by Fr. Peter Short
Parish Administrator, Our Lady of the Snow Parish, Snowflake AZ
Between September 22 and 26, I made a quick visit to Rome where I had an extraordinary opportunity to visit with Pope Francis. I should clarify that my participation in all of this was purely coincidental. That is, entirely unmerited and unexpected. Javier Cámara has been a journalist for an important secular newspaper of the city of Córdoba and the center of Argentina for many years now but long before that (since 1982, when he was 12) has been a “spiritual son” and dear friend of mine. The same can be said of Monica, his wife, and as all who have visited me in Córdoba know, their two families quickly became my “home away from home” since I arrived in that city.
When Pope Francis was elected, Javier realized that the city of Córdoba had been his home on two occasions and thought it would be interesting to write a book about it. After obtaining the mail of the Pope’s secretary through the archbishop of Córdoba, he sent a list of questions to clarify different points for his research. To his surprise one day the Pope called Javier by phone and announced himself as “Jorge Bergoglio”, Javier thought it was his brother (also named Jorge) joking but realized soon that it was really the Pope who wanted to know what the book was about and when Javier wanted him to call him to answer the questions. So, over a six month period, several phone calls were made, and Javier was able to complete the book, which, although it deals with his whole life, focused principally on his time in Córdoba and its importance to understand him. It really is a good book (Javier sent me a manuscript when he finished it some weeks ago). Javier arranged for a meeting with the Pope to present to him the book personally and months ago asked if I would accompany him. After discussing it with my bishop I said yes, but was frankly afraid it meant another week out of the parish. I already had too many Mission appeals in different parts of the country scheduled since I thought I would still be in my small parish in Alpine. As it turned out, on Aug. 5th, the feast of Our Lady of the Snow (title of my parish), the date of the audience was confirmed, and it was during a week I would already be out of the parish waiting between appeals in the Josephinum Pontifical seminary in Columbus, so the timing was perfect. (It is too much to go into here but many details of the trip seemed too coincidental not to be Providential).
We arrived on Tuesday morning on different flights (the other co-author Sebatian Pfaffen, arrived with his wife some days earlier) and before even getting to the baggage claim I ran into Javier and Monica in the airport. We were staying at the General house of the Mercedario Fathers (I am not sure how their name is translated in English) whose Father General is a Cordobes that we knew and who collaborated with the newspaper in the latter years before his election and move to Rome. The Fathers were more than generous with us, treating us as part of the community. Again, as Providence would have it, the next morning – Wednesday September 24 – is the feast of their Order, Our Lady of the Merced, and both the Fathers and we had special tickets for the general audience. Javier used his contacts to obtain special seating among the Argentine special guests in the audience and so on Wednesday, after waiting to receive the tickets in the Porta Santa Ana under a light rain, we were escorted through the back to the audience which had already begun. As typical Argentines, we arrived late, made a bit of a commotion with the chairs etc., but were excited to be relatively close to the Holy Father to the left of the podium. At the end of the sermon, the Holy Father drew close to greet the sick and those that were closer to the podium. We were not in the front line, but Javier and the others drew close enough to shout out a greeting to the Holy Father and shake his hand as he passed. To our utter astonishment (and this was taped by Sebastian) after receiving the simple greeting of Javier, he replied: “We’ll see you tomorrow, to see what nonsense you’ve written about me”. He recognized Javier’s voice and remembered the audience that was planned for the next day. In fact, we knew that he had the audience in mind since he had been talking with a Jesuit friend of his in Córdoba who knows and works with Javier, and told them to the effect of “yes, next week I have a meeting with the Cordobese journalists”. But to recognize Javier and Sebastian among the thousands that were there left us astounded. Astounded, but not without response, as Sebastian (on top of a chair behind) yelled out happily: “we wrote what you told us”, and the Pope replied laughing: “the same words, the SAME words” and with that walked on. The reference was to a couple of humorous stories, one in particular that he had told them by phone. In the story, the priest involved used foul language which Pope Francis related without holding back. Javier, in order not to scandalize, had changed slightly the words, but when in a later conversation the Pope heard what he had done made him change it back to the original, adding “but you probably better write it without mentioning that I told you this story…”! Thus the reference to the “same words”.
The rest of the day we spent sightseeing and doing interviews that Javier had arranged (they did the interviews; I accompanied and watched in some). That evening we found out that the General of the Order of the Mercedarios, who had also been in another special spot in the audience, spoke to the Holy Father who asked him (before even getting to the above conversation with Javier) to “come with the Cordobeses who have an audience with me tomorrow, and bring mate!” ( “Mate” is a drink typical to Argentina, Chile, Paragual and Uruguay, a type of tea prepared in a small cup and drunk with a small strainer in the form of a straw. If there is more than one person in the group, one person serves the mate (adding more warm water from a thermos) after each one drinks from the same cup. It is a stimulant similar to coffee as well as a digestive drink.)
There is a funny story behind this, which Fr. Paul (the Cordobes Father General of the Mercarios) had told us the day before: at a meeting with the superiors of the different Orders he had approached the Holy Father and offered him mate. Later that afternoon the Pope had another important meeting and Fr. Paul had returned to his house (where we were staying). Suddenly two security men from the Holy See showed up looking for the “little priest, who gave the Holy Father the drink that morning”. They were very serious and Fr. Paul was quite nervous thinking something went wrong and they were coming to question him, but then they added “he wants some more!” So while he heated water he dressed in his habit (very similar to the Dominicans) and climbed into the official vehicle which began to race down the road – the wrong way – with sirens blaring and lights, and all the while Fr. Paul in the back of the van trying to serve himself the first mate (which etiquette dictates you never give to anyone but yourself) without spilling the mate tea all over his white habit!
As it turns out, at midday Thursday the Superior informed Javier by phone he would not be able to make it but another Father would take us to the audience. Thus Mónica was in charge of mate. We arrived at the Vatican about 4:45 for our 5 pm audience and went in though the Porta Santo Officio, the side of Saint Peter’s where the St. Martha residence is, which is where the Pope now lives. At no time did anyone check anything (such as our many bags of books and articles to be blessed), nor ask anything of us except if we were the party of Javier Camara. With that we were in the papal receiving room. (Someone should revise the security protocol I think!)
The Pope arrived 5 minutes early, alone, and after the introductions and greetings we sat around the receiving room and he began to talk about the stories he had told to Javier as well as other stories. He spoke with me about the Oblates in Argentina (many of whom he knew) and his “analysis” of what happened there. He spoke also of Cura Brochero and many things about his life in Argentina. He gave us the impression that he was happy to have someone to talk to and reminisce with without protocol, and he shared mate with us. So you could say we had mate with the Pope.
At a certain point he said: “if you can stay a little longer (as though we were going to leave if he did not throw us out) I will go get something upstairs I forgot”. And off he went to get some gifts he prepared for the journalists. Now there were several guards outside in the hall in front, but he did not ask them to get the stuff but rather after a few minutes came in again with a huge shopping bag (some department store in Italy as I recall) with religious articles for us. Again he asked (as if we were going to refuse) if we wanted some rosaries and “I am a little ashamed to offer these, but I know the people like them, they are cards with my picture…if you want them”. Of course we said yes trying to control our enthusiasm. Then he asked us “what more should I do?” and we asked him (rather brazenly since we were growing in confidence) to bless the articles we brought, sign the books (the ones for the authors he also dedicated with a profound and funny phrase: “To Javier Cámara, admired for his courage to delve into ‘lost causes’ and retrieve from there memories of life. May the Lord bless you, pray for me. Francisco.” I was able to present him the book on Archbishop Lamy and the magazine of the diocese describing in a few words the Diocese of Gallup for him. Then there were some pictures with us, and he greeted each of us leaving “because I saw there were some others waiting for me”. But he did not leave without picking up some alfajor cookies which we had brought for him and some of the books. What he could not carry he left on the table saying “One of the secretaries will come and get these, if not I will get them later”. We left a few seconds later, gathering our things and trying to clean some of the mate herb off the papal residence floors.
An hour and 20 minutes had passed.
The conversation helped me to understand a little better what motivates the Holy Father in what he does as well as what are some of his priorities. At a certain point, as mentioned above, learning that I formed part of a Congregation of priests some of whom work in Buenos Aires and were spiritually guided by him, we spoke almost exclusively of some of them who had entered into crisis. With his admirable memory he named them one after the other obviously concerned about each of them. One in particular he spoke about which at the time (some years ago now) caused a large scandal in the church in Argentina. The priest had become in a short time very well known and beloved spiritual father in the Charismatic Renewal. Still as a young priest, when his popularity seemed to be at its highest, he left the ministry and eventually married a woman with whom he had a child. Later he entered into divorce with the woman. The Holy Father recalled that this man remained in contact with him as a “spiritual son”, whom eventually, while archbishop of Buenos Aires, he named vice president of Cáritas (the largest charitable organization of the Church in Argentina). As the Holy Father recalled this I remembered the scandal this caused among some of the faithful (I’m afraid I can include myself at the time). The Pope continued as if to justify the decision: “he is a man of prayer” and he added with noticeable hope “now he is waiting for his child who is seven to grow up so he can come back”. While the Holy Father spoke I could feel rise within me my objections: “Weren’t there other priests, religious or laymen he could have assigned? Why reward this man who walked away from his fruitful priestly life?” and then it hit me: I was thinking precisely like the elder brother of the prodigal son. He was thinking like the good father of the parable.
As he ended this part of the conversation, the Holy Father remarked: “I don’t know where Fr. N. is…” (another colleague of mine who was pastor of a large sanctuary of the Archdiocese and who also left the ministry) “…we should see where he is…” During all of this I should have taken a hint: as he spoke with us he was touching his pectoral cross which contains an image of the Good Shepherd carrying on his shoulders one of his wounded sheep. “And when he does find it, he sets it on his shoulders with great joy and upon his arrival home, he calls together his friends and neighbors and says to them: ‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep’” (Luke 15: 6)
The media focuses on what they perceive as possible changes in the doctrine of the Church, on the pope’s simplicity and breaks with protocol, but there is no question that one of the things that motivates this man is his desire to live the Gospel, in all its simplicity and with all of its practical consequences… I suspect that it will not be easy for us to keep up with him and embrace that same concrete and coherent putting into practice the Gospel. But is that not what renewal in the Church is about? “The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life”. (John 6: 63)
Video via canaldoceblog
Both photos courtesy of Sebastian Pfaffen.