SANTIAGO, Chile – At the age of 21, Jorge Mario Bergoglio already displayed many of the qualities that would lead him to become the head of the Catholic Church.
That’s how Priest Juan Valdés remembers him. He met Bergoglio, who now is known as Pope Francis, in Casa Loyola more than 50 years ago while they were studying to become priests in the Society of Jesus in Chile.
“[He was] very close to people, unpretentious in appearance, rather simple, but with a force in his words like the man of prayer he is,” said Valdés, who now runs Casa Loyola.
Valdés entered the novitiate in 1960 in the Jesuit residence in the city of Padre Hurtado, 20 kilometers south of Santiago, where priesthood candidates throughout Latin America study humanities.
Bergoglio, a native of Buenos Aires, Argentina, entered Casa Loyola in 1958 to start his juniorate, studying languages, liberal arts, and basic human sciences geared toward ministry.
“I cannot say we were friends because we were in different stages, and at the time, there was little interaction between novices and juniors,” Valdés said.
However, Valdés remembers that through Mass, at the dining room or during leisure time in the gardens of the large house, he got to know a little more about the man who would become the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.
“He was lucid, somewhat shy, with a sense of humor, but also quite talkative at the same time,” Valdés added.
Bergoglio resided in Casa Loyola with 80 other seminarians who started their day with an hour of meditation at 6 a.m. before participating in Mass.
They spent the rest of the day studying, only breaking for lunch and an afternoon snack, Valdés said.
The value of work was especially ingrained in Casa Loyola’s students, which is why Bergoglio joined the rest of his class by serving food, washing dishes and cleaning.
“This reinforced our training to give us a sense of commitment and austerity,” Valdés said. “In the case of [Pope Francis], this was always very evident.”
Bergoglio was a great swimmer and took full advantage of the school’s pool, as students often spent their free time playing sports.
Occasionally during lunch, there were public speaking rehearsals on a religious topic.
“I remember hearing Bergoglio a couple of times,” Valdés said. “Even back then, he has shown himself to be a man of strong convictions with a strong social sense.”
Fernando Montes, a Jesuit priest and rector of the Universidad Alberto Hurtado in Santiago, Chile, also lived with Bergoglio in Casa Loyola.
“[He was] a good companion, very friendly, simple and smart without being an intellectual,” Montes said. “[Unlike Benedict XVI, Pope Francis] is not a theology professor and author of books, but a man who was a pastor.”
Years later, Montes and Bergoglio ran into each other in Buenos Aires while studying theology.
Eventually, Montes went on to lead the Jesuit order in Chile, with Bergoglio heading the one in Argentina.
Montes said one of Bergoglio’s most distinctive features is his simplicity.
“While I was visiting Argentina as the superior of the [Chilean] Jesuits, he invited me to his house and prepared a typical Argentine barbecue,” he said. “Imagine. It is still exciting to remember having eaten Argentine barbecue prepared by the pope.”
Since his formative years, and later in the various positions held within the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, Bergoglio has shown traits of a leader who can make a difference, according to Valdés.
“He has been very brave. He has had confrontations with various groups on diverse topics and has always defended the position of the Church,” Valdés said of Pope Francis, 76.
Valdés added that another revealing aspect to understanding the current authority of the Vatican is the papal name chosen by Bergoglio.
“It is quite suggestive because [St. Francis of Assisi] was a man who made very significant reforms that affected the Church,” Valdés said. “He opted to help the most disadvantaged, something that we are seeing now in Pope Francis.”
Enrique Valenzuela, the provincial superior of the Jesuits in Chile, said Pope Francis will be true to his history of living an austere life.
“People expect more austerity from their pastors,” he said. “Part of the need to recover the credibility that we would like the Church to have comes from the testimony of priests, the consecrated and bishops. We believe Pope Francis will lead this change within the Catholic Church.”