It was a year ago today that a priest from Argentina was introduced to the world as Pope Francis, asking for prayers. Now that he has graced the covers of Time, Rolling Stone, and The Advocate, what to make of our year with Francis? Alejandro Bermudez is editor of Pope Francis — Our Brother, Our Friend: Personal Recollections about the Man Who Became Pope and co-translator of On Heaven and Earth, a book of conversations the former cardinal of Buenos Aires had with his good friend Rabbi Abraham Skorka. Bermudez, who is director of ACI-Prensa, the world’s largest Spanish-language Catholic news agency, and executive director of Catholic News Agency, talks about Pope Francis’s first year as pontiff on the anniversary of his election.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: What is your best explanation and understanding of what people are calling the “Francis effect”?
ALEJANDRO BERMUDEZ: The “Francis effect” is probably the best name, as vague as it is, to describe this phenomenon, since I find hard to pinpoint what has made Pope Francis such a colossal figure in today’s world. Is it his warm, loving concern for the little ones? Is it his testimony of a simple, humble life? Is it his message of mercy and forgiveness? Is it a combination of all those or something else? I don’t think anyone can pinpoint it. But the fact is that Pope Francis has revitalized the presence of the Catholic Church and opened new opportunities to re-propose the tenets of Christianity to a confused world. That is the “Francis effect.”
LOPEZ: Is it important to get to know Jorge Mario Bergoglio — the priest and cardinal of Buenos Aires — to understand this past year with Pope Francis?
BERMUDEZ: I think it is, especially for those who still find Pope Francis’s personality and decisions confusing. I think it is impossible to fully understand him without keeping in mind that he is, first, an Argentinean — a very particular brand of being a Latino — and second, a Jesuit, a true son of St. Ignatius and the Ignatian spirituality.
LOPEZ: Is there a favorite story from Our Brother, Our Friend that best captures him?
BERMUDEZ: There are so many! One of my favorites is the one narrated by José María Poirier, a journalist and scholar who knows the pope’s mind very well. After Pope Benedict’s election, an English journalist asked Poirier to write an article about Bergoglio, knowing that he was some kind of “runner-up,” but nobody knew who he was. Poirier decided to start the article by saying, “What does Cardinal Bergoglio think? Nobody knows.” The article was published, and not long afterward he met Cardinal Bergoglio at a book presentation. “So no one knows what I think?” Bergoglio said to him, smiling. According to Poirier, “I believe that was always a key for him to have great friendliness, to be very gracious, but always maintain a bit ‘in secret’ the complexity of his thought, especially about important matters.”
LOPEZ: What are the underappreciated biographical or experiential facts about the pope that we ought not overlook?
BERMUDEZ: His quiet, almost retired time in Córdova, far away from Buenos Aires and stripped of all responsibilities, after being the youngest Jesuit provincial and director of their house of formation. Why he ended up there is disputed. But the fact is that he spent a year of prayer and silence providing confessions and spiritual direction, and writing a book on Catholic education. Antonio Cardinal Quarracino, his predecessor in Buenos Aires — who chose him as his successor — would describe him at that time as a “Moses coming down from Mount Sinai.” Whatever the reason he ended up there, it was a transformational experience.
LOPEZ: What were some of the most significant moments in the past year that we are in danger of overlooking?
BERMUDEZ: For sure his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, “The Joy of the Gospel.” There is much attention paid to the nitty-gritty of what he is saying in this or that interview, or in various off-the-cuff comments, but very little attention is paid to the document that he personally, carefully wrote explaining his vision for the Church and Catholics in the world. Whoever wants to really understand where he is going needs to read or reread “The Joy of the Gospel.”