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The time I met the future Pope Francis

pope francis as cardinal 2 – en


Pope Francis while still Cardinal Bergoglio

John Burger - published on 03/19/13

Looking back at what had been "just another conference"
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All eyes should have been on Our Lord, of course, in the Blessed Sacrament. It was a Eucharistic Congress, after all – the 49th International Eucharistic Congress, held in June 2008. The sacred host was exposed for most of each day in a special chapel on the grounds of ExpoCité in Quebec City, Canada. Mass was celebrated daily during the weeklong Congress in a variety of styles inside Pepsi Coliseum. There were also talks and seminars focused on Eucharistic theology, spirituality and devotion.

But, humans being what they are, there was plenty of attention being paid to religious “stars” as well: two priests who were often seen with Pope John Paul II – Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz, his longtime secretary, and Archbishop Piero Marini, the former Master of Papal Liturgical Ceremonies; several cardinals thought to have been papabile in the conclave of 2005, including Francis Arinze and Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga; and a number of well-known lay Catholics, including the French Canadian Jean Vanier, a sort of male Mother Teresa who had founded l’Arche.

A certain bishop from South America didn’t seem to be getting too much attention, and I myself was not too familiar with his name, in spite of my 15 years in the Catholic press. But the catechesis that Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio gave on the morning of June 18 got people talking (you can read an English translation of it at Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam). Delivering his talk in the form of a public lectio divina, Cardinal Bergoglio, who became Pope Francis last week, spoke eloquently of Mary being the first to receive the Eucharistic Lord. Reading it over since the papal election, I was particularly struck by this passage:

For this we might ask: the grace of receiving Communion as Mary received the Word and allow it to take on flesh anew in me; the grace to receive the Eucharist from the hands of the Church using ours as a paten (meaning “manger”), aware it is our Lady who places it there and entrusts us with same; the grace of singing with Mary the Magnificat in that moment of silence that follows Communion; the grace of anticipating in the Eucharist all that will be our day or week, with all the good and positive offered jointly with the bread, and all that suffering and passion offered jointly with the wine; the grace of believing and placing with Love all our hope in that premise and token of salvation we already have in each Eucharist, to later conform our life in the image of that which we receive. Thus, each may derive benefit from that upon which we have meditated.

Marc Cardinal Ouellet, the Archbishop of Quebec and gracious host of the Eucharistic Congress, introduced Cardinal Bergoglio to the press that afternoon in a tent set up to accommodate reporters. In another part of the Catholic world, Dario Cardinal Castrillón Hoyos – a member of the Roman Curia – said that week that Pope Benedict XVI would like every Latin Catholic parish in the world to regularly offer the Extraordinary Form of the Mass along with the Ordinary Form, the “old Latin Mass” along with the “regular” Mass everyone is used to. Pope Benedict had issued his motu proprio Summorum Pontificum a year earlier, giving blanket permission for any priest in the world to offer the so-called Tridentine Mass publicly. It seemed reasonable then to ask the two cardinals at that afternoon’s press conference what their experience of this ancient liturgy had been in their respective archdioceses and if they felt, as some had suggested, that its (presumably increased) use was leading to a greater sense of reverence in the celebration of the Ordinary Form.

So I posed the question. Cardinal Ouellet offered his viewpoint, and he emphasized his concern that the presence of the Extraordinary Form not lead to divisions in the Catholic flock. Cardinal Bergoglio then spoke of the need for Catholics of various stripes to work and pray together.

“Nowadays, the call to the Christian churches is to look at each other as brothers,” Cardinal Bergoglio said, “to pray together, to work together for the others. Let’s walk together (and) in this walk, as His Eminence just said, know our traditions. Theologians study theological problems, but we as Christians have to walk as brothers. That is the way to not scandalize the world with our divisions. It’s to tell the world, ‘Look, we are divided by history, but when we look at each other’s faces and look to know each other, then we can work together.’ That’s the ecumenical moment. And it’s this that a major theologian of the reform called ‘reconciliation of diversity.’”

He couldn’t recall the theologian’s name but said that he and then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger spoke about it during a conference at the University of del Valle in Colombia. “This is the moment we’re living these days,” Cardinal Bergoglio said. “We have reconciled ourselves in walking together and working together and praying together.”

In answer to another reporter’s question, Cardinal Bergoglio said there are different ways to think about “progress.” But in trying to make progress, it’s important to preserve one’s history. “From the history and patrimony you receive you bring it forward,” he said. “In this sense, the Church has to be progressive and go forward as history obliges us to go forward, but without denying any of the road we have walked.”

From what I’m learning about Pope Francis, it would seem that this sense of preserving the past while moving forward would also be informed by his exposure to the Christian East. While serving as Archbishop of Buenos Aires and Primate of Argentina, he also had the responsibility of shepherding Eastern-rite Catholics who did not have a bishop of their own. This was more than a pro-forma role for the Jesuit bishop. According to the Major Archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Sviatoslav Shevchuk, Cardinal Bergoglio “always took care of our Church in Argentina, and as a young bishop, I took my first steps in episcopal ministry under his watchful eyes and help.” Archbishop Shevchuk was Apostolic Administrator of the Diocese of the Protection of the Blessed Mary in Buenos Aires at the time. “Because of this, I am positive that the Holy Father will be a great help to our Church, and I expect that great things await our Church with this Pope,” he said in a statement posted by the Religious Information Service of Ukraine the day of the papal election. “He knows our tradition very well, as well as our liturgy… and our spirituality,” Archbishop Shevchuk said.

There’s another reason he knows that tradition, as Sviatoslav pointed out. It turns out that when Father Bergoglio was a young priest, he found a mentor in a Ukrainian Salesian, Father (later Bishop) Stepan Chmil. He would rise very early each morning to participate in Father Stepan’s celebration of the Divine Liturgy. This liturgy has remained largely unchanged since the time of St. John Chrysostom.

Interestingly, the Mass celebrated the same day as Cardinal Bergoglio’s catechesis was a Byzantine-rite Divine Liturgy presided over by several Ukrainian bishops from Canada. Cardinal Bergoglio delivered his catechesis standing next to one of the icons set up for that liturgy.

And now we learn that the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I of Constantinople, will attend Pope Francis’ inaugural Mass on Tuesday. Such has not happened since the Great Schism of 1054.

While I did not get a sense that Cardinal Bergoglio is a “fan” of the Extraordinary Form of the Latin Mass, it seems he is concerned for the Church’s living tradition, in both East and West, just as Pope Ratzinger was before him. This could be a great opening for dialogue between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches – themselves much concerned with tradition – in the years ahead, particularly as 2054 comes closer into view.

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