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.
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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.