Behind every great man is several great women.
Pope Francis once said of his grandmother, Rosa: “I received my first Christian witness from this woman: my grandma! It’s a beautiful thing to receive this first in the home, with the family” (Vigil of Pentecost, 18, May 2013). Every word he said about his grandmother unleashed a smile, and in his eyes I read the profile of this extraordinary woman, to whom Jorge Mario Bergoglio owes his very vocation.
“This makes me think,” he said, “of the love of many mothers and grandmothers in transmitting the faith. This was true even in the early days, as seen when St. Paul said to Timothy: ‘I remember the faith of your mother and your grandmother.’ All mothers who are here, all grandmothers – think about this! Think about handing on the faith.” Once, he was asked how an all-male society would fare. “Austere, hard, and devoid of sanctity,” he said (Jorge Mario Bergoglio and Abraham Skorka, On Heaven and Earth): not really a commendable response for the boys.
But what of women? To put the Pope’s view succinctly, they bring tenderness and motherhood into the world. Women welcome society, embrace it, and transform it in community. If there were another name for woman, it would be ‘gift.’ And while it’s true that only a man can be ordained a priest (just like those men chosen by Jesus himself), the greatest realities of Christianity – the Church, the soul, and of course Mary – are all feminine in nature. It should be no surprise, then, that among the Pope’s colleagues in the Curia, there are many members of the laity – and among them, many women.
We have thus far said little of Bergoglio’s mother’s role in his formation. In fact, it took Regina years to come to terms with the fact that her son was called to be a priest. She was a beautiful woman characterized by a reassuring and cheerful demeanor. Like her husband, Mario, she was Italian. It was Regina who passed on to her five children her love of opera. She would gather them around the radio, explaining the development of the story as the opera moved along. A wonderful memory, according to the Pope. And there was no doubt that this memory lives on in the minds of the boys at the Colegio Máximo, who still remember when, waving their tickets in hand, Regina would accompany them to the theatre to listen to (and better acquaint them with) the secrets of the opera.
Young Jorge grew up with his grandmother Rosa while mom and dad took care of their second son, born just a few months after him. Rosa was a woman of deep spirituality, able to hold the attention of her grandchildren while talking about Jesus and explaining the catechism. The Pope’s first Christian witness came from her in the form of gestures, words, and devotions.
Every year on Good Friday, she would take her grandchildren to the candlelight processions. Upon approaching the statue of Christ, she would have the children kneel down and say, “Look – he is dead now, but tomorrow he will rise.” When Jorge decided to become a priest, his grandmother feigned surprise, but in her heart she had it all figured out. It was Nonna’s reassuring words that sustained Bergoglio during his seminary years. She approved of his choice, but reminded him that the door was always open if ever he decided to come back home. And in the midst of all this, his mother maintained a substantially closed silence of non-acceptance.