When I Met the Pope and Saw Him Burn with Joy

He used to be a man who rarely smiled. Then something astonishing happened.

pope francis
Tim O’Brien

We met for only a minute in June 2013, a few months after his surprise election, and although he had his hand on my arm the whole time, he didn’t speak. My wife thinks it was because I didn’t let him get a word in edgewise.

But the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics doesn’t normally say much, if he has nothing particular to say; and anyhow, he was worn out. His breathing was labored—he’d nearly died in lung surgery when he was 21—and there was sweat on his forehead, a little. He was a man of 76 who had just spent two hours under the sun in St. Peter’s Square greeting and hugging those he calls God’s holy faithful people. On occasion—such as the time he kissed the man appallingly disfigured by neurofibromatosis—the image is so tender that newspapers put it on their front pages, which is not what they used to do with popes.

The point is that the front-row-Wednesday-audience-ticket people like me come last these days. We’re not Pope Francis’s focus. It’s the disabled and the sick and the old and the homeless whom he puts first, just like in the Gospel.

Yet Pope Francis was totally present during that minute, listening closely to every word of my Spanish. And it was enough to get a sense of what people who meet him talk about—this thing, this quality, that comes off him. The archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, nailed it when he met him a few days after I did. The Pope, he said afterward, was “humanity on fire.” That’s it. If joy were a flame, you’d need to be made of asbestos not to get burned up by Pope Francis.

In the Pope’s native city of Buenos Aires, Argentina, this joy astonishes even the people who knew him best. Sure, his smile has always been delightful, but it didn’t come out much during his 12 years as cardinal. He didn’t like cameras, hardly ever gave interviews, and was famous for his austerity and shyness. You’d never find him at a dinner party, and although the slum dwellers and the hookers and the anti-trafficking syndicates knew him well, he could get on and off buses and subways without being recognized. His words were always elegant, and they stabbed home, but they were delivered in a funereal, hushed voice. Now look at him, they say in Buenos Aires. You can’t believe it. He’s a day on the beach.

Here’s what happened. It’s not a secret, because he’s told it to a number of people, including the evangelical pastor in Buenos Aires who told me; but not many know. On the evening of his election, March 13, 2013, under Michelangelo’s great frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, the cardinals’ votes had gone his way—past the 77 he needed to be elected—and he was asked if he accepted. “Yes,” he said, “even though I am a great sinner.” To a subsequent question, he said he would take the name Francis, after the poor man of Assisi. It was all done confidently, without a moment of doubt, because he knew this was his task now, his mission.

But after vesting in the white papal soutane and starting down the long corridor toward the balcony of the loggia of St. Peter’s to show himself to the world, he was suddenly beset by doubt and darkness. Providentially, his predecessor, Benedict XVI, had modified the procedures to allow the new Pope to pray in the Pauline Chapel before going out on the balcony. There, with his friend the Brazilian cardinal Cláudio Hummes kneeling by his side, Jorge Mario Bergoglio had an experience of light and freedom that banished the dark feelings and that has never left him since.

The director of Vatican TV, who was following the Pope with a camera, has confirmed all of this. Monsignor Dario Viganò said that when Pope Francis entered the chapel, he looked as if the whole weight of the world was on his shoulders, but when he left, he was a different man, as he is now. “It’s the grace of the office,” Pope Francis tells Argentine friends who ask him why he’s changed.

I was on the roof of a convent overlooking the square that night, commentating for the British TV channel Sky News. I would have been as flummoxed as the other pundits who hadn’t had Cardinal Bergoglio on their lists had it not been for a tip-off from a cardinal too old to vote, who had seen him emerge as papabile in the cardinals’ pre-conclave gatherings. “If it’s a short conclave,” was the message that reached me, “it could be Bergoglio.” So I had a few minutes to prepare some points (76-year-old Jesuit; humble, man of the poor; runner-up in previous conclave—that kind of thing), but all the while, I kept thinking, Wow. They’ve elected an Argentine. 

pope francis in a crowd
Alessio Mamo/Redux

I knew his country. Twenty years ago, I lived in Buenos Aires, researching a thesis on the Church and politics. I learned to love this captivating and infuriating city, its people and its rhythms, its culture and history and music; and in time, my Spanish sprouted local inflections and colorful idioms.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio isn’t just an Argentine but a porteño—from the port city of Buenos Aires—who sucks the green smoky tea called maté through a gourd and metal straw and is crazy for the plucky San Lorenzo football team: When he was ten, he witnessed with his dad the amazing run of goals scored by René “the Egg” Pontoni. He loves tango and milongas and the nostalgic cowherd poems of the 19th century, with their lament for a vanishing frontier. When he was active in the Jesuit order, he taught for two years at a high school and managed to invite the great short-story teller Jorge Luis Borges—who at that stage could barely see but was entering his prime—to tell the kids about gaucho poetry. Need I go on? The Pope is as porteño as a couple sliding to an accordion down on Corrientes Avenue.

So I felt this strange connection with the smiling figure in white who emerged on the balcony that rain-cooled night in Rome, who bowed his head and asked for our prayers. And that sense only increased the next morning, when I watched the message he live-streamed back home, to the folk outside his cathedral on the Plaza de Mayo. On the balcony, he had spoken in accented Italian; but now out came this lilting, colloquial porteño—think of a pope speaking Noo Joisy or Brooklyn, and you’ll get the idea.

His gentle message asked them to care for one another, not to rub one another the wrong way. But he used a colloquial Argentinism—“don’t take anyone’s skin off”—that comes from the days before refrigeration plants, when gauchos flayed the cattle and just left the carcasses. It seemed odd to think of a pope speaking like that. And as each day went by, as he wooed the world, I became more and more anxious to know his past. Then came that minute’s meeting in June—a Canadian cardinal had got me the tickets—when I realized I could make this Argentine’s past intelligible to English speakers.

In October last year, armed with a book contract, I was back in Buenos Aires, spending weeks interviewing those who knew him: the Jesuits, the parish priests, and the bishops; the rabbis and the imams and the pastors; the philosophers and the politicians, the migrant slum dwellers and the war veterans. I even had my hair cut at his barber’s. Sometimes, taking Line A of the subway—which used to carry him from the Plaza de Mayo, where he lived in the diocesan offices, to his home barrio of Flores—I imagined him sitting opposite me, head cocked as he listened to someone’s hope or anxiety.

Some of the most moving interviews were with those who knew him well, who said goodbye to him at the start of 2013. He had laughingly reassured them there was no risk, that he was too old, that he’d be back for the Easter liturgies. He never came back. But nor did he die or disappear. He was on billions of TV screens, in white—gone yet not gone. It’s a strange kind of grief: Your friend, your spiritual father, went to Rome to elect a pope and got elected himself. His lawyer friend Alicia was in a bar at the time of that shock and burst into tears. “He’s my friend,” she told the bar, by way of explanation.

There are two keys to Pope Francis. One is that you can’t eradicate poverty except by loving the poor. The other is that you can’t love the poor if you cling to stuff—your schemes and your ideas—and that if you can let go, you can let God be God. That’s what he was showing that day in the square. It’s why he didn’t need to say much. And it’s why I didn’t need more than a minute with him to be set on fire.

austen ivereigh
Joe McKendry for Reader’s Digest
Austen Ivereigh’s biography of Pope Francis, The Great Reformer, will be published in November by Henry Holt.

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Austen Ivereigh
Austen Ivereigh's biography of Pope Francis, The Great Reformer, will be published in November by Henry Holt.