INTERVIEW with Gustavo Larrazábal, C.M.F., editor and friend of Pope Francis
How did you come to know who is now our Pope?
Cardinal Bergoglio wrote homilies and often spoke about topics close to his heart, for example, nation-building and education. He came to Claretian Publications of Argentina, where at the time I was director, and wanted to see if we would publish the writings that were most important to him. We published all of his books except for two interview books (Conversations with Jorge Bergoglio, and On Heaven and Earth.) Everything else was published by Editorial Claretiana. And I was the one to meet with him; we talked, and talked and built a strong relationship over many years . He had a great appreciation for the publishing house and, in fact, never wanted to be compensated for his writings. He said the money should be devoted to the apostolate of the publisher. He even wanted us to sign an agreement so that should anything happen to him no one would make claims to the publisher. It made me almost ashamed, so in the end that document was not was not signed because of me …
Is he a good writer?
A very good writer. But he doesn’t spend time with editing. He would appear in my office with arms full of papers and say, “Here it is. Edit as you wish. We then reviewed the pages, and he would approve them making comments regarding things he found relevant. We had plenty of freedom with the editions, but he would always carefully check everything. The only ‘argument’ we’ve had was regarding the book covers . To me, the cover is very important, because without a good cover, the book won’t sell. Twice I put his photo on the cover and he got quite angry . But I said : ‘You do not know much about this. If the cover does not appeal , the book does not sell. So if you can be angry as you wish, but the cover will stay.”
The most frequent themes are education, which he is very interested in, and topics important for the country, with an emphasis on social issues.
Is he as simple as he appears?
Yes, when in 1998 he took over as archbishop after the death of Cardinal Guarracino, soon he decided to leave the Episcopal Palace, which was in a residential neighborhood on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, close to where the prime minister also lived. The cardinal rented the residence to a religious congregation, and moved to a simple little room on the third floor of the Curia … On the second floor he had a most austere office. And being in the heart of Buenos Aires, he did not need a car or a driver. He always went by metro, bus, or if in a hurry , by taxi. Several times he asked to go somewhere to celebrate Mass or to bless a bookstore and I offered to take him, but he always told me: ‘No, no, no , no. Don’t mind me, I go slowly. You have to attend to the people.’ He had no secretary, and no Monsignor around him, even though the Archdiocese is very extensive and has six auxiliary bishops; but when people went to see him they would be surprised how easy it was to get a meeting with him . Sometimes he opened the door, because many evenings he was alone in the Curia. If you knew how to enter, you would just take the stairs to the second floor where he was . If you didn’t know the way, he came down to meet you.
From Rome, he personally called the person who brought him the newspaper that it was no longer needed in Buenos Aires. He is very warm, very personable and very compassionate in dealing with people.
I can tell a personal story that touched me very much. When I turned 50, I invited him to celebrate Mass in the house and join the party. He came, but refused to preside. He said that I had to preside, and he would concelebrate along with my Claretian brothers and other priest friends. After the mass, contrary to his habit , –he does not like going to parties and watches what he eats due to his fragile health–, he stayed at the party, greeted my mom and the other people and stayed a long while with us. When he left, someone walked him to the corner to wait for a taxi, because he had refused that I leave the party to take him home.
As bishop he was brilliant. Not for his public appearances, but for the closeness, the intimacy he offered, his compassion extended to everyone.
And how will he be living in Rome ? Can he bring change to this new situation?
Well that’s the million dollar question, is not it? But I am convinced that he will not change. Apart from the fact that a person of 76 does not change. And he has already shown this in his first gestures. He did not want to live in the papal residence. And this is good. He has taken his style of Buenos Aires to Rome. There are things that are just a part of him.
Where there will be a little more challenge will be in the tension between doctrinal and personal. In the concrete he is very compassionate. He always tried to help those who had left the priesthood, those priests who were in trouble. When in the 1970s a scandal broke out after the Bishop of Avellaneda married a nun, he maintained the friendship. When Bishop , Podesta, was dying, he went to see him several times. But he did so quietly. He never made a fuss. He didn’t like that. And now I think that what he did privately, will become more public. Because one thing is the doctrinal ideal, and another is the specific human situation.
What is certain is that it handles gestures in impressive ways. He knows the power of gestures. But he does not use them by way of performance, but by way of conviction. What moves him is a profound faith.
There is a very interesting ecclesiology here, because does not call himself Pope, but Bishop of Rome .
He is pastor, and theologian?
Above all, he is pastor. For example, with all his attention on social issues and the poor he has never aligned himself with liberation theology . But he also didn’t fight it. He explains this in regards to catechesis, but I think it applies in this broader way: ‘As pastor, I let things happen. I prefer that there not be only one single type of catechesis, because it is much richer that way. I let things flow, provided they do not fall into heresy or the absurd.’ He was not affiliated with with liberation theology. He did not reject it, but he also did not promote it.