buenos Aires where all the Jesuits from the Southern Cone are formed. There are concrete allegations against him –I have them—about how he supposedly gave the government lists with the names of the members of the Company of Jesus who were involved with the guerrillas, the men who had leftist or revolutionary inclinations. Two of them, whom I interviewed, voiced strong accusations against him.
Did you speak about the subject with the Pope? What did he tell you?
He denied it; he said it wasn’t true, and that in fact he used to meet with the members of the military junta to ask about the priests that had been kidnapped. It is a cloud that hovers over his history as a priest, one that is dark and contradictory. There are those who love him and those who hate him. There is no middle term with him. But that is not the only dark story in his past.
What is the other dark story in Pope Francis’ life?
He never told me why the Company of Jesus punished him. He was sent to a sort of spiritual getaway to an Argentinian city, and he was there for a long time. While he was there he was isolated and he suffered from a profound depression. He is a man who is intellectually fascinating, and politically inconsistent. He is a staunch opponent of abortion, of marriage equality and its respective policy regarding adoption, but in his personal life he is a very warm man. He never raises his voice and he is very intelligent. He listens to you and he is curt. When you ask him a question, he responds with few words –just what needs to be said—and whenever he says goodbye, he says, “Pray for me.”
What was the reason for that punishment that he refuses to comment?
There are many stories, and I don’t want to say anything because I’m currently writing about it and there are still a lot of facts to confirm. But I can say that he is like everyone else in the Company of Jesus. He is shy, lonely, and he is not a charismatic man. Nevertheless, he shares a great connection with the poor.
The Jesuits are very progressive in their way of thinking, somewhat left-wing, and because of that some people hate them and some people love them. He has very austere ways. He always turned down official cars. He liked to ride public buses, the metro, and he used to walk to poor neighborhoods. When he was a cardinal in Argentina, he organized a tribute for Carlos Mujica, a leader of the Third World priests who was murdered by the Triple A [a right wing Peronist paramilitary movement] in 1975. He went all the way to Retiro [a poor neighborhood in Buenos Aires, where land was seized without permission]. This shows the light and the shadows that forms his personality.
What is Pope Francis’ position regarding the dark side of the Church, the child abuse allegations?
I had a personal incident with him related to that subject. When I wrote the book, I dedicated a chapter to Archbishop Storni, who was the third ranked member of the Catholic Church in Argentina. I denounced him for the abuses he committed against the seminarians from the province of Santa Fe. There was a terrible scandal at the time.
The archbishop sought refuge in the Vatican and Ratzinger [Benedict XVI], who was in charge of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith while John Paul II was still alive, asked Storni to return to Argentina, to resign, and to turn himself in. I talked to Bergoglio about the situation and I asked him if they were going to defend him. He answered, 'The justice will take care of him.' After that, I found out that the lawyers that were defending Storni in the case of the seminarians were lawyers that were hired by the Argentinian episcopate, of which Bergoglio was a member.
I talked to him about this and I told him that what they were doing was terrible, because the episcopate was paying for the lawyers of a man who had abused 14-year-old teenagers. There was even an investigation led by the Argentinian Church. He didn’t respond. He just told me that that’s how things were, and that the Church’s laws were very strict.
Knowing him, what do you expect of Bergoglio as Pope?
We are not going to see a man who will make the big changes because he is a man of the Church. Yes, he is a man of great social sensibility, a brilliant man, but not someone who will embark on the great reforms. He is not prone to pomp, and he doesn’t like people to kiss his ring. He hates that. I gather that now he will have to follow those protocols, though maybe not, because even when he was a cardinal he wouldn’t allow people to kiss his ring. He didn’t like that. I even saw him dressed as a civilian when he was a cardinal, contrary to what all the others do. He is a Jesuit. You have to read Saint Ignatius of Loyola to understand Bergoglio.