The handwriting is neat, steady and very, very small. In the top corner of the postcard, embossed in blue, is the Vatican’s official crest, the two crossed keys given by Jesus, according to the gospels, to Saint Peter to open the gates of the heaven. “Thank God I am okay,” the card reads, “and with a lot of work. Please, I ask you to pray for me.”
The signature below is “Papa Francisco”, the name by which most Argentines refer to their countryman, Pope Francis, 265th and current successor to Peter. It tells you something about him that, with a troubled global church of 1.2 billion souls to shepherd, he makes time to hand-write regular notes to old friends such as Enrique Gallini, still working in his late 70s as a lowly clerk in a shabby Ministry of the Interior building in central Buenos Aires.
On his desk he spreads out for me a lifetime of letters. The two have known each other since they were 17-year-olds, in the early 1950s, working in a food laboratory after school to help their families scrape a living.
“I was the post-boy and he was the lab technician,” Enrique remembers, as he proudly guides me through the lovingly-preserved correspondence that began when, aged 21, Jorge Mario Bergoglio went off to become a priest with the Jesuits, one of Catholicism’s most revered religious orders.
Enrique Gallini displays a note from an old friend - Pope Francis. PHOTO: Heathcliff O'Malley
“I wasn’t surprised at his vocation. Many in the laboratories were affiliated to the communists, and they would talk to us about their ideas. He would have heated, passionate arguments with them. The Catholic Church, and its way of thinking, was already in his heart.”
Other leaders, half Pope Francis’ age, with two working lungs (he had most of his right one removed at 21 when he contracted pneumonia) and a fraction of his workload, would doubtless think nothing of resorting to private secretaries to lift the load of such personal correspondence with old, but now distant, friends. But Papa Francisco is cut from a very different cloth.
As well as letters and cards, his old friends still receive phone calls – and with no secretary announcing, “I have the Pope on the line for you…”
Francis is, all those who know him well attest, that rare thing today, a world figure who, in private, is exactly as he is in public.
“He was always very humble,” recalls Enrique. “He told me once, when he was first made Archbishop of Buenos Aires, two ladies were sitting opposite him on the bus. One nodded at him and said to the other, 'That’s the Archbishop.’ And do you know what Bergoglio did? He blushed.”
Has he noticed any change in his old friend since he became Pope? “He never used to smile that much - only when we talked about football and his team, San Lorenzo. But when I see him now on TV, I always say to my wife, 'He's smiling more now than I’ve ever seen him.’”
In Argentina they have known Papa Francisco longer and better than the rest of us and so, naturally, they are gripped by his sudden elevation to the world stage. As I strain to get around the big, busy and (in February, high summer in the southern hemisphere) blisteringly hot city of Buenos Aires, drivers in the regulation issue dinky yellow and black cabs all offer a ready opinion on “their” Pope.
“Great,” says one, “but I’m not a Catholic”. “I didn’t use to think much of him,” pronounces a second. “He was just another politician. But now he’s in Rome, I’ve got more time for him.” “Oh, he’s a good man,” enthuses a third in reverent tones, “and, best of all, he’s not a Brazilian. It’s like we’ve won the World Cup."
Football has long served as an all-purpose ice-breaker, especially among men, but in Argentina it crops up even more often in everyday exchanges than the weather does in Britain. It all comes to down to football. The reason, my (female) Argentine translator suggests, is that, for her compatriots, what matters over and above any other consideration is that the “home-boy” Pope (along with the footballers Maradona and Messi) is “one of us on the world stage, and a winner. Whatever we truly think of them, so long as they’re winning matches, we cheer and keep any doubts to ourselves.”
And no one could question Pope Francis’ record as a winner these past 12 months: the rank outsider who surprised the world by triumphing in the conclave of cardinals in the Sistine Chapel last March 13 as the first pontiff from outside Europe in 1,200 years, and the first ever from Latin America; the simple priest who started as he meant to go on by discarding the elaborate vestments, limos and papal apartments; and the reformer, who has sent a tornado of fresh air through the entrenched and corrupt Vatican bureaucracy, including its dodgy bank, and who has signaled a wider change by becoming the first pope to talk of gay Catholics, rather than “disordered” ones, to promote women to more senior positions, and to listen to his flock, not hand down rules for them to follow.
Rio de Janeiro's Copacabana beach fills for for an open-air mass conducted by Pope Francis in July 2013
“The Francis effect”, now also increasingly referred to as “the Francis Revolution”, is refilling churches, and giving a new pride to Catholics who had grown wary of even admitting their faith allegiance after the shameful revelations of paedophile priests and official cover-up of abuse.
It has also propelled him onto the front covers of some unlikelyinternational magazines, such as Rolling Stone, Esquire (“best dressed man of the year”) and more substantially Time, which anointed him “Person of 2013”. It took his soon-to-be-canonised predecessor, John Paul II, 16 years in charge of Catholicism to achieve the same plaudit.
No wonder, then, that for his fellow Argentines, Papa Francisco is a national pin-up. His face is everywhere in Buenos Aires – in shop displays, in cafes, on cut-out pictures from papers stuck in front windows, on souvenir stands, and on murals.
But aside from national pride, and brief exchanges in taxis, when I seek out a more considered verdict on him, what I get back is not the hysteria of a football crowd, but rather, thoughtful nuanced judgments in this country where three quarters of the population still claims to be Catholic.
The world may have taken Francis unequivocally to its heart after brief acquaintance, fine words and a few eye-catching gestures. Who can forget this burly 78-year-old leaving the airport in Rio de Janeiro on his way to a World Youth Mass in the back of a Fiat Punto rather than the usual motorcade? Or him returning to the Rome hostel where he had lodged during the papal conclave to pay his bill? But his “family” back home in Argentina, those who knew him long before he became a global phenomenon, have a more complex story to tell.
Buses and tubes crop up time and again in the story of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, especially in the phase of his life that began in 1992 when he was recalled from obscurity in the provincial city of Cordoba and named an assistant bishop in Buenos Aires.
He immediately dispensed with the official car that went with the job (his boss, Cardinal Antonio Quarracino, by contrast, is widely remembered for his taste for big motors) and used public transport to get about. When he succeeded Quarracino in 1998, he also gave up the palatial official residence, choosing to carry on living in four spartan rooms next door to the cathedral.
From there, he would regularly travel the length of the sky-blue-coloured Linea A of the Subte (Buenos Aires’ sweltering underground system) to San Jose de Flores, the stop right outside his childhood parish church in a modest working class suburb. Then he’d catch a bus onwards to the slum of Bajo Flores. I was intending to follow in his footsteps all the way, but Father Gustavo Carrara, the parish priest of Santa Maria Madre del Pueblo (“Holy Mary, Mother of the People”) in Bajo Flores, insists on meeting me at a petrol station a few hundred yards from his church. It’s my safety he’s worried about, not my sense of direction.
Father Carrara in front of a mural of the Pope in the Flores slum. PHOTO: Heathcliff O'Malley
Despite the helter skelter ups and downs of the Argentine economy – currently in a slump, with a foreign exchange crisis - Buenos Aires has the outward appearance of a prosperous European city. The ritzy development of its 19th-century dockland warehouses alongside the mighty River Plate has more than an echo of rejuvenated Liverpool, while its smart districts – La Recoleta and Palermo – could double for Paris or Madrid.
Tucked away, though, largely out of sight, and out of mind, are pockets of the most appalling poverty, misleadingly (to European ears) called “villas”, but locally pronounced “bee-juhs”.
Bajo Flores is one. As we walk from the petrol station, paved streets quickly give way to a muddy unmade track, neat houses to half-built hovels, and any sense of urban order to chaos. There is also a palpable tension in the air. Residents stand and stare at the new arrival. Father Carrara - young and good-looking in jeans and an open-neck blue shirt, with just a corner of clerical collar peeking out - is, I realise, my protector.
People here, he explains, are often recent migrants, either from rural Argentina (80 per cent of the country’s population lives in Buenos Aires province) or further afield in Peru, Bolivia and Paraguay, drawn to the city but shunned by it. There are many problems with joblessness, with black market employment, and – a huge issue right now - with drugs. His parishioners, he says, have good reason to be suspicious of outsiders because they usually herald trouble.
Cardinal Bergoglio sought out Bajo Flores and “villas” like it, visiting regularly (and without an escort). He also sent his priests there in numbers. Father Carrara, who regards the Pope as a father-figure, arrived five years ago, as part of a shift within the whole archdiocese that saw the tally of priests working in the slums increase by 150 per cent, with corresponding reductions in manpower in the swankier postcodes.
“He moved the Church to be present in the marginal areas of society,” says Father Carrara, a shining example of the “Bergoglio-generation” of priests who talk passionately of filling the “vacuum of love” that exists in such places. “So when you hear him now, as Pope, addressing poverty and immigration, you know that he knows what he is talking about. He sees the Holy Spirit in these people, and he listens to them.” And how do they see the Pope? “As just another priest.”
Bajo Flores plays another significant part in Pope Francis’ story. It was nearby, close to Father Carrara’s simply-built parish church, decorated with elaborate Madonnas brought by the immigrant communities, that in 1970 four Jesuits came to live. In line with the tenets of liberation theology at the time – the Church’s then fashionable “preferential option for the poor”, a decade later to be suppressed as “Marxist-inspired” by Pope John Paul II – these Jesuits believed that their place was amongst the most needy in the slums. The world had to be seen through the eyes of the poor.
The Pope Francis we now know would surely be applauding, but back in 1973, as plain Father Bergoglio and the newly-appointed Provincial (or head) of the Jesuits, he took a very different view. He was, in fairness, very young to be appointed to such a senior position, having only taken his final vows a few months previously, after 12 years of study. Such a rapid promotion came about because he was inheriting an Argentine province in turmoil, his predecessor having been sacked, and his fellow priests torn between the practical and political imperatives of liberation theology, and the disapproval of Rome.
To add to the challenges he faced, Argentina was, back then, in political as well as economic free-fall, with its feted former leader, Juan Peron, deposed in 1955, having returned in 1973 after many years in exile, taking up the presidency once again, but sickly and ineffective.
When he died in 1974, he bequeathed the country to his hapless wife, “Isabelita” (her predecessor, the legendary Evita, by now long dead). Under her, Peronist death squads started to operate, targeting left-wing opponents, the precursor to the “Dirty War” of the kidnapping, torture and murder of 10,000s of “disappeared” Argentines by the ruling military junta that seized power in 1976.
As their Provincial, Father Bergoglio had already told the four Jesuits priests to give up their work in Bajo Flores, but with the military