“It’s something I am very grateful to him for, because work has been one of the things that did me most good in life,” said Bergoglio in The Jesuit. Since childhood, Jorge is not accustomed to taking holidays. He started working in the stocking factory where his father dealt with accounts. For the first two years, Jorge did the cleaning, and during the third he dealt with the administration.
Then he started working in a laboratory with an unusual boss, Esther Ballestrino de Careaga, from whom he learned that work must always be taken seriously. Esther was a Paraguayan and a communist sympathizer; years later, during the dictatorship, her daughter and son-in-law were kidnapped, and then she herself was abducted together with two French nuns, Alice Domon and Léonie Duquet. Later she was murdered by the military.
Bergoglio’s gifts as leader became evident early on. “He was very intelligent, but not because he was a bookworm, spending all his time studying, but because he understood everything very fast,” friend and classmate Hugo Morelli relates.
“His intelligence was clearly superior to ours. He was always a step ahead of all of us. He was a kind of leader. During the whole of his time at secondary school, he was reprimanded only twice, and once it was for a collective action.”
Morelli explains: “There was a new teacher of Spanish who imposed herself on us very severely. We didn’t like her at all, we rebelled and wrote on the blackboard that we wanted our old teacher back, and we all signed, including Bergoglio. That’s how we got the collective reprimand.”
Technical Industrial School No. 12, which specialized in nutrition, was rather special.
“In the morning, we had two lessons on theory and in the afternoon plenty of practice. Sometimes we even butchered and processed the pork on site. In the end, only 10 of us got the diploma, and today six of us are still alive: three in Buenos Aires, two in Córdoba and one, well, one is in the Vatican,” says Óscar Crespo, former schoolmate and still a friend of Bergoglio’s.
“We shared everything that can be shared at that age. We always met in a bar at the intersection of Avellaneda and Segurola, where we played billiards. On weekends we had ‘assaults,’ which is what we called our get-togethers, in the home of one of us, or went dancing at the club of the Chacarita neighborhood because there were many girls. Jorge was engaged to one of them from the neighborhood,” Óscar recalls.
A Call to Religious Life
“He said to me, ‘If I don’t marry you, I shall become a priest.’ But these were childish things. Even if, luckily for him, he didn’t marry me and now has actually become the pope,” recalls Amalia Damonte today, age 76, always with a smile on her lips.
“He gave me a letter with a drawing of a little white house with a red roof and had written: ‘This is the house I’ll buy when we get married.’”
The story ends with a problem between Jorge’s family and their neighbors. When the parents of “Juliet of Flores” found the love letter, her father was furious, her mother tore up the letter, and both of them forbade the two young ones to continue seeing each other.
As soon as he is elected pope, this interrupted love story with Amalia becomes news in all the magazines and newspapers of the world. But the identity of Bergoglio’s real girlfriend, a more serious relationship with a girl who belonged to the group of friends he went dancing with, is still unknown. Why did that story end? “I discovered my religious vocation,” Bergoglio recalls in The Jesuit.
Jorge Bergoglio—who, like John Paul II, became a seminarian when he was an adult—had normal relations with his women friends, to the extent that one of them even made him doubt his vocation.
“When I was a seminarian, I was dazzled by a girl I had met at the wedding of an uncle of mine,” he said. “Her beauty, her intellectual radiance surprised me . . . [I]n a word, I was confused for some time, she kept on coming into my mind.”
Bergoglio himself confessed in On Heaven and Earth: “When I went back to the seminary after that wedding, I couldn’t pray for a whole week, because when I wanted to do so, this girl appeared in my head. I had to reconsider what I was doing, I was still free because I was a seminarian; I could simply go back home. I had to rethink my decision. I went back to choosing the religious path—or let myself be chosen.”
From Dancing to Discernment
But he was also open to more modern experiences; he admired Astor Piazzolla and Amelita Baltar. He also admits to having an ear for opera, which his mother used to play to the three older children, sitting around the radio every Saturday at two o’clock in the afternoon. At the age of ten, Jorge also took piano lessons.
Besides music, dancing, soccer, and his group of friends, Jorge’s religious vocation was beginning to come out clearly.
“There’s a story that makes it clear. During his second year, in 1951, Catholic religion was a mandatory subject at school,” says Óscar Crespo. “Zambrano, the teacher who taught this subject, asked which of us had not taken first Communion. I and another student stood up, and then he started a discussion.
“It was clear that he had already talked to Jorge because he told us, ‘Your classmate Bergoglio has offered to be your godfather in the San José de Flores Church.’ On the Sunday of that same week we took Communion and then Jorge treated us to dinner in his house. At 14 he already had the vocation of catechizing!” he says.
So it was not a surprise when his friend finally joined the seminary of Villa Devoto in 1957.
“I remember that much earlier, in 1952, Jorge and I went to work for four months in the Hickethier-Bachmann laboratory between Santa Fe and Azcuénaga,” Óscar says
“There we spent many hours together and chatted a lot. One day he told me, ‘I’ll finish secondary school with you, but I will not be a chemist. I’ll be a priest. And not a basilica priest. I’ll be a Jesuit, because I like going to the shantytowns, to the peripheries, being with people.’
“And that’s how it was!” Óscar says. “For years I used to drive him personally in my car, because he has never had one, to the shantytowns. I stayed outside; he would go in as if there wasn’t any risk.”
Apart from one interruption, Óscar always stayed in touch with the future pope. This is how he tells the story: “We used to go and visit him, and we’d eat roast beef at San Miguel. Once, when he was head of the Jesuits, we talked till something like four o’clock in the morning.
“Then I lived abroad for many years and we lost touch. When I came back, I didn’t contact him because I’d heard that he was now a cardinal and I didn’t know how to treat him. A neighbor insisted that I go to see him, and one day she took me to the intersection of Triunvirato and Cullen, to the Iglesia del Carmen, at Villa Urquiza, where he was to say Mass.
“When he saw me, Jorge, who was arriving on foot because he had got off the bus and had a very simple briefcase with him, ran to meet me. ‘Óscar!’ he cried and embraced me. He didn’t stop talking, insisting that I join the group again, so much so that the priest of the church had to remind him that Mass was about to begin. From that moment on we have kept in touch and never stopped seeing each other.”
Óscar’s last meeting with Bergoglio before he was elected pope took place on a Saturday.“Jorge called up a catering service, we ate cannelloni and drank wine, and it was a party full of comradeship. We recalled some stories from our school days. It got quite late and the catering [workers] had already gone home. As we were going away he said, ‘Guys, are you going to help me clear the table?’ We just missed having to wash up!
“That’s what he’s like, a unique human being,” Óscar says. “For someone who has got where he has, he has never lost his humility.”
Elisabetta Piqué is a Rome-based correspondent for La Nación, Argentina’s largest daily newspaper. This article is excerpted from her new biography, Pope Francis: Life and Revolution (Loyola Press). This excerpt first appeared in the November 2014 edition of St. Anthony Messenger.