Votes : 0

Bergoglio’s Map: Literature in the formation of Pope Francis

Antonio Spadaro, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Wed, Mar 15th 2023

Pope Francis and his Ten-Year Journey with Displaced People
“The novel, literature, you see, reads the human heart. It helps us embrace desire, splendor and misery. It is not theory. It is helpful for preaching to know the heart…”[1] That is what Francis told me when I interviewed him in 2016, near the end of our meeting. Ten years after his election to the papacy (March 13, 2013), we want to go in search of the formation of his thinking and pastoral attitude. We are doing so by retracing his readings. It will be a way to understand Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s pontificate from a different perspective.

Pope Francis has always been passionate about literature. Novels and poetry accompanied him in his formation. In a 2009 interview, he said that literature, from a young age, me gustaba mucho. In fact, his memories as a reader go back to childhood, when his father read books aloud after dinner. There was no television.

In this article I would like to reconstruct the path of his reading along with the literary references scattered throughout his texts and interviews. I will try to give some pointers to build a map, a path among the texts that have shaped his way of thinking.

Creativity, imagination and language

As a young Jesuit, Bergoglio taught literature at the Colegio de la Inmaculada Concepción, a Jesuit school in Santa Fe. There he developed the conviction that creative experience was decisive. He was 28 years old and did “a somewhat risky thing.”[2] He had to get his pupils to study the classics of Spanish literature, but the boys did not like them. They asked, instead, to read authors like García Lorca. So Bergoglio decided that they would study works like El Cid at home, and during the lessons he would cover the authors the boys liked best.

More importantly, he also began to get them to write. Eventually, he decided to ask Borges to read two short stories written by his boys. He knew Borges’ secretary, who had been his piano teacher. Borges liked those stories very much. So Bergoglio suggested he write the introduction to a collection of them[3]

This experience of the past has an echo today. It is striking that Francis has written the preface to the poems of a young poet, Luca Milanese, who in 2020 published a volume entitled Rime a sorpresa (Surprise Rhymes).[4] It would not be remarkable, I think, to read a papal text juxtaposed with the work of a poet who has entered the culture and sensibility of entire generations, perhaps one as far back as Dante. Bergoglio himself, in fact, published an apostolic letter, Candor Lucis Aeternae, to mark the 7th centenary of the death of the Sommo Poeta. But it has never happened before that a pontiff would write a one-page introduction to the work of a young poet.

In his preface, the pope notes that Milanese’s poetry stems from a spontaneous ability to “see connections even where there seemingly are none; he knows how to grasp in seemingly random things a new, different depth.” Poetry makes one see links, connections, correspondences. I know from his students that Bergoglio, as a young professor, loved to teach Baudelaire, whom he  has also quoted as pope . Perhaps there is an echo of the symbolic density of his Correspondances in his introduction to  Milanese.

It is also significant that he wanted to write, on June 20, 1981, the preface to a collection of poems by the Argentine Jesuit Osvaldo Pol, entitled De destierros y moradas. Francis wrote, “The poetic word has dwellings of flesh in the human heart and – at the same time – feels the weight of wings that have not yet taken flight.”[5] This is another important definition of poetry. It absorbs the feelings, the passions, the carnality of desire. That is why its weight is not that of wings that, once they have taken flight, are no longer felt. On the contrary, the poem feels this weight, because the wings still touch the earth. And so they express it.

Why this poetic passion, which also manifests itself by accompanying texts by poets not “canonized” by critics, even ones by young students? Bergoglio knows that lack of imagination is a serious problem for faith. We lack powerful images that help us “imagine” the truths we believe. This is, for example, one of the reasons why he loves “popular piety”: it is a golden reservoir of strong images that are grafted deeply into the collective imagination of a people.

It is in this sense that we should understand the appeal made by the pontiff in his preface to the volume The Divine Plot, Jesus in Reverse Angle[6]: “I make an appeal,” Francis wrote, “in this time of crisis of the world order, a time of war and great polarizations, of rigid paradigms, of serious climate and economic challenges. We now need the genius of a new language, of powerful stories and images, of writers, poets and artists capable of shouting the Gospel message to the world, of making us see Jesus.”[7] The call was immediately taken up by director Martin Scorsese, who wrote a script about Jesus that could become a film.[8]

To express his thinking, Francis often uses images. This is not just an expressive strategy, but, more importantly, a way of thinking. Speaking to the community of La Civiltà Cattolica on February 9, 2017, he lucidly said, “I really like poetry and when I can I continue to read it. Poetry is full of metaphors. Understanding metaphors helps make thinking agile, intuitive, flexible, acute. Those with imagination do not become rigid; they have a sense of humor, always enjoying the sweetness of mercy and inner freedom.”[9]

So many times, in fact, as pope he has used, and continues to use, images taken from poetry, even in his most important documents. For example, in his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, dedicated to conjugal love, Francis felt the need to use poetic language. And so he quoted Jorge Luis Borges, Octavio Paz and Mario Benedetti. In another exhortation, Querida Amazonia, he cited as many as 17 writers and poets, mostly Amazonian and popular, but also Mario Vargas Llosa and Pablo Neruda. In his papal communication Francis includes the poetic and symbolic logos as an integral part of his discourse. This is definitely significant.

The logic of ‘incomplete thinking’: Dostoevsky and Benson

But there is a peculiar aspect of poetic expression that Bergoglio loves. We have already understood it in the pedagogical choices related to his teaching. “I love tragic artists,” Francis told me during a 2013 interview.

On a couple of occasions I also have had the opportunity to continue the discussion with the pontiff, discussing this or that writer. One example is Dostoevsky. I knew that the great Russian novelist was among Bergoglio’s most beloved writers. He repeated this several times subsequently, including during the press conference on the flight back from Bahrain. But which work in particular does he favor? The Brothers Karamazov? That is what I imagined. It can be remembered that as archbishop, on the occasion of the canonization of the Roplatan martyrs, on May 27, 1988, Bergoglio quoted The Brothers Karamazov: “Whoever does not believe in God will not believe in God’s people either.”[10]  But when asked directly, “What do you like of Dostoevsky?” Pope Francis replied, Notes from Underground. Later, in my 2016 interview, he described it as “a jewel.”[11]

In this 1864 novel, the Russian writer describes a frustrated man who is resentful of a world that is despicable in his eyes: a man with no name and no qualities, “neither bad nor good, neither dishonest nor honest, neither a hero nor an insect.” Though aware of what good is, he sinks deeper and deeper into a state of wickedness, amid unfulfilled desires and resolutions of revenge. In his “notes,” soliloquy alternates with recollections of episodes in his life, laying bare his soul.

I want to dwell here on one aspect of this passion for tragedy: the fact that it testifies to the complexity and contradictory nature of human experience, of life. Bergoglio loves tensions, “polar opposites,” as Romano Guardini, who was a great interpreter of Dostoevsky and had a great influence on Bergoglio’s thought, called them.

In Notes from Underground, Dostoevsky wrote that it is not necessarily “two plus two equals four,” but could also be “two plus two equals five.” In fact, “two plus two equals four is no longer life, gentlemen, but the principle of death,” the novella declares. Calculating, conceptual and abstract thinking fails to grasp life and its real contradictions. After all, one of the cornerstones of Bergoglio’s thinking is that reality always comes before the idea, and the complexity of the polyhedron is superior to the equidistances of the sphere. Did he learn this from Dostoevsky? Certainly from Guardini he learned that Dostoevsky described the existence of his characters by considering two poles in tension: “the moment of fullness of existence, the undefined, the fluid element elusive to all form, the sudden and unpredictable.”[12]

This seems to me a crucial point for understanding Francis, because this infraction of the rigid logic postulated by the great Russian writer can also be seen as the basis of what Francis, in my 2013 interview, had called “incomplete thinking” or “open-ended thinking,” which has nothing rigid about it.

Along these same lines is a reflection that Francis shared with the Jesuits of La Civiltà Cattolica, referring to Baudelaire, an author that – as I have already pointed out – the young Bergoglio made his students study carefully: “I was thinking of Baudelaire’s verses about Rubens  where he writes that la vie afflue et s’agite sans cesse, / Comme l’air dans le ciel et la mer dans la mer. Yes, life is fluid and stirs without ceasing as the air stirs in the sky and the sea in the sea.” He continued: “Life is not a black and white picture. It is a color picture. Some light and some dark, some muted and some vivid. But still nuances prevail.”[13]

The need for “incomplete thinking” can be detected in Francis’ passion for the dystopian novel Lord of the World, by Robert Hugh Benson. In this work, a charismatic world leader emerges and leads many to think that he represents the way beyond the divisions, constituted, for example, by nations and religions, into a broader and more inclusive humanism. Here appear, then, the fruits of the lie of an abstractly humanitarian ideal, of so-called “single thinking” or, as Francis called it on his trip to Bahrain, “isolated thinking.”

On April 4, 2005, Bergoglio wrote on the “imperialist conception of globalization.” To describe it, he said that “it is conceived as a perfect, clean sphere. All peoples merge into a uniformity that nullifies the tension between diversities. Benson predicted all this in his famous novel Lord of the World. This globalization constitutes the most dangerous totalitarianism of postmodernity.”[14] “Incomplete thinking” whereby two plus two do not always make four is the opposite of globalized, “isolated” and “single thinking.”

A literature of the people: Hernández, Güiraldes and Marechal

Bergoglio makes his own the definition of a “classical” work derived from Cervantes: “Children have it in their hands, young people read it, adults understand it, and old people praise it.”[15] The “classic” work is that which everyone can somehow perceive as their own, not a small group of refined connoisseurs. This lets us understand a fundamental aspect of the pontiff’s literary passion: the “classic” for Bergoglio is always “popular.”

But by “popular” he also means that it has a connection with the people, because it expresses their genius. This leads him, in his apostolic journeys, to refer to writers and poets from the places he visits, such as Miklós Radnóti in Hungary, or Abai in Kazakhstan. In Colombia it is Gabriel Garcia Marquez, in Chile Gabriela Mistral, in Mexico Octavio Paz.

This link between people and art is evident in Bergoglio’s love for a work that, by his own admission, is not a masterpiece: the Argentine epic poem Martín Fierro, written  by José Hernández in 1872. Bergoglio wrote an extensive reflection on this work, in which  he sees in the poem “a narrative, a kind of ‘staging’ of the drama of the constitution of a collective and inclusive sentiment.” Francis is also fond of Don Segundo Sombra, by Ricardo Güiraldes, the last masterpiece of that gaucho literature that had given birth to Martín Fierro.

The invitation to read the national poem is meant to awaken the “desire to keep alive that dream of a homeland of brothers and sisters that has guided so many men and women in this land.”[16]  In fact, this work gives shape to the desire for a society in which everyone finds a place: the porteño trader, the coastal gaucho, the northern shepherd, the northeastern artisan, the native and the immigrant, insofar as none of them wishes to have everything for him or herself, expelling the others from the land. His accents in speaking of Martín Fierro are reminiscent of the democratic and popular romanticism of a Walt Whitman, a contemporary of Hernández, who fields the Dakota carpenter and the California miner, the mechanic and the bricklayer, the boatman and the shoemaker.

The Argentine mosaic is no less than that of the United States because of immigration. It should not be forgotten that Bergoglio is the son of immigrants, and his interest in the topic of migration is, among other things, connected to this experience. There is no time here to talk about his passion for Nino Costa’s poetry and Luigi Orsenigo’s novels describing it. But it is necessary to talk about Bergoglio’s great interest in Leopoldo Marechal, a classic writer of Argentine literature, because he well expresses the value of the unity of a people on the basis of diversity and mestizaje.

Francis had told me about Marechal in the 2013 interview,[17] referring to three of his works, Adán Buenosayres, El Banquete de Severo Arcángelo and Megafón o la guerra. Marechal’s masterpiece is his first work, published in 1948, where he described the “city of the brothers, Philadelphia.” The work narrates a symbolic three-day voyage by the poet Adàn within the geography of a metaphysical Buenos Aires, a great melting pot of races and languages, a productive and cheerful metropolis with countless immigrants (Spanish, Italians, Germans, Russians, Syro-Lebanese…). What binds Francis to Marechal is the common deep experience of belonging to the homeland, Argentina. In his lecture for the 13th Archdiocesan Day of Social Pastoral Care, which he attended in Buenos Aires on October 16, 2010, Bergoglio quoted him as saying, “We are a new people, a ‘childlike homeland…,’ as Leopoldo Marechal wrote.”[18]

But the link with the writer is, in particular, the fascination of such an international city. It is caught in a truly Dantean – but also Dostoevskian – descent into the metropolitan “underground.” Dante’s influence is recognized in the seventh book of the novel entitled Viaje a la Oscura Ciudad de Cacodelphia, an obvious parody of Inferno. Marechal, but also Julio Cortázar of The Reward Journey, helped Bergoglio reflect on and imagine the value of mestizaje, which he explained well to the Jesuits in Mozambique: “Mixing makes you grow, it gives you knew life. It develops racial mixing, change and gives originality. The mixing of identities is what we have experienced, for example, in Latin America. There we have everything: Spanish and Indian, the missionary and the conqueror, the Spanish lineage, people’s mixed heritage. Building walls means condemning yourself to death. We can’t live asphyxiated by a culture as clean and pure as an operating theater, aseptic and not microbial.”[19] How much imagination these statements deploy!

But there is also the description of Philadelphia that is striking in Adán Buenosayres. Mixture and differences composed in harmony build citizenship, and thus Philadelphia, which, Marechal writes, is the “city of brothers, among the metropolises of the world. A peaceful and happy multitude will walk its streets: the blind will see the light, the denier will affirm what he has denied, the exiled will tread the native soil, and the damned will finally be redeemed…”[20] As the rose reigns among flowers, so the “city of brothers” will reign among the metropolises of the world, Marechal writes. The city is home to all who live it in their differences and intersections. How can we not see here the background of the encyclical Fratelli Tutti?

The poetics of the ‘middle class’: Malègue and Manzoni

Therefore, art is not a “laboratory” for experimenting with cultural and expressive dynamics: instead, it is part of the flow of history, part of humanity’s journey on earth. If anything, it is an  advanced frontier, but not an elitist club. In this sense, it is illuminating how important the work of French writer Joseph Malègue is to Bergoglio. Francis said in the 2013 interview, “I see holiness in the people of God, their daily holiness. There is a ‘middle class of holiness’ that we can all be part of, the one Malègue talks about.”[21] Born in 1876 and dying in 1940, Malègue is known for his unfinished trilogy Pierres noires. Les Classes moyennes du Salut. Some French critics called him “the Catholic Proust.”

Describing what he means by the “middle class of holiness,” Francis said, “I see holiness in the patient people of God: a woman who raises children, a man who works to bring home bread, the sick, elderly priests who have so many wounds but smile because they have served the Lord, nuns who work so hard and live a hidden holiness. This for me is the common holiness.”[22] The pope manifested his link to Malègue’s pages at the beginning of his Gaudete et Exsultate, the apostolic exhortation “on the call to holiness in the contemporary world.”

We are not far from the reasons why he read another great novel, I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed) by Alessandro Manzoni, four times. He had spoken about it in the 2013 interview with a very personal recollection, “I have read the book I Promessi Sposi three times and I have it now on the table to read it again. Manzoni has given me so much. My grandmother, when I was a child, taught me by heart the beginning of this book: ‘That branch of Lake Como, which turns south, between two unbroken mountain chains…’.”[23]

In a later interview, he recalled his first connection with this novel: “Grandmother used to read us a few chapters of I Promessi Sposi, and even helped us memorize them. Recently I picked them up again, because every time you open them you find something new in them. Often my father would recite parts of I Promessi Sposi to us from memory and then explain them to us.”[24]  One cannot help but notice how Bergoglio’s passion for  Manzoni’s novel is the result of readings  in the family context, of personal memories that have the warmth of affection, of the presence of his grandmother and father.

Manzoni’s work is the novel of “mechanical and petty businesspeople” who become instruments of divine providence. Stories and history are intertwined, traversing tribulations. On this historical plane, human machinations are revealed and God’s consolations are experienced. Lucia, who rightfully belongs to the  “middle class of holiness,” is persecuted by human meanness. It is she who carries the proclamation of God’s mercy. This is the profound meaning of the dramatic encounter with the captor, the Unnamed, to whom the announcement of God’s mercy is made: “What can I, a petty person demand, if not that you show mercy to me? God forgives many things for a work of mercy!”

Bergoglio is clearly impressed by works that display mercy, a literature of mercy. I like to recall here that, on his trip to the Holy Land, he referred to terrorists with the powerful expression of “poor criminal people.”[25] This definition echoes Christ’s choice before the Grand Inquisitor, as Dostoevsky presents it to us in The Brothers Karamazov: a kiss on the lips of the one who announces to him the death sentence; a kiss that does not change his mind, but that makes his lips tremble and “burns the heart.”

But Dante, too, is for Bergoglio a poet of God’s mercy, which – as he writes in his apostolic letter Candor Lucis Aeternae[26] – “always offers the possibility of change, conversion, new self-awareness and discovery of the path to true happiness.” This is evidenced, for example, by the figure of the Emperor Trajan, a pagan but placed in Canto XX of Paradise, or by King Manfred, excommunicated but placed by Dante in Purgatory, who thus recalls his own end and the divine verdict: But infinite goodness has such great arms, / that it takes what turns to it (Purg. III). It is a perfect summary of Francis’ vision of God’s mercy.

For Bergoglio, the choice of Christ before the Grand Inquisitor is close to that of Lucia before the Unnamed, which he has well in mind, so much so that he quoted him, for example, at a key moment at the beginning of his pontificate, namely in Lampedusa, on July 8, 2013, in  these words, “The figure of Manzoni’s Unnamed returns. The globalization of indifference makes us all ‘unnamed,’ nameless and faceless perpetrators.” We note how Manzoni and Benson converge here.

The figure of the shepherd: from Manzoni to Hugo

In I Promessi Sposi there is mention of Federigo Borromeo, for whom, Manzoni writes, “there is no just superiority of man above men, except in their service.” This chapter of I Promessi Sposi in which the figure of Cardinal Federigo is described in his encounter with the Unnamed should be better investigated to find elements of the Bergoglian vision. We recall that Paul VI also quoted it in his General Audience of October 9, 1968.

Reference to Manzoni’s work is also found in the book Francis wrote in dialogue with Austen Ivereigh. Ivereigh rightly notes the novel presents “various priestly characters: the cowardly curé Don Abbondio, the holy cardinal archbishop Borromeo, and the Capuchin friars who serve the lazaretto, a kind of field hospital where the infected are rigorously separated from the healthy.”[27] He asks the pontiff how he sees the mission of the Church in light of the novel and the pandemic crisis. Bergoglio answers, “Cardinal Federigo really is a hero of the Milan plague. Yet in one of the chapters he goes to greet a village but with the window of his carriage closed to protect himself. This did not go down well with the people. The people of God need their pastor to be close to them, not to over-protect himself. The people of God need their pastors to be self-sacrificing, like the Capuchins, who stayed close.”[28]

Francis had indirectly quoted this passage from I Promessi Sposi in Brazil, giving an interview to Gerson Camarotti of broadcaster Rede Globo on July 25, 2013. When Francis arrived in Rio de Janeiro, in fact, mistakes were made in the security system and his car became caught up in the crowd. The pope commented, “Before leaving I went to see the popemobile that was to be brought here. It had so many windows. If you go to see someone you love so much, friends, with a desire to communicate, do you go to visit them inside a glass case? No. I could not come to see this people, who have such a big heart, behind  glass . And in the car, when I go on the streets, I roll down the window, so I can put out my hand and say hello.”[29] It is clear, then, that Bergoglio developed various pastoral considerations  from frequent reading of I Promessi Sposi.

It is in Victor Hugo that Francis finds a fine example of a pastor. In a text accompanying the reissue of a book by Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini on the figure of a bishop, Bergoglio notes that Martini refers to Monsignor Bienvenu, bishop of Dignes, a character in Les Miserables. He writes, “Those pages of Victor Hugo describing that pastor deserve rereading. I like them very much and they inspire me.” And so he quotes Hugo describing Monsignor Bienvenu. He quotes this character extensively when describing the bishop as a doctor in a field hospital: “He bent over those who were in agony and those who were dying. The universe appeared to him as an immense sickness; he felt everywhere the fever, he listened everywhere to the suffering and, without trying to unravel the enigma, he sought to soothe the sore.” He concludes by quoting, “‘Love one another’: […] he aspired to nothing more, and in this was all his doctrine.”[30]  It really sounds like the epitome of the pastor according to Bergoglio.

‘Homo viator’ on a mission: Virgil, Pemán and Tolkien

But what for Bergoglio is the relationship between human beings and the events of history? If I had to choose a poet in whom the pontiff finds his mentor, I would say Virgil.

In his Message to Educational Communities on April 23, 2008, then-Cardinal Archbishop Bergoglio of Buenos Aires had said that humanity has always conceived of life as a journey, and man as a wayfarer, homo viator. In the Bible, this is certainly the case: just think of Abraham. But “in every human history and mythology,” he writes, “the fact is stressed that the person is not a quiet, sedentary being, but rather ‘on the way,’ called, ‘vocato’ – hence the term ‘vocation’ – and when a person does not enter into this dynamic, then he or she is annihilated as a person, or corrupted. More than that, setting out is rooted in an inner restlessness that impels us to ‘come out of ourselves’.”

In particular, Bergoglio refers to Aeneas, who, “faced with Troy in ruins, overcomes the temptation to stop and rebuild the city and, taking his father on his shoulders, begins to climb the mountain toward a peak that will be the foundation of Rome.”[31] This image is indelible in the pontiff’s mind. It is an icon.

The following year, in his extensive conversation with Sergio Rubin and Francesca Ambrogetti, he said of the Virgilian hero, “Beware, Christian patience is not quietist or passive. It is the patience of St. Paul, the one that involves carrying history on one’s shoulders. It is the archetypal image of Aeneas who, as Troy burns, lifts his father on his shoulders – Et sublato montem genitore petivi – lifts his history on his shoulders and sets out, in search of the future.”[32]

These two quotations from Virgil are an indication that this work has given the future pontiff much food for thought. Stopping is a temptation: Aeneas chooses the risk of leaving, of going up, and doing so carrying his elderly father on his shoulders. One can, therefore, seek the future only by carrying the past, history and memory on one’s shoulders.

As pontiff, Francis has fully taken up this Virgilian echo, revealing how much the Aeneid has been etched in his imagination. In particular, he did so in the interview given to Austin Ivereigh during the pandemic. At the very end of that interview, he added, referring to Aeneid II, 800-804: “What comes now to mind is another verse of Virgil’s, at the end of Book 2 of the Aeneid, when Aeneas, following defeat in Troy, has lost everything. Two paths lie before him: to remain there to weep and end his life, or to follow what was in his heart, to go up to the mountain and leave the war behind. It’s a beautiful verse. Cessi, et sublato montem genitore petivi (“I gave way to fate and, bearing my father on my shoulders, made for the mountain”). This is what we all have to do now, today: to take with us the roots of our traditions, and make for the mountain.”[33] Here, then, is how the icon that the then-archbishop of Buenos Aires had already well captured returns.

It should also be noted that Francis, on October 23, 2018, during the presentation of the book La Sagezza del tempo (The Wisdom of Time)[34] on the relationship between young and old, asked for an icon to be projected that was the work of the iconographic atelier of Bose: one that depicts a young monk carrying an elderly brother on his shoulders. In fact, it is the same image of Aeneas carrying Anchises on his shoulders. The pope commented, “You see a young man who was able to take upon himself the dreams of the elderly and carry them forward, to make them bear fruit. This perhaps will be an inspiration. You can’t carry all the elders on your shoulders, but their dreams, yes, and carry them forward, carry them: that will do you good.”

But Francis went further, emphasizing the theme of memory. He affirmed, “What comes to my mind is a verse from the Aeneid in the midst of defeat: the counsel is not to give up, but save yourself for better times, for in those times remembering what has happened will help us. Take care of yourselves for a future that will come. And remembering in that future what has happened will do you good.”[35] The pope was evidently concerned that the post-pandemic time would be imagined as going backward, into simple oblivion.

Forgetting the lived experience is the greatest temptation when one wants to build the future. Francis said again, “What comes to mind is another line from Virgil (Aeneid I, 203): . . . meminisce  iuvabit (it will be good to remember). We need to recover our memory because memory will come to our aid. This is not humanity’s first plague; the others have become mere anecdotes.” He continued: “We need to remember our roots, our tradition packed full of memories.”[36]

In the encyclical Fratelli Tutti, the analysis of present history is broader than the pandemic.  Francis is reminded of Virgil’s famous verse that evokes “the tears of things” (No. 34). The pope was referring to the passage in the first book of the Aeneid, verse 462, in which Aeneas speaks to Achates of the images of war they are viewing and says: Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt (“Tears fall for man’s fate, and human suffering touches the heart”).

One of the reasons for this suffering is certainly the “Third World War in pieces.” In the volume Vi chiedo in nome di Dio (I ask you in the name of God), edited by Hernan Reyes Alcaide, the pope writes, “More than two thousand years ago the poet Virgil shaped this verse, ‘War does not give salvation!’ One can hardly believe that since then the world has not learned lessons from the barbarity that marks conflicts between brothers, compatriots and countries. War is the clearest sign of inhumanity. That heartfelt cry still resounds.”[37] There is no memory, nothing is being learned.

Bergoglio’s reception of Virgil is in the line of so many literary scholars, as well as men and women of culture for whom the reception of a classic is a fruitful relationship between past and present it is the resumption of the thread that unites present and past experience; it is the possibility of regeneration through  a text of yesterday in order to derive a map for charting our future.

Aeneas is the hero on the road who is aware  in himself of the sense of mission. Bergoglio is very sensitive to this image, which he also finds in contemporary literature. In particular he cites Tolkien, who – writes the future pontiff – “takes up in Bilbo and Frodo the image of the person called to walk, and his heroes know and act, by walking, the drama that is unleashed between good and evil. The ‘person walking’ denotes a dimension of hope; “entering” into hope. Outside of us and in us there is something that calls us to make the journey. To go out, to walk, to carry through, to accept the bad weather and to give up shelter … this is the journey.”[38]

Bergoglio also finds this figure of the hero traveling on a mission in Il divino impaziente (The Impatient Divine) a drama about St. Francis Xavier by Spanish writer José María Pemán. Francis quoted him on July 31, 2013, at St. Ignatius Church in Rome, as an emblem of the anxiety to evangelize without hesitation or delay, so well portrayed in “that beautiful piece by Pemán,” as he called it. It is the same anxiety that pervades Francis’ entire pontificate.

* * *

Meeting the ecclesial movements at the Vigil of Pentecost on May 18, 2013, the pope quoted Manzoni’s novel, “Do not speak much, but speak with all your life.” Here he was referring in particular to the chapter of I Promessi Sposi he loves most, the one about the conversion of the Unnamed, where we read, “Life is the paragon of words.” Here is the point: life is the paragon of words, and therefore the poetic word that Bergoglio loves is the one that has an intimate relationship with life and provides the images, metaphors and terms to express it.

By constructing a map of Bergoglio’s readings, it is possible to better understand his vision and perhaps even discover the roots of his way of understanding the world and of being a pastor. We have emphasized the importance of tragedy that presents the contradictory nature of life. We discovered how much the pope loves literature that expresses the soul of a people, but is also able to give him insight into that multifaceted and mestizo future that Marechal helps us think of and imagine.

Interweaving the reading of Hernández, Malègue, Dostoevsky and Manzoni, one senses the humanity Bergoglio has in his heart. It extends as if within a square. It starts from the straightforward folk dimension of Renzo and Lucia to the gaucha humanity of the characters in Martín Fierro’s epic; it continues from les classes moyennes de la sainteté to the brutality of the social life of the Dostoevskian anti-hero, the man of the “underground,” who finds his way out in Virgil’s words about Aeneas’ mission, or Tolkien’s words about Frodo, all called to go out and walk their path.


[1].    J. M. Bergoglio – Pope Francis, Nei tuoi occhi è la mia parola. Omelie e discorsi di Buenos Aires 1999-2013, Milan, Rizzoli, 2016, XX.

[2].    A. Spadaro, “Intervista a Papa Francesco”, in Civ. Catt. 2013 III 473.

[3].    Cf. J. Milia et al, L’età felice, Milan – Rome, Corriere della Sera – La Civiltà Cattolica, 2014, 237 f.

[4].    L. Milanese, Rime a sorpresa, Todi (Pg), Tau, 2020.

[5].       O. Pol, De destierros y moradas, Buenos Aires, Diego de Torres, 1981.

[6].    A. Spadaro, Una trama divina. Gesù in controcampo, Venice, Marsilio, 2023.

[7]. Pope Francis, “Chi dite che io sia?”, ibid., 10.

[8]. M. Scorsese, “Screenplay for a possible film about Jesus”, in Civ. Catt. English Ed., February 2023.

[9]. Pope Francis, “Address to the community of La Civiltà Cattolica”, in Civ. Catt. English Ed., 2017.

[10].   J. M. Bergoglio – Pope Francis, Nei tuoi occhi è la mia parola…, op. cit., XVII.

[11].   Ibid., XX.

[12].   R. Guardini, El universo religioso de Dostoyevski, Buenos Aires, Emece, 1954, 350.

[13].   Pope Francis, “Address to the community of La Civiltà Cattolica”, op. cit.

[14].   Francis, “Prólogo” to G. Carriquiry, Una apuesta por América Latina, Buenos Aires, Editorial Sudamericana, 2005.

[15].   A. Spadaro, “Intervista a Papa Francesco”, op. cit., 472.

[16].   J. M. Bergoglio – Pope Francis, Nei tuoi occhi è la mia parola…, op. cit., 160.

[17].   A. Spadaro, “Intervista a Papa Francesco”, op. cit., 472.

[18].   J. M. Bergoglio – Pope Francis, Nei tuoi occhi è la mia parola.., op. cit., 807.

[19]. A. Spadaro, “The Sovereignty of the People of God. The pontiff meets the Jesuits of Mozambique and Madagascar”, in Civ. Catt. English Ed. September 2019.

[20]. L. Marechal, Adán Buenosayres, Florence, Vallecchi, 2010, 342f.

[21]. A. Spadaro, “Intervista a Papa Francesco”, op. cit., 459.

[22].   Ibid.

[23].   Ibid., 471.

[24].   D. Agasso, “Quei 400 cappelletti della nonna e i libri letti da papà, io e il mio Natale in casa Bergoglio”, in La Stampa, December 24, 2021.

[25].   Francis, Meeting with refugees and youth with disabilities at Bethany Beyond the Jordan Latin Church, May 24, 2014.

[26].   Id., apostolic letter Candor Lucis Aeternae. On the seventh centenary of Dante Alighieri’s death, March 25, 2021.

[27].   A. Spadaro, “Pope Francis and the Coronavirus C

share :
tags icon tags :
comments icon Without comments


write comment
Please enter the letters as they are shown in the image above.