Where Pope Francis Learned Humility

For the pontiff, being humble is less a character trait than a calculated choice.

Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, washes the feet of patients in a shelter for drug users in March, 2008. (Enrique Garcia Medina / Reuters)

“Where’s my briefcase?” asked Pope Francis. The papal entourage had arrived at Fiumicino Airport in Rome for the pontiff’s first trip abroad. Jorge Mario Bergoglio had been pope for just four months and was now bound for Rio de Janeiro, where 3.5 million young people from 178 countries were waiting to greet him at World Youth Day in Brazil. And he could not find his briefcase.

“It’s been taken on board the plane,” an aide explained.

“But I want to carry it on,” said the pontiff.

“No need, it’s on already,” the assistant replied.

“You don’t understand,” said Francis. “Go to the plane. Get the bag. And bring it back here please.”

Members of the press, who were already waiting on the plane, soon saw from their windows that Pope Francis was moving purposefully through a crowd of functionaries to the aircraft, carrying a black briefcase in his left hand. This was a story: Popes had never before carried their own luggage.

During an impromptu press conference on the plane an hour and a half later, after the pope had talked at length about young people who had no jobs and who felt discarded by a society in which old people had long been treated as similarly disposable, one reporter asked what was in the briefcase. “The keys to the atomic bomb aren’t in it,” Francis joked. So what did it contain? “My razor, my breviary, my diary, a book to read—on St Therese of Lisieux to whom I am devoted. ... I always take this bag when I travel. It’s normal. We have to get used to this being normal,” he added.

It’s a new normal: Francis has presented himself to the world as an icon of simplicity and humility, eschewing papal limousines and the grand Apostolic Palace, and instead being driven in a Ford Focus and living in the Vatican guesthouse. But being simple can be a complex business if you are the leader of one of the world’s largest religious denominations and also a head of state. And Francis’s life story shows that humility is not an innate quality of his, but a calculated religious, and sometimes political, choice.

* * *

Bergoglio’s progress through the ranks of the Society of Jesus, a religious order within the Catholic Church also known as the Jesuits, was remarkably speedy. In April 1973, at the age of just 36, he was made provincial superior, the head of all Jesuits in his home country of Argentina as well as neighboring Uruguay. But tensions produced bergogliano and anti-bergogliano factions that divided the province in two and ultimately resulted in the Jesuit headquarters in Rome exiling Bergoglio to Cordoba, Argentina’s second-largest city, some 400 miles from the capital.

There were two main, and intertwined, areas of conflict. One was religious, the other political. The religious division was over the Second Vatican Council, which shook the Catholic Church to its foundations between 1962 and 1965. Vatican II famously threw open the windows of a Church seeking greater interaction with, and influence on, secular society. As different sections of the Church began to explore how to apply the Council’s insights, a polarization occurred, and then deepened, between conservative and progressive factions within the Argentine Jesuits. The conservatives wanted to remain focused on their inner religious life and continue in their traditional social role of educating the next generation of the nation’s rich elite. The progressives wanted a more outward-facing spirituality and a shift to working with the uneducated poor in the shantytowns. The political division centered on Liberation Theology, a new approach to Catholic teaching that declared a need to liberate the poor not just spiritually but also from unjust economic, political, or social conditions. Progressives were enthused. Conservatives rejected the theology as Marxist, and a way of allowing communism into Latin America through the back door.

By his own admission Bergoglio was a political animal. As a teenager he had been interested in the relationship between faith and communism. But his central political formation occurred in the context of Peronism, a peculiarly Argentine amalgam of forces not elsewhere associated with one another: the military, the trade unions, and the Church. Named after General Juan Domingo Peron, who was president of Argentina for a decade from 1946 onwards, Peronism had its roots in Catholic social teachings and involved a new industrialization to boost the economy and a substantial redistribution of wealth to ensure that the working class benefited from it. Peronists thought of themselves as socialists, but many of their policies were closer to the fascism of Mussolini’s Italy or Franco’s Spain. What was distinctive about Peronism was the way it brought together the physical might of the military and the moral authority of the Church to enforce authoritarian policies, which included suppression of the opposition and the press.

This lack of ideological consistency led the Peronist movement to split into dissenting factions. Some extreme leftists developed anti-clerical, anti-Catholic positions. Right-wing Peronists saw themselves as defenders of the nation, private property, and Catholicism against the atheist, communist hordes. These Peronist factions did not just disagree; eventually they set up death squads that roamed the streets targeting opponents in killing sprees targeting opponents. Between 1973 and 1976, a virtual civil war reigned on the streets of Buenos Aires. Some historians have suggested that as many people died in those three years as were killed by the military dictatorship in the so-called Dirty War that followed a 1976 military coup and lasted until 1983. The Jesuits were similarly divided. Progressives sided with grassroots political movements working with the poor. Others, like Bergoglio, were more inclined to see Peronism and the state as the vehicle for solutions.

As polarization grew between an atheist, anti-Church Left and a right wing that claimed to be acting in defense of the Church and its values, Bergoglio found that it was impossible to hold to a middle way. He cracked down on Liberation Theology inside the Jesuits. Progressives within the order accused him of de-facto collusion with the worldview of the Right, if not with its tactics. Looking back he admitted, in his first interview as pope: “I had to deal with difficult situations, and I made my decisions abruptly and by myself. My authoritarian and quick manner of making decisions led me to have serious problems and to be accused of being ultra-conservative.”

A titanic struggle for the soul of Catholicism ensued. Bergoglio had strong support within the Jesuits when he became provincial superior in 1973. But by the time he ended his leadership role as rector of Buenos Aires’s Jesuit seminary in 1986, those who loathed him had begun to outnumber those who loved him. By 1990, his support within the order had been eroded by his authoritarian style and his incorrigible inability, in the words of the Jesuit, Father Frank Brennan, “to let go the reins of office once a [Jesuit] provincial of a different hue was in the saddle.” Another senior Jesuit told me: “He drove people really crazy with his insistence that only he knew the right way to do things. Finally the other Jesuits said: ‘Enough.’”

By the time he was sent into exile, according to one senior Jesuit in Rome, around two-thirds of Argentina’s Jesuits had lost patience with him. In his first interview after becoming pope, Francis attributed this dynamic to his own “style of government as a Jesuit at the beginning. ... I found myself provincial when I was still very young. I was only 36 years old. That was crazy.” As a young priest in powerful leadership positions, Bergoglio did not have the maturity he needed to cope with the competing pressures of Jesuit factions, the Vatican, and a ruthless military dictatorship.

In response to these cleavages within the Argentine Jesuit community, Jesuit leaders in Rome eventually decided to strip Bergoglio, then 50, of all responsibility. In 1990, he was sent to Cordoba to live in the Jesuit residence, pray, and work on his doctoral thesis. But he was not permitted to say Mass in public in the Jesuit church. He could only go there to hear confessions. He was not allowed to make phone calls without permission. His letters were controlled. His supporters were told not to contact him. The ostracism from his peers was to be complete.

* * *

In Cordoba, Bergoglio turned inward. His main public spiritual engagement was hearing confessions. He spent a lot of time looking out the window and walking the streets, from the Jesuit residence to the church along a road that passed through many different areas of the city. People from all walks of life—academics, students, lawyers, and ordinary folk—visited the church for the penitential sacrament. He found his interactions with the poor particularly moving.

“Cordoba was, for Bergoglio, a place of humility and humiliation,” said Father Guillermo Marco, who was later Bergoglio’s right-hand man on public affairs in the diocese of Buenos Aires. There seems to have been more to this than learning from experience. Francis later admitted to having made “hundreds of errors” in his time as leader of Argentina’s Jesuits. Cordoba was, he revealed in his first interview as pope, “a time of great interior crisis.”

In 1992, when Bergoglio returned to Buenos Aires as auxiliary bishop, he had totally remodeled his approach to being a leader. His style became delegatory and participative. And his manner was distinctly different. He developed what became one of his best-known habits: ending all encounters by asking the other person to pray for him.

For the new Bergoglio, humility was more like an intellectual stance than a personal temperament—a tool he developed in his struggle against what he had learned were the weaknesses in his own personality, with its rigid, authoritarian, and egotistical streaks. In Cordoba, Bergoglio had had two long years to reflect on his divisive leadership of the Jesuits in Argentina, and on what he had done wrong or inadequately during the Dirty War.

But the change came from more than that: History was also a major factor. The world has shifted around him. Bergoglio’s early politics were formed in the era of the Cold War, amid the fear that atheistic, Soviet-style communism would supplant both capitalism and Catholicism in Latin America, with Cuba as its toehold. But then the Berlin Wall came down. The Soviet Union and its empire collapsed. Mainstream Catholic teaching absorbed key insights from Liberation Theology—like the idea that sin does not just reside in the bad acts of individuals but can also become embedded in unbalanced economic structures. Globalization only internationalized that injustice. And this truth was brought home to Bergoglio most forcefully during the seismic economic crisis that seized Argentina in 2001, when half the population was plunged below the poverty line. Macroeconomic solutions engineered in Washington by the International Monetary Fund ratcheted up austerity policies that made life harder for the poorest. Bergoglio began to be highly critical of the economic formulas of modern capitalism; he was particularly critical of speculative financial markets for their ability to damage the real economy. To criticize the exploitation of the poor was no longer to risk being seen to side with anti-religious Marxism. Bergoglio began to think differently about extreme poverty. He began to talk like a liberation theologian.

* * *

Bergoglio is a pragmatist rather than an ideologue. In his more conservative younger years, he adopted pre-Vatican II styles of worship, discipline, and theology because he thought they worked better, said his 1975 student Miguel Yanez. But as a bishop and archbishop he embraced many of the central doctrines of Liberation Theology—on poverty, inequality, and economic justice—because they fit his changed priorities.

As Francis settled into the early months of his papacy, big gestures like moving to live in two rooms in a Vatican hostel surprised and even shocked people. But it has since become clear that the gestures are not spontaneous or random responses to situations in which he happens to find himself. They are being planned to set out what is in effect the program of his papacy. Some are directed to the world and draw the attention of the media, but others are aimed at the clerical establishment and at the ordinary faithful.

On the papal plane as Pope Francis flew back to Rome from World Youth Day in Brazil, another incident drew the world’s attention to the new pontiff’s embrace of those whom the Church and society had marginalized or excluded. During his in-flight press conference, Francis was asked if it was true that there were coteries of gay priests in the Vatican, as had been widely reported since leaked Vatican documents had referred to these groups as “the gay lobby.” The pope replied: “We must make the distinction between the fact of a person being gay and the fact of a lobby, because lobbies are not good. They are bad. If a person is gay and seeks the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge that person?”

Those five words “who am I to judge?” reverberated around the globe. They did not change Catholic doctrine but, along with several of the other answers he gave journalists on that flight, sent signals of changed attitudes in many areas. Yet it was the remark about not judging gays that grabbed the attention of the media. The New Yorker headlined its account: “Francis Redefines the Papacy.” What was so subtle about the response, said the American Catholic commentator Michael Sean Winters, was that it was not just a message about homosexuality. “That was incidental,” Winters said. “Pope Francis was really telling us something about what he thinks it means to be a Christian, and especially a Christian leader.”

In fact, it was more than that. As became clear a few months ago, when the pope published his major encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, he is not just addressing Catholics or Christians but, in the words of that document, “all people of good will.” Having changed himself, it appears he wants all the world to undergo a similar conversion.

This article has been adapted from Paul Vallely’s book, Pope Francis: The Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism.