Fr. Roger J. Landry
Conclave Series for the New Bedford Standard Times
March 18, 2013
After Pope Francis’ election, one of the biggest questions among the English-speaking members of the media has been to what extent he speaks English.
The various biographical articles about him, both before and after his election, listed that he spoke only Spanish, Italian and German.
I had a hunch that the former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio had to know English. After all, he has a doctorate and has studied and taught six different subjects over the course of his life as a Jesuit — chemistry, psychology, literature, philosophy, theology and math — and many of the great resources for those subjects come from the English-speaking world.
I was speaking with a group of English-speaking media folks as we were waiting to get into Saturday’s special audience for journalists, and I asked whether anyone had been able to confirm that the new pope knew English. One of the members of our group, a friend of mine named Michael Severance, told me a story that confirmed far more than our new pontiff’s linguistic abilities.
Back in 2001, right before Archbishop Bergoglio was to receive the “red hat” as a Cardinal, the Rome campus of the University of Dallas, where Michael was working, invited him to come to speak to its students. The future pope accepted, gave a beautiful written address in heavily accented English, and engaged in a lengthy question-and-answer session, all in English.
That was a great relief to hear, because it means that there should be no obstacles to Pope Francis’ coming to the United States and speaking to us in our own principal language, as we expect he will do at least in September 2015 in Philadelphia for the International Eucharistic Congress.
But confirming for us his English abilities, Michael said that there’s something more important about that visit that he thought we should all know.
When he had spoken to the future pope on the phone to arrange the details for the visit, Michael told him that he would send a car to pick him up and transport him back. Archbishop Bergoglio said that it wasn’t necessary to spend that type of money on him.
Surprised, but wanting to be deferent, Michael then said that University would then be very happy to reimburse him for taking a cab. That, too, Archbishop Bergoglio replied, would be to waste money.
The Archbishop said that he could take the subway out. Michael replied that at about 8 pm when he would be arriving it would be dark and the area around the metro station ise a little dangerous. And so the two of them “compromised”: the Cardinal-to-be would take an inexpensive train and Michael would pick him up at the station a short distance from the campus.
Because the train didn’t arrive on time, however, Cardinal Bergoglio missed dinner. After the talk and the lengthy question session, Michael and the other members of the staff of the University wanted to take him out to get him something to eat.
He replied that no one needed to make a fuss about him. “What do you have in the refrigerator?,” he queried. They were somewhat shocked. When they looked, they saw some cheese, some meat, and some other items that could be combined to make a simple pasta. “That would be great,” he replied.
A dozen years later, Michael recalled Pope Francis’ genuine simplicity and poverty, the type of lifestyle that those in Buenos Aires admire so much: how he refused to use a chauffeur or drive a car of his own, moved out of the Archbishop’s palace into a simple, barely-heated apartment, about how he cooked his own food and that of an ill bishop, and more.
Whether one would want to say it in Spanish, Italian, German or English, the Cardinals have elected a Pope not just from Argentina, not just from Assisi, but from Galilee.
(At the beginning of April, Michael Severance put out a correction on the Acton Institute’s website saying that he had confused Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio with Cardinal Jorge Mejia, both Argentine of similar appearance. He wrote the following erratum: “I was relating a personal experience I had in meeting then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio some 12 years ago at the University of Dallas Rome Campus. This I have now verified as incorrect. I had actually met a different Argentine Cardinal who came to speak at the Dallas Rome campus with the exact same first and similar second name –Cardinal Jorge Maria Mejia. Cardinal Jorge Maria Mejia is also from Buenos Aires, served as archbishop (curial) and was elevated to cardinal during the same February 2001 conclave as Jorge Mario Bergoglio. Both are also apparently close friends and very similar in humble disposition. Cardinal Jorge Maria Mejia is the archivist and librarian emeritus of the Vatican Secret Archives, but earlier served as Secretary of the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops. He is a former Vatican colleague and was a guest of the university’s chaplain on the reported occasion. I regret the error.)