Pope Francis: “Life – My history within history”

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By Elisabeth Hellenbroich

End of March 2024 a new book got published by Pope Francis under the title: Life. My history in the context of history. It’s recommendable to read the beautiful book which is published at a moment in our history, when the fate of mankind hangs on a “thin thread.” The cruel and bloody wars in the Ukraine and the Mideast have turned the world upside down.  People around the globe are terrorized by the question: if the statesmen of our time become ‘rudderless’ and are incapable to initiate peace and dialogue, will this be the end of mankind?

The Pope’s autobiography is based on two “narrative” techniques: On the one side there is the report given by the Roman journalist Fabio Marchese Ragona who had many sessions with the Pope in which the Pope told him what specific world events in the course of his 87 years were shaping his life. On the other side there is the autobiographical account given by Pope Francis, the first Pope ever from Latin America (Argentina), about his early childhood and his life up to this year 2024.  His account includes Bergoglio’s review how he as a child (born in 1937 in Buenos Aires ) became witness of the outbreak of the second world war; his hearing about the “nuclear bomb” attack against Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II  and the effect this had, when he was informed about this by Jesuit Father Arrupe; the McCarthy Era in the fifties in the US and the witch hunt against suspected so- called Soviet spies like the “Rosenberg couple” who got executed.

He reported about his entry into the Jesuit order 1969 in Buenos Aires; the effects of the military coup that in 1976 brought General Videla to power. (A nightmare  that was based on the suspension of the constitution and “martial law” as well as the persecution of thousands of people in Argentina, which finally ended 1983); the Fall of the Berlin wall 1989; the birth of the EU 1992; the September 11th terrorist attacks against the NY World Trade Center; the outbreak of the World Economic crisis in 2008, triggered by the collapse of US Lehman- brothers Bank; the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI in February 2013, followed by the election of Jorge Bergoglio as Pope Francis;  the global pandemics beginning in march 2020 till the end of 2021, followed by the years 2022 and 2023,  that were marked by the outbreak of the bloody Ukrainian war and the Oct 7th war in the Mideast, whose devastating effects have been felt around the globe and in response to which most of mankind is hoping for a solution based on peace and dialogue.

The theme of “war and peace” is leading the reader like a “red thread” through the book. It ends with the message which the Pope develops at the end of his Book in chapter 14th that is entitled “The History that still has to be written,” in which Pope Francis raises criticism against the Church. It is particularly directed against those people who behave almost like “monarchs”. The Pope stated that he “will not give up dreaming that our church will be a mild, humble and compassionate church that serves with the quality of God i.e. a tender and compassionate Church that is close to the “people.”  Above all he demands that “we should try to overcome ‘clericalism’, the idea of moral superiority which keeps distance to the faithful and which has become a true disease and plague. The Church is full of Saints but in some cases it has become a sinful church because clericalism is sinful.” In respect to the war in Ukraine and in the Mideast he stated that he had immediately offered that he was ready to negotiate. “I had phone calls with various international leaders that could change something through their actions and I reminded them about the importance of human life be it Muslim, Christian or Jewish.” And he emphasized that the Holy Sea had “initiated a series of diplomatic and humanitarian initiatives, which hopefully will have the desired effect. But in the whole world we must engage ourselves so that dialogue wins and the responsible understand that bombs will not solve the problem but only create new ones.”

Jorge Bergoglio’s Childhood and Youth

The book starts with Jorge Bergoglio’s vivid memory about his parents and Grandma Rosa (mother of Bergoglio’s father Mario – who in 1929 had emigrated from Asti (Piedmont, Italy) to Argentina, who listen to the news that reported about the outbreak of World War II, September 1939.  The family lives in Buenos Aires, Calle Membrillar 531 in the Barrio (Quarter) “Flores”, where Jorge was raised. He is brought every morning to his grandmother Rosa who lives nearby the family, in order to spend the whole day there with her and his little brother Oscar. The couple Mario and Regina Bergoglio is terrified by the news of Hitlers attack against Poland. Grand- mother Rosa, the Pope tells us, was “one of the most important persons in my education”. She didn’t live more than 50 meters away from our house. I spent the entire day at her home. She let me play and sang songs from her childhood. I often listened to her discussing with my grandfather in the Piedmont language which I learned as the language of her memories. Sometimes she also took me to her neighbors with whom she drank Mate. Or she took me when she had various things to do in the Barrio (Quarter), before bringing me back home. And before that she would pray with me.”

Bergoglio’s grandparents had emigrated in 1929 aside other relatives on the ship “Giulio Cesare”- having been forced like many migrants at the time, by the effects of the world economic crisis 1929.  Jorges father Mario as a young man worked in a huge industrial dye factory in Buenos Aires as book keeper. Jorge learned about migrants, especially Italian migrants, who had lost their homeland by emigrating to South America, specifically to Argentina.

In the second chapter the pope and his co-narrator talk about the “holocaust.” He remembers his mother screaming “What a monster” and saw that his younger sister Mary and brother Oscar were terrified. A very dark atmosphere reigns in the Bergoglio house December evening 1941. Regina, Jorges’ mother, cries while washing the dishes. A friend of the grandmother Margherita Muso had reported to them about the “events.” The racial laws 1938 had made them flee. It was reported that in several European countries, persecution of Jews had occurred and that in the countries occupied by Germany, Ghettos had been installed in which thousands had died, a lot of people having been deported into “work camps”. With tears in her eyes Bergoglio’s Grandma Rosa had listened to horror stories that were reported to her about Jews that had been deported like “cattle transport”, with hundreds jammed together, wives being separated from husbands and children from their mothers. As Pope Francis recalls in his book “I listened at that time how the adults during the meals or when a cousin and uncle were visiting, were all saying ‘Hitler is a monster.’ I was too young to understand what was behind the name”. Often the children were sent out in order to play football in the Flores quarter (the entire family of Bergoglio was fan of the “San Lorenzo de Almagro” Football Club and often visited on Sundays the Football stadium) – so as to avoid that they would listen to the atrocious news.

“At the age of five or six I still could not imagine what people are capable of doing, but through history lessons at school and stories told by survivors, hearing about their experience in death camps I got conscious how the dignity of man was trampled on.” He also recalled the stories told to him by his good friend Rabbi Skorka in Buenos Aires and by the people whom he later personally met in the Vatican like Edith Bruck or Lidia Maksymowicz. “The memory about the murder of Millions of Jews can never be forgotten. Genocide and cruelty must end and the Shoah teaches us to be vigilant (…) History repeats itself as we can see in the events in Ukraine and in the Mideast,” the pope stated at one point and he recalls how he felt when he saw the eyes of his father’s friends or the eyes of their children, who often played with him. “They almost never smiled, their look was sad; I know this look today when I receive children from war areas. They never smile and the smile in their faces looks almost staged. We can learn a lot from children in times of war.”

The end of the Second World War

“Hitler committed suicide 30th April 1945 and on the 7th May in the Reims HQ of the Allies, the unconditional surrender was signed by leading Nazi General Jodl”, the pope recalls. “That Sunday father (Mario) had put on a CD with Beethoven’s ‘Fidelio’ which we listened. When the neighbor shouted  ‘the war is over!’ my mother broke out into tears of joy, the sirens of the newspaper La Prensa were sounding (…) At that time people in the whole world longed for the end of the war, history repeats itself then as now. We all suffer from wars and conflicts in the different regions of the world and ask ourselves what we can do. We should learn to establish in this world a culture of peace that does not satisfy itself by rejecting arms’ violence.”

The Pope also recalls that a few months later the entire world stood still under shock of the dropping of 2 nuclear bombs on the Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki (August 6th and 9th) , leaving 200.000 dead and 150.000 wounded. He also vividly remembers the news on 2nd September 1945, a historical Sunday, when the Buenos Aires Radio announced that on that day the Japanese Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu on the US war ship “Missouri” in Yokohama, had signed the capitulation of Japan.  The Pope remembers the reports that were given by Padre Arrupe (1907-1991;  Arrupe later served as 28th General Secretary of the Jesuit Order in Rome). Some years after the “catastrophe” Arrupe had visited Argentina, “when I was Novice of the Jesuits.” He had been living as missionary in Hiroshima where he led the Novitiate of the Society of Jesus, with 35 novices living in this college. He almost by miracle had survived the nuclear bomb attack. “He told me how on 6th August 1945, after a huge explosion, the entire building broke down and doors, windows, walls and furniture flew away like pieces of paper. The father and novices saved themselves by running into the near- by rice-fields from where the observed how the entire city had been flattened. He described in a very impressive way how he looked at a sea of flames and many burnt corpses.”

Since Padre Arrupe had studied medicine, he helped and transformed the ruined Novitiate into a Field Hospital. A peasant gave him 20 kg boric acid, which being mixed with water, he could use to treat many people. Padre Arrupe not only helped the victims but also collected money for the reconstruction of the Jesuit College. “While Arrupe lived under thousands of suffering people, as the pope notes “others (!) raised their glasses for a toast about victory! The use of nuclear bombs is a crime against humanity a crime against the dignity of man and against the future in our common house. The use of nuclear weapons is immoral! How can we be fighting for peace and justice, if we simultaneously build war weapons?”

Given the many conflict zones in the world Pope Francis urged again and again in his book that “we must open ourselves to hope and become tools of peace and reconciliation.” That we must raise our voice “Never war again, never the sound of weapons, never so much suffering: Peace for all and a durable peace without weapons.”

The pope also recalled in the IV. chapter of his book the Cold War and the McCarthy era in the US where innocent people were persecuted on the basis of being suspected as Soviet spies like the famous “Rosenberg couple” that got executed for supposedly having spied for the Soviet Union. The pope at that time worked in a chemical laboratory to obtain a diploma in chemistry and at the age of 19 he decided (1969) to enter the Jesuit order.

Yet with the new American President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the two power blocks (USA and S.U.)  learned to coexist and avoid the war, the pope commented. Until the Cuban Missile crisis there was the belief that deployment of nuclear weapons could not solve any conflicts: “Today however people are stupid enough and short sighted by allowing that the climate of cold war is getting revived. It seems forgotten that the world lived decades by withholding its breath while being at the edge of a disastrous crisis. Today still again there is threat of nuclear weapons in order to push the world into fear and terror.”

At the age of 19 Jorge Bergoglio taught at the Colegio Immaculada Concepcion in Santa Fe and in the Colegio del Salvador in Buenos Aires. He was a “Maestrillo” as they called him, teaching the pupils Literature and Psychology. “I tried to encourage them to do creative writing and encourage them to differentiate between what school books stated and what the authors really wanted to say.” He organized among others a meeting with famous Argentine writers like Jorge Luis Borges.

He also recalled the famous landing on the moon in Chapter V – the famous Apollo 11 Mission- a historical event for the entire world, “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind” (as the astronaut Armstrong had commented the “overwhelming moment”). The pope commented this event by emphasizing: “Progress is important and should proceed, but in congruence with the capacities of man that is able to steer it.  We today have an Artificial Intelligence problem and fake news are being criminally used. The universe came into existence by the wisdom of God and not by Chaos. We must further look for truth. (…) We should orient along the principles of the ‘Social Teaching of the Church’: Justice, Human dignity, Subsidiarity and Solidarity (…) If technological and scientific progress is used for other aims, they will bring about disaster. If they serve war, it will lead to death.”  As is also the case with abortion- the pope emphasized that “Our task is to defend human life.”

World economic and financial crisis 2008 – urgent need for new just world order

In Chapter XII of his book the pope reports about the 15th September 2008 World financial and economic crisis, when due to the spectacular collapse of Lehman  Brothers Bank in NY  over a subprime rates crisis,  a world- wide chain reaction was triggered, followed by a major collapse of stock markets and banks around the globe. As the pope recalls, around the world stock markets tumble and in the US huge queues line up in front of soup kitchens. “Our economic systems are unbearable and untenable. I said so often that they will kill us and we shouldn’t lose our time to change that.” (…) In order to have a chance in the future we must together with the young develop an alternative economic model that is based on equality and fraternity. An economic model that lets people live instead of taking their lives; that is not aimed at speculating, but puts man in the first place; an inclusive man- made economy that takes care of creation and doesn’t plunder it.” In his encyclical “Fraternity” he wrote, that the “market alone does not solve all problems even if one wants us to believe the neoliberal Credo.” The market has to be civilized and be put at the service of human development instead of thinking only about how to increase capital and wealth. We all should be united against inequality conditioned by a system that is plundering our planet!”

He remembered Pope Benedict having stated in 2009 that the insolvency of Lehman Brothers and the succeeding recession shows that the “collapse of the huge credit institution reveals a fundamental error: Again the true God was darkened by ‘Idolatry’ and ‘greed’ and the image of God by the ‘God of Mammon’ that was venerated falsifying the true image of God. What happened in US and spread to the world was the cause for a sick mentality, that makes the weakest weaker, that creates money by money: they didn’t understand that work (labor) has to be at the center of man. If money is at the center the system will not be able to create new work which in turn leads to increased unemployment. Where there is no work, there is no dignity.”

In Aparecida 2007 Bergoglio participated at the Latin American Bishops conference (5th) whose commission he chaired, in order to edit the final document. The final document of Aparecida was based on the ideas of a missionary church on the move that goes to the communities and allows us to transmit faith in simple original way.  In his book Pope Francis refers to the quite memorable speech that was given in Aparecida by Pope Benedict XVI who urged that the church had to answer the big challenges of poverty and misery. “Capitalism as well as Marxism promised to find a way to more just structures and state that they can function on their own…they would promote a Marxist system that leaves as heritage economic, ecological and spiritual destruction…. A society in which God does not exist can’t have the strength to live according to values.”

On 11th February 2013 Pope Benedict XVI resigned.  In his book Pope Francis makes specific reference to a speech which he himself gave during the time of the selection of Benedict’s successor in front of the Cardinals Collegium in March 2013. The speech centered around his thesis that “Evangelization is the essence of the Church”, that is called to get out of its shell and go to the fringes – i.e. to those who live in sin, pain, injustice, ignorance, lack of religious practice, absence of thinking and in misery.  He was particularly critical about the fact that over time in the church institutions developments had occurred that led to a “self- centered” church and a “spirit of theological narcissism.” “A church which is rotating around herself  … gives room to the terrible evil of the spiritual “mundane,” the pope stated then. The speech that was no longer than 3 minutes got tremendous applause. It led to the election of Jorge Bergoglio by the Cardinal’s Collegium 13th march 2013, who chose the name of Francis of Assisi for his Pontificate.

Peace and dialogue to bring the wars to an end

After the horrendous period of the global pandemics (March 2020 till end of 2021) which the pope impressively describes in his book- especially his Easter celebration (2020) being held by him alone in an empty silence in the St. Peter’s Square, in front of two symbols of hope- the miraculous “cross of San Marcello al Croce” (dating from the time of the plague) and the Madonna Icon “Salus populi Romani.” – at the end of his  book the pope reflects again about the two big wars that developed in Ukraine 2022 and Mideast 2023: “The future of the God created mankind will depend on decisions that we make: will people turn back to the table so as to embrace ‘peace’, enter into dialogue or will this be the end? I have hope for mankind, the hope that it will be capable of learning from its mistakes so as to improve and leave something good for the coming generation!”

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