The future Pope was 16 years old and in love. It was 1953 and he had met the young woman he hoped would agree to be his wife. The day of September 21 dawned and he was summoning the nerve to ask his sweetheart to marry him at an al fresco lunch that his school held every year. Walking to the event, he passed his local church and felt compelled to drop in for a visit.
On entering the church, Jorge noticed a priest he had never seen before. It was Fr Duarte, a cleric who was very ill and slowly approaching death but who still exuded an infectious holiness. He asked him to hear his Confession. It was to be a moment that his life changed forever.
As he spoke to Fr Duarte his soul was filled with a yearning to offer his life to the Church. He would renounce his sweetheart and give all his love to the Church. In his 2010 book-length interview with Sergio Rubin, the then Cardinal Bergoglio reflected: “In that Confession, something very rare happened to me ... It was a surprise, the astonishment of an encounter. I realised that God was waiting for me.”
At first he hid his vocation to the priesthood, telling his mother that he wanted to study medicine. Impressed that her son had such noble ambitions she did a clear-out of the attic and transformed it into his study. Instead of dancing the tango or playing football, which were two of his favourite hobbies, he gave his time to long hours of swotting up – but not on medicine: he was reading theological books.
His mother was shocked when she went to tidy the attic and found no medical textbooks. Extremely agitated, she confronted her son. His answer contained a hint of the Jesuit rhetorical skills he would later fully develop: “I’m studying medicine, but medicine of the soul,” he said.
As he settled into seminary life in the late 1950s he was certain of his choice. But that certainty was challenged when he met a dazzling young woman at a family wedding. On returning to the seminary, thoughts of the young woman interrupted his prayers. “I could not pray during the following week because when I went to pray, the girl appeared in my mind,” he later said. It was a struggle to decide between pursuing the young woman and remaining in seminary.
But he re-committed himself to being a man of the cloth and was ordained on December 13 1969, just four days before he turned 33.
During his early years as a Jesuit, Fr Jorge grew in popularity and his superiors held him up as their golden boy. In 1973, just months after making his perpetual vows, he was made provincial superior, the leader of all the Jesuits in Argentina.
An enormous responsibility was placed on the shoulders of one so young and he would be sorely tested, not only because of the Dirty War that raged from 1976 to 1983 but also because the Jesuit order was splitting into two blocs: liberal and conservative. What was happening inside the Society of Jesus in the 1970s has come to characterise the worldwide Church. Fr Bergoglio had to hold two sides of an order together.
Now he has to hold the worldwide Church together. He is doing so not merely by challenging progressives to be more loyal to the Magisterium or by castigating conservatives for being closed-minded. He is also focusing our minds on concrete charity and the need to be more self-giving.
To understand Francis it is essential to grasp his strong devotion to St Thérèse of Lisieux. When he was a cardinal he could be seen praying before her statue. Pope Francis has adopted the Little Way into his papacy. Just as the Little Flower was mocked by her fellow nuns, there are those who jeer at the importance that Pope Francis places on taking small steps to being more generous while combining piety with good works.
When Francis does a small act of kindness it seizes the imagination of a global audience and encourages people to try to do similar things. Young people who may feel the stirrings of a religious vocation have a good role model in our Pope, who gave up at least two love interests and had the intelligence to be a medical doctor but chose to be a doctor of the soul, persevering through testing times in the 1970s that ultimately prepared his nerves for holding the Office of Peter.
The way the Pope is influencing young people was made real for me recently when a young man told me that when he embarks on a priestly vocation he would like to combine Pope Francis’s example with that of Fr Ray Blake, the parish priest of St Mary Magdalen in Brighton. Like Francis, he wants to encourage a young woman to continue her pregnancy. Like Fr Blake, he wants celebrate the Extraordinary Form Mass and run a soup kitchen.
When people give a little they may get into a habit of giving more and more and eventually give all of their self to the Church in the form of a vocation to the religious life. In the Francis era it’s not merely about what the Church can do for you, but also what you can do for the Catholic Church.
This article was first published in the March 7th edition of The Catholic Herald.