The Bergoglio I knew

‘I could see this amazing transformation in his face’

Isabel de Bertodano – 6 April 2013

When Guillermo Marcó visited Pope Francis last month at the Vatican, he noticed a remarkable change in his old friend.

“In Buenos Aires, when I saw him before the conclave, he looked really tired. He was anticipating his retirement, preparing himself for that, not for taking on a new job,” said Fr Marcó. “Of course, we know that the Holy Spirit works through the conclave, but really I’ve now seen the effects of that because I know him so well,” said the Pope’s former press officer, who had five minutes with his old boss at the Vatican last month.

“I could see this amazing transformation in his face; he was glowing and happy and his eyes had this special light in them. He seemed to have an extra strength and without any doubt this is a change brought about by the force of God.”

The friendship between Fr Marcó and Pope Francis goes back to the early 1990s when Jorge Mario Bergoglio became an auxiliary bishop in the diocese of Buenos Aires, where Fr Marcó was a priest. The young bishop was already in the habit of going out among the people of the diocese. “He often asked me to go walking with him and we would have discussions,” said Fr Marcó. “Twice, he invited me to have lunch with him. I mention this because it was very unusual for him to have lunch with people.”

At the time, Fr Marcó was presenting a radio programme while also serving as a parish priest. The two men became good friends over the six years it took Bishop Bergoglio to be appointed Archbishop of Buenos Aires upon the death of Cardinal Antonio Quarracino in 1998.

“If it hadn’t been for Cardinal Quarracino, he wouldn’t have been made Archbishop of Buenos Aires,” said Fr Marcó. “He loved and admired Bergoglio very much and designated him as his coadjutor in the diocese and let Rome know that he wanted him to be his successor. Otherwise, another bishop with more experience would have been brought from another part of the country. It was a big upgrade.”

However, Cardinal Quarracino left his protégé with a hornets’ nest of problems in Buenos Aires. A huge fraud in which the archdiocese had borrowed US$10 million from the Banco de Crédito Provincial was uncovered. The money never made its way into the archdiocesan coffers but documents apparently showed that Cardinal Quarracino had signed off the loan.

“Bergoglio called me in my parish,” Fr Marcó explained. “He was very calm and he asked me, ‘Are you busy?’ I said, ‘Not really, why?’ He said, ‘Because there are 15 journalists at the door of Archbishop’s House and I don’t know what to do.’”

Fr Marcó slipped into Archbishop’s House through the cathedral, met Archbishop Bergoglio and then held a press conference.

“I told them that we had all the information to prove that this money never entered the diocese and that the information had already been freely offered to the judge in the case but that she had refused to look at it,” said Fr Marcó. “The next day, the newspapers were all quoting me as the press spokesman for the archdiocese. So I had a job all of a sudden, but I was never officially named as the spokesman. Bergoglio was always joking about this – he thought it was really funny.”

Eventually, the archdiocese and Cardinal Quarracino were absolved of responsibility and it was proved that three men, including the cardinal’s private secretary, had perpetrated the fraud and forged the cardinal’s signature on the bank papers.

In the meantime, Fr Marcó set up a press office at Archbishop’s House and worked there for eight years, travelling annually to Rome with his boss, who was elevated to cardinal in 2001. He also went to Rome for the 2005 conclave when Cardinal Bergoglio was among the papabile cardinals and is widely thought to have come second behind Cardinal Ratzinger.

But when Cardinal Bergoglio travelled to Rome this year he went alone.

Fr Marcó smiled ruefully. “He went by himself this time because he had absolutely no idea what was going to happen. I don’t know, I guess it’s just one of those things in life – it’s God’s doing but it was a big surprise.”

The cardinal expected to return to Buenos Aires, where he was already preparing to move to his retirement room at a priest’s house in the city.

“It seems really terrible that he leaves Argentina for a couple of weeks with only a suitcase and then this happens and he can never go back to his old room and his belongings,” said Fr Marcó. “I suppose when he visits Argentina he might go there, but not to stay. Of course, following the Gospel, as priests, we don’t have many belongings, but he’ll miss his books.”

The new pope is accustomed to an austere lifestyle and although he has good friends he does not socialise.

“He’s always been quite a solitary person,” said Fr Marcó. “He looks after his interior life; he gets up at about 5 a.m. to pray. So, at night, he eats an apple, drinks a cup of tea and goes to bed early. He avoids going to eat dinner with people at their home. He’s always been a person whom I’d describe as monkish in his lifestyle.”

I ask Fr Marcó what he has learned from his old friend and he grins. Reaching into his jacket, he takes out a small, slim black diary, not much larger than a cigarette packet. “This is what he taught me,” he said. “He has a tiny diary like this and he organises it all himself. If you want an interview, you call. He’ll answer the phone because he doesn’t have a receptionist, and he’ll make an appointment for you. He said it was easier like this.”

Nevertheless, media interviews have been off-limits for some time.

“We agreed that he would not do interviews with journalists – he spoke through his gestures and homilies,” said Fr Marcó. “He had had some negative experiences. We noticed that, when he gave an interview, the journalist would start by talking about the Virgin Mary and end up talking about politics.” The next day, the newspaper would focus exclusively on the politics of Cardinal Bergoglio.

“He wasn’t interested in having a political profile,” said Fr Marcó. “We decided that it was better for me to speak on his behalf because I simply wasn’t as interesting, being only the press officer.”

He may have tried to avoid politics but, while he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires, relations with President Néstor Kirchner and, later, his wife, the current president Cristina Fernández Kirchner, were tense, marked by clashes over same-sex marriage, among other issues.

It was never, therefore, the Buenos Aires political elite in whose company Cardinal Bergoglio felt comfortable. He preferred to visit the poor of the city, something that became a feature of his tenure as archbishop – he is credited with doubling the number of priests visiting the poor barrios of the city.

“He says you must go out to the fringes of life and see what is going on. You should not wait for the world to come to you,” said Fr Marcó. “He doesn’t see the poor as people he can help but rather as people from whom he can learn. He believes the poor are closer to God than the rest of us; they have a very personal experience of him.”

Beyond that, Cardinal Bergoglio allowed people to get on with their jobs in the archdiocese.

“He’s good at trusting people and giving them space to get on with their work,” said Fr Marcó. “He’s not the kind of person who’s determined to do everything himself; he’s good at delegating. I would often make a statement on his behalf and he wouldn’t even check it because there wasn’t time, but he trusted me to do it in the right way. He gave me a lot of freedom and he’s the same way with everybody.”

Perhaps they both regret this measure of freedom – eventually, Fr Marcó’s job at Archbishop’s House came to an end over a controversial interview in which he appeared to insinuate that Néstor Kirchner was fomenting hate and division in the country.

Fr Marcó maintains that he was misquoted but he is sanguine now about the episode. He is now pastoral director for university students in the archdiocese of Buenos Aires and continues to present a radio programme, a television programme and is a contributor to various newspapers.

“It was my job to absorb blows for the cardinal, so I resigned,” he said. “That’s life.”

Isabel de Bertodano is a freelance journalist and a former Home News Editor of The Tablet.