What makes Pope Francis tick?

Pope Francis crucifix

Sandro Magister over at chiesa points out that the current flurry of publications containing Pope Francis’ writings, speeches and interviews helps to shed light on the man Jorge Mario Bergoglio and thus to explain some of the actions (or inactions) which have marked the early weeks of his pontificate. In his recent post Sandro draws on the book-length interview by Sergio Rubin and Francesca Ambrogetti, entitled El Jesuita, which was published in 2010 in Argentina and is now also available in other countries:


It is true, Pope Francis loves to listen to music but does not sing, neither during solemn Masses nor in imparting the blessing. It is said that the Jesuits “non rubricant nec cantant,” meaning that they do not love ceremonies or singing. But the explanation is simpler than that.

At the age of 21 he came down with a severe case of pneumonia and “three cysts were removed along with the upper portion of his right lung. That experience left him with a pulmonary deficiency that, while not influencing him significantly, makes him feel his own human limitation.”

Therefore he does not sing simply because he does not have sufficient breath to do so, as can also be intuited from how he speaks, with short breaths and in a subdued voice. In any case he has confessed: “I am completely tone deaf.”


In effect he speaks Italian well. And he also understands the Piedmontese dialect of his family of origin. But “as far as the other languages are concerned,” he admits in his autobiography, “I must say that I used to speak them but do not speak them, because of lack of practice. I used to speak French fairly well, and I got along in German. What has always caused the most problems for me has been English, especially the phonetics.”

The fact remains that, in refusing to speak in languages other than Italian, Bergoglio seems to have decided to sacrifice – in public – even his mother tongue, Spanish.

On Easter he even declined to give the greetings in 65 languages unfailingly recited by his predecessor pontiffs.


At the Vatican he has had to take a secretary out of necessity, the Maltese Alfred Xuereb, formerly the second assistant to Benedict XVI. In Buenos Aires he also had a secretary, but he managed all of his own appointments, marking them out for himself in a pocket-sized organizer, which, he said, “it would be a true disaster to lose.”

He had a desk, “small but very well organized.” And his schedule was also organized: five hours of sleep at night, lights out at 11 pm, out of bed at 4 am “with no need for an alarm clock,” after lunch “a forty-minute nap.” He knows how to cook. He likes to listen to music and read, especially the classics of literature. He gets the news from the newspaper. He has never used the internet, not even for e-mail.


This has been noted about him. Bergoglio prefers for himself the simple title of “bishop of Rome,” and is silent about his power as head of the universal Church, in spite of the fact that this power has been confirmed very forcefully by Vatican Council II.

His autobiography states:

“When a pope or a teacher must say ‘I am in charge here,’ or ‘I am the superior here,’ it is because he has already lost authority and is seeking to attribute it to himself with words. Saying that one has the staff of command implies that one no longer has it. Having the staff of command does not mean giving orders and imposing, but serving.”

That is, it seems that Bergoglio does not want to proclaim but to exercise his supreme power as successor of Peter.


He also said in his autobiographical interview:

“I confess that in general, through the fault of my temperament, the first solution that comes to my mind is the wrong one. Because of this I have learned to distrust my first reaction. Once I am more tranquil, after I have passed through the crucible of solitude, I draw near to that which I must do. But no one can save me from the solitude of decisions. One can ask for advice but, in the end, one must decide alone.”

In practical action, it is in short to be expected that with Francis the decisional primacy of the pope will not be undermined, not even with a future more collegial body of Church governance.


In effect, in the discourses and homilies from the beginning of his pontificate, Bergoglio has so far avoided touching upon the questions that see the Church most set against worldly powers.

In the discourse to the diplomatic corps he remained silent about the threats to religious freedom, just as in his other statements he has avoided any reference to the critical areas of birth, death, the family.

But in his autobiographical interview, Bergoglio recalls that Benedict XVI also decided to remain silent on one occasion:

“When Benedict XVI went to Spain in 2006, everyone thought that he would criticize the government of Rodriguez Zapatero because of its divergences with the Catholic Church on various issues. Someone even asked him if he had addressed the issue of homosexual marriage with the Spanish authorities. But the pope said no, he had only spoken about positive things and the rest would come later. He wanted to suggest that first of all one must emphasize the positive things, those that unite us, and not the negative ones that serve only to divide. The priority must be given to the encounter among persons, to making the journey together. In this way, afterward it will be easier to tackle the differences.”

In another passage of the interview, Bergoglio criticizes those homilies “which should be ‘kerygmatic’ but end up speaking about everything that has a connection with sex. This can be done, this cannot be done. This is wrong, this is not. And so we end up forgetting the treasure of Jesus alive, the treasure of the Holy Spirit present in our hearts, the treasure of a project of Christian life that has many implications that go much further than mere sexual questions. We overlook a very rich catechesis, with the mysteries of the faith, the creed, and we end up concentrating on whether or not to participate in a demonstration against a draft law in favor of the use of condoms.”

And again:

“I am sincerely convinced that, at the present time, the fundamental choice that the Church must make is not that of diminishing or taking away precepts, of making this or that easier, but of going into the street in search of the people, of knowing persons by name. And not only because going to proclaim the Gospel is its mission, but because if it does not do so it harms itself. It is obvious that if one goes into the street it can also happen that one has an accident, but I prefer a thousand times over an accident-ridden Church to a sick Church.”

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16 Responses to What makes Pope Francis tick?

  1. What is the Pope doing in the picture? It looks as if he is offering up a bagel! Surely not!


  2. mmvc says:

    Venerating the cross on Good Friday, David.
    Specsavers have a ‘two for one’ offer on, by the way… 😉


  3. golden chersonnese says:

    There’s a bit of a ” Pope Francis Liturgy Watch” going on too over at this site (by the highly regarded vestment maker, Michael Sternbeck in Newcastle, New South Wales),

    (Scroll down past the first two or so articles on other vestments for observations about Francis and the last few Popes.)


  4. golden chersonnese says:

    Maryla, your son (and you, of course) may be interested in all the photos. taken at the events you also would have attended very recently in Rome).


  5. kathleen says:

    Pope Francis has, in my opinion, a lovely soft and very Argentinian accent (naturally) when he talks in Spanish. Shame he has given up talking it in public now!

    This is an interesting article with its titbits of information (gossip ?) of the sort more amenable to the great laity at large. 😉


  6. golden chersonnese says:

    kathleen, I have heard that the Spanish of Buenos Aires is closest phonologically to the Neapolitan dialect of Italian!


  7. kathleen says:

    @ Golden
    Oh, how fascinating! So many Italians emigrated to the Argentine – perhaps those from Naples settled mostly around the capital then.

    On another note: am I the only one who is a little bit uneasy about Pope Francis not wanting to refer to himself as ‘Pope‘? Pope = Papa (Daddy), the Holy Father of the whole Church.
    Speaking for myself, I don’t find his reasons for this (as quoted from his autobiography) very convincing either.
    Nor does the title ‘Bishop of Rome’ mean much to the rest of us who live outside that diocese! 😦

    Hope I’m not being disrespectful!


  8. mmvc says:

    Thanks for the link to that interesting looking site, Golden. I hope to read it in more detail later.

    Btw, we managed to sneak a quick i-phone shot of the high altar at Sant’Agnese in Agone before leaving Rome and I’ve inserted it into the original post:



  9. mmvc says:

    Kathleen, as the information is taken from a lengthy interview, I’d hesitate to view it as gossip.

    I do though agree with you that it would be good to hear the Holy Father refer to himself as Pope at least once in a while…


  10. kathleen says:

    Maryla, I didn’t want to infer that I thought anything in the interview was untrue; I used the word ‘gossip’ (with a question mark) to mean it was probably written, or spoken, in an informal or chatty way. 😉


  11. toad says:

    If would be a gross impertinence for Toad to comment on the papability of Don Francisco.
    All he will say is that the Pope impresses Toad as a very good and decent human being.

    “I didn’t want to infer that I thought anything in the interview was untrue; I used the word ‘gossip’ (with a question mark) to mean it was probably written, or spoken, in an informal or chatty way.”

    Careful where you tread, Kathleen. We’re getting dangerously close to Darling Loony Media territory of “lies, rumors, half-truths and innuendo,” here!
    ….Suggests Toad.


  12. kathleen says:

    Oooh dear! Have I inadvertently tickled that “Darling Media” nerve of yours again Toad? 😉

    Absurdly touchy……. and very uncharacteristic for a self-proclaimed “thick-skinned Toad”!
    ……Suggests K.

    P.S. “…the Pope impresses Toad as a very good and decent human being.”
    I quite agree. And nothing I said above could be taken to deduce the contrary.


  13. toad says:

    “..And nothing I said above could be taken to deduce the contrary.”

    Of course it couldn’t Kathleen. Who might have been churlish enough to think it did?

    Not Toad. Who yet again, will unsuccessfully attempt to reassure her that he’s not in the least “touchy” about the Darling Loony* Media, or Disorganised Religion – particularly Catholicism, or The Disputed Authenticity of The Holy Shroud of Turin, or The Diet of Worms, or The Putative Funeral Arrangements for King Richard the Third, or the Da Vinci Code, or The Athanasian Heresy, or The Spanish Inquisition, or The Shocking Price of Marmite, or practically anything else.
    To no avail.
    She will not be moved.
    Never mind.

    Might get a bit miffed if anyone spoke ill of his doggies, maybe.
    That’s all.

    *Copyright, Golned, 2O13


  14. golden chersonnese says:

    Btw, we managed to sneak a quick i-phone shot of the high altar at Sant’Agnese in Agone before leaving Rome and I’ve inserted it into the original post:

    Thank you very much, Maryla and to the young master (as the Chinese often call their son). I don’t know which of the two is actually the more overwhelming. Goodness me.

    Am I right when I say the main altar seems to have very little of what you might actually call a sanctuary and just seems to go up and up? I’d have to hang onto something quite solid and cemented to the ground to look at it all for more than a few seconds.

    Pope Innocent X and his big cheese family (the Pamphilj) built the church as a sort of display of ancestral pride, didn’t they? Well, you don’t see too much of that sort of thing around these days, do you.


  15. kathleen says:

    “Might get a bit miffed if anyone spoke ill of his doggies, maybe.”

    Woof, woof = naturellement, bien sûr !


  16. Thank you mmvc, now that you have explained it I can see it. Hope no-one thought I was disrespectful, just curious


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