It was on an afternoon in 1957 that the 20 year-old student, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, told his “gang” of friends of a decision that would change his life forever. Speaking to his friends at a house in the Flores neighbourhood of Buenos Aires, the chemistry student gave word that he had decided to become a Catholic priest. This was greeted with joy by some but not without regret that Bergoglio would no longer be just one more member of a close-knit group. And there were at least two girls who wept at the news. Thus began his first steps towards becoming Pope Francis, the first pontiff to come from Latin America.
In a report by La Nacion, one of Pope Francis’ friends from adolescence remembers him well from his early days in the Argentine capital. Alba Colonna recalled, "He was a very sensitive guy, very sociable. Not an intellectual or someone super mystical. He was only interested in social issues, so he frequented the slums." Colonna drew parallels between the young man she knew in the 1950s to his first words from the balcony overlooking St Peter’s Square on March 13. "I was struck by his first public appearance. His words were not those of a Pope. They were those of a friend. And that was it ..." she said with mingled astonishment and pride, a sentiment shared by many other Argentines.
Colonna also described her friend Bergoglio as someone who did not demand attention. He was not a charismatic leader but noted by his humility and cordiality. In many ways he was much like other young people of the time. Like other young men, he courted young ladies and would take them by the hand and invite them to dance the tango to the popular tunes of the day. Colonna recalled, “Jorge was a great dancer of tangos. He liked them a lot.”
Bergoglio and his teenaged friends liked lively parties, especially on Saturday nights when female friends brought food and male friends supplied liquor. Dances could go on until five o’clock in the morning when the boys, dressed in white jackets, would accompany the girls to their respective homes. Since by then it was Sunday morning, Colonna assured that by eight o’clock they were all at Mass.
“After that meeting in which he told us of his decision, I only saw him again on religious occasions, almost always crowded. He became someone very important and I was always bashful about approaching him,” said Colonna.
Colonna heard about the election of Pope Francis at an airport while finishing up a visit outside of Buenos Aires. She learned that no only was the new Pope a fellow Argentine, but he was also the tall and handsome young man that she had one known. "It was one of the biggest surprises of my life. And I'm convinced that it can help make a significant shift for the Church. A change of values which means more of looking downward and less of looking upward,” she said.
Regarding his choice of Francis as his new name as Pope, Colonna expressed the theory that the former Cardinal Bergoglio no only had St Francis of Assisi on his mind, but also St Francis Solano. It was at the parish of St Francis Solano that he began his ministry as a priest in the Villa Luro district of Buenos Aires. Francis of Assisi is, of course, known to the world for his extreme poverty and spiritual joy, for his ‘Canticle of the Sun’ and the founding of the Franciscan religious who followed. The son of a wealthy cloth merchant, Francis of Assisi (b. 1181) gave up a life of warfaring and frivolity to become known to the world as ‘Il Poverello’ and a holy man who most resembled Jesus Christ himself.
Francis Solano, or Francisco Sánchez-Solano Jiménez, was a Spanish friar of the Franciscan order who was born in 1548. In 1589, he went to South America where he was renowned for his austerities as well as his music. A linguist, Francis Solano evangelized American native peoples in Colombia, Argentina, and Peru, being well accepted because of his facility with native languages.
Francis of Assisi received a mystical vision that he believed to be directly from God to ‘rebuild the church.’ Thinking that the directive applied to a ruined chapel, Francis and his fellows set about restoring the chapel. It was only later that he interpreted it to mean restoring the medieval Catholic Church to a more simple expression of its faith. As a later brother of Il Poverello, Francis Solano set about preaching the Gospel in the Americas not only to prospective Christians, but to those who were already Catholic. These may be the tasks Pope Francis had in mind when he chose the name of a poor man and an evangelist.