Impressions of the Pope

2013-03-15 00:00

DURBAN’S Cardinal Wilfrid Napier is not the only South African whose dinner-time conversation could revolve around the day he met the new pope.

Tony Leon, South Africa’s former ambassador to Argentina, and Bishop Jose Ponce de Leon of Ingwavuma in northern KwaZulu-Natal, have both met the man who now leads the world’s 1,2 billion Catholics.

Ponce de Leon, himself a Porteño, or person from Buenos Aires, says he first met the then Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio two years ago.

“I was in Buenos Aires and I had to see him. At that time, I just wanted to let him know that a child of the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires had become a bishop in South Africa.

“We spoke about a lot of things. We spoke about the church and we also spoke about South Africa.

“I told him about the area where I work in northern KwaZulu-Natal, my work with the bishops and the daily challenges that are facing the church there.”

Ponce de Leon said Bergoglio had a special feeling for the church’s missionaries and “the people that need this kind of experience”.

The first time he contacted Bergoglio, the cardinal had written at the end of an e-mailed reply: “Pray for me.”

It was exactly what the man, now called Pope Francis, had told the tens of thousands of faithful gathered at St Peter’s Square on Wednesday night.

Ponce de Leon said he had found Bergoglio to be a “very simple man”. During Holy Week, Catholics had a ritual of washing the feet of the faithful and Bergoglio had once washed the feet of 12 HIV-positive people.

“I hope now that he is Pope he will continue to do that kind of thing.”

Ponce de Leon, who is also the acting Bishop of Manzini, said it would be great if the Pope could visit South Africa and Swaziland.

“At the bishop’s residence in Manzini, we have a room where Pope John Paul II once spent the night when he came for a visit and we call it the Pope’s Room.

“There is a joke that we make that if the Pope ever comes for a visit, he has a room to stay.”

Tony Leon told The Witness he had met Bergoglio “two or three times” with other diplomats.

The then cardinal had clashed with political leaders in his own country. The relationship between President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and Pope Francis was very strained, said Leon.

“It was similar to that between Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and President P.W. Botha.

“They [Kirchner and Pope Francis] didn’t get on. He was always very critical of the government.”

Leon said he supposed that relationship might now improve given that Francis was the first Argentine pope and the first from South America.

He spoke highly of the Pope, whom he described as “socially conservative and very pro-poor”.

Napier, in an e-mail yesterday to the Chancery in Durban, wrote how he admired the Pope’s humility.

When the new pope was clad in his white papal cassock, he wanted to greet Cardinal Ivan Dias of India who walked with “great difficulty”, he wrote.

“Unbelievable. The Pope thinks first and foremost about his brother … Then on returning to the Chair, which represented his office as leader of the church, he insists on remaining standing so that he would greet each of the cardinals as brothers on equal terms.”

Napier described the moment on Wednesday night when it became clear that Cardinal Bergoglio had received the two-thirds majority to be elected Pope.

“The first thing was that it was a moment of tension and expectation,” he told The Witness from the Vatican last night.

“There was a moment of expectation when he was asked if he will accept, and there was another moment when he was asked what name he will choose.

“We immediately felt excitement when he took the name of Francis of Assisi. It brought tears to my eyes and a number of the cardinals.

“He could have taken the name of Francis Xavier, who was also a Jesuit. Francis of Assisi was known as a simple man. From what we know of him, that’s the life he has been living, simple. He looks like he will bring back the simplicity to the church. We look forward to that.”

Asked how he felt that an African had not been elected, Napier said: “I’ve always maintained that … it did not matter where the Pope came from. The way it turned out, I think he is the ideal man to lead the church.”

Napier said he would arrange to return home before Easter.

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