Interview with Gustavo Larrazábal

Interview with Gustavo Larrazábal, cmf, friend of Cardinal Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, and now Pope Francis

How did you meet the present Pope?

The then Cardinal Bergoglio gave homilies and spoke about various interests close to his heart, such as civic involvement and education. He went to Claretian Publications in Argentina where I was the director to ask if we were interested in publishing them. And we published all his works, with the exception of two: his biography and conversations with a Rabbi, which were published by Vergara. Everything else we did. And I was the one to meet with him, chat, exchange ideas. Throughout the years, we built a strong relationship. He valued the publishing house and, in fact, he never wanted to receive royalty payments. He said that should go into our apostolic works. He even wanted us to sign a document saying that, if anything happened to him, he did not want anyone to go and claim anything from the Claretians. I was a little embarrassed by this, and I sort of resisted…the truth is the paper was never signed and that is my fault.

Is he a good writer?

He is a very good writer. What happens is that he does not have time to edit. He might show up in my office with a bundle of papers in his arms and say: “Here is all this. Manage it as best as you can.” We, the editors, and particularly I, edited it, revised it and sent it over for his approval. He made his own comments, but the truth is that we were quite free…Our only arguments have been over covers…The cover is very important for me, because it is what sells the book. In two occasions, I put his picture on the cover and he was mad. But I said to him: “Look, you don’t know much about marketing and without a good cover, the book will not sell. So, you can get mad, but the cover will stay…”

His most frequent topics are education and social issues. He preaches on topics of the day and social issues on two particular days: May 25th, which is a national holiday, when the Te Deum is sung in the cathedral, and on July 7th, which is the feast of St. Cajetan, who is the patron saint of Argentinean workers. Those are the homilies collected in some of the books.

Is he as natural as he seems?

Definitely. When in 1998, upon the death of his predecessor Cardinal Guarracino, he became the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he immediately decided to leave the Episcopal residence, which was a mansion in a residential area where the president and his family also lived. He rented out the mansion to a religious congregation and took a simple room on the third floor of the Chancery. He also had a very austere office, on the second floor. As he was in downtown Buenos Aires, it was evident that he did not need a car or a driver. He moved by walking, subway or bus, or, if in a hurry, he would take a taxi. I often asked him to go to some place to celebrate Mass or to bless a bookstore and I offered to take him, but he always said: “No, no. Don´t worry, I will take my time. You must take care of the people”. He did not have a secretary or monsignors hovering over him, even though the Archdiocese is quite vast and there are six auxiliary bishops, but when people wanted to see him, they were always surprised to find out how easy it was to get an appointment with him. Sometimes he even opened the door himself because many afternoons he was by himself in the building. If you knew how to go in, you simply went up to the second floor, where he was.

Otherwise, he would go down to open.

From Rome, he personally informed his newspaper provider that he would not need daily delivery any longer… He is very warm, very intimate and very compassionate.

I could tell you a very personal anecdote that really moved me. When I turned 50, I invited him to celebrate the Eucharist and to join the party. He came, but he refused to preside. He said that it was my place to preside, and that he would concelebrate with my Claretian brothers and other priests present. Later, contrary to his custom, since he does not normally go to parties and is very careful about what he eats because of his health, he stayed, greeted my mom and other members of the family and everyone present and stayed for quite a while. When he was leaving, someone accompanied him to the street corner to hail a cab, since he refused to have someone leave the party in order to take him.

As a bishop, he was brilliant. Not brilliant in the sense of showmanship, but in the sense of his compassion, his intimate, close, and warm treatment of each individual person.

Will all that change in Rome? Will he be able to change Rome?

That’s the one million dollar question, right? What I am sure of is that he is not going to change. In part because, when you are 76, you don’t change that easily. He has demonstrated that in his first days at the Vatican. He does not want to live in the residence. But the other reason is that this has always been the case. He has transported his Buenos Aires style to the Vatican. There are things he has totally integrated in his person.

Where there will be a little bit more of a challenge is in the tension between what is doctrinal and the concrete cases. In concrete cases he is very merciful and compassionate. He always tried to help secularized priests, priests who were in trouble. When in the 70s there was a scandal about the bishop of Avellaneda who left the priesthood to get married to a nun, he kept in contact with them. When the bishop, named Podestá, was dying, Bergoglio went to see him and gave him the anointing of the sick. But he did all that in silence. He never made a fuss, because he did not like that. And now I believe that, what he did so privately, would have to be channeled, as it will become more public. And it will have to be justified doctrinally, since doctrine is sometimes separate from the concrete personal human situations.
What is true is that he is a master of signs and gestures. He knows the power gestures can have. But he does not do it as a show, but out of conviction, and a deep faith. There is an interesting ecclesiology here, proven by the fact that he never in this past few days has called himself Pope, but bishop of Rome.

So, he is a shepherd. Is he also a theologian?

He is, above all, a shepherd, which is not to say that he is not a theologian. But his interest is very pastoral. For example, for all his attention to social issues and to the poor, he has never sided with the Theology of Liberation. But he does not put brakes on it either. Speaking about catechesis, but applicable to this, he says: “As a shepherd, I allow things to happen. I prefer that there not be a single catechesis, because that makes for a richer situation. I allow for things to flow, provided things are within the scope of the doctrine of the church, and do not fall into heresy or absurd ideas.” He did not identify with theology of liberation. He did not reject it or advocate for it.

But he wouldn’t be able to allow everything…

Of course not. Certainly, when things get out of line with the positions of the church, he has to confront them. That has earned him the hostility of the government on certain occasions. Because, although several departments of the Argentinean government—particularly those of social issues and education—really benefit and support the development and education projects of the church and have greatly helped us, when it comes to issues of morality and social doctrine, he has needed to speak up. That was the case with the famous issue of gay marriage, which is the banner of liberalism and gender equality. Cardinal Bergoglio was trying to negotiate a solution that would not recognize marriage, but would allow for a provision for legal unions that would protect partners…His efforts were derailed by other forces, and in the end, the government legalized marriage. He wanted to dialogue and negotiate always maintaining, of course, the position of the church.
The Kirchners (Nestor when he was president and now his widow Cristina) wanted to get the Cardinal out of his territory. He received politicians in the Chancery, but did not attend festivities or public events outside of it. The only occasions in which they were together were at the Te Deums celebrated in the cathedral. That happened for a few years but then the Kirchners were conveniently out of Buenos Aires on those opportunities and so public appearances were totally stopped.

Certain groups accuse him of not having confronted the Videla dictatorship in the same manner…

I myself have asked him some times what happened there and particularly with the famous case of the two Jesuits who were arrested when he was Provincial. It is not that easy to have a clear cut answer as media are trying to do, when you are not from Argentina. The truth is that the situation of the country at the time was very complex. There was terrorism, state terrorism, oppression, violence, and the military did not know how to handle the situation. At that time, Jorge Bergoglio, Jesuit provincial, was 36 years old. So, he told me: “I swear Gustavo, that I did what I could and what was within my reach…I was totally inexperience and certainly made many mistakes as a provincial. But I did what I know how to do and what I could.” The reality is that, while it would have been great to have a more courageous church in Argentina, as it was in Chile, the Church saved many lives through its work of advocacy and negotiations. Bergoglio personally saved many lives by hiding people, negotiating for their liberation, and in one occasion even giving his own passport to someone. The truth is also that the two Jesuits who had been arrested were liberated precisely because of Bergoglio’s negotiation.

What other burning issues are there for the church in Argentina?

The most important issues are really global and not exclusive to the Argentinean church. What is important for us is to be open to the great issues that are not only for Argentina, but for the universal church: how to revitalize our evangelizing efforts, how to minister to families. There is the very urgent topic of people who do not get married. They don’t get married, not because they cannot but they simply do not want to. There is also the topic of divorced and remarried people in the church…priestly celibacy…

At this time, after the almost generalized euphoria at the election of an Argentinean Pope, the challenge facing the church is to see how all this will be used for a revitalization of the faith. We will have to see what concrete gestures the church engages in, and how it channels all this energy. In all honesty, as Latinos and as Argentineans, sometimes we lose the sense of proportion and we place everything at the same level: we have an Argentinean Pope and that is almost as important as having a sports celebrity…But I believe that, deep down, people will gradually reflect on the significance of the election more seriously and deeply.

You said almost generalized euphoria…where there sectors who did not rejoice as much?

Of course. There is a minority sector, basically of leftist leanings, who have published very harsh articles about him. They accuse him about his silence during the dictatorship and now of being too political. I believe all this is very passionate, but not really that objective.

Are there concerns about him being an outsider in the Vatican, and how that might affect his ministry and his effectiveness?

I believe—and this is a very personal opinion—that he is very clear on what he has to do. In just a few days, he has marked a very definite pace. He knows well and many people of the Roman Curia. Of course, it would be key to see who is going to come into the Curia. The topic of Episcopal appointments is very delicate and there are very sensitive and difficult issues in the situation of the church that need a lot of tactfulness. But I believe Pope Francis sees clearly the changes that need to be made. And he is keenly aware that he has to act quickly, because at his age, he does not have much time.

My only fear is for his health. He is very methodical, but the pace of life at the Vatican will be much more hectic than what he had. In Buenos Aires, to a certain extent, he could control his time. But now, as a head of State, there will be protocol issues and he will not be as much in control. That is my only fear. For his part, he knows exactly what he needs to do and he will be very firm.


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