March 9, 2014
Still more to say about the Pope
Work: Former president of the Association of Foreign Correspondents, Correspondent for Radio Vaticano/ Italian news agency ANSA; co-author of El Jesuita: Conversaciones con Jorge Bergoglio; journalism professor, social psychologist; mother
Francesca Ambrogetti is a practicing Roman Catholic. But when she moved to Argentina, she never would have believed she was destined to become Pope Francis’ confidante. After meeting Jorge Bergoglio in 2001 though, she later co-authored the only biography of the former Cardinal before he assumed the papacy, and soon found herself fielding phone calls from readers and journalists around the world. Still on the book-tour circuit four months after Conversaciones con Jorge Bergoglio was republished and translated into 21 languages, she spoke with the Herald about circumstance and her religious belief.
As a two-term former president, how have you seen the Association of Foreign Correspondents evolve over the years?
The organization we have now is what came after the Association of the Foreign Press, which was originally only open to foreign correspondents. If an Argentine was a correspondent for the New York Times, for example, she wasn’t allowed to be in the organization — which meant that Argentines were discriminated against in their own country. But eventually, they changed the rule.
When were you president of the organization?
I was chosen to be president of the Association of Foreign Correspondents during the two worst moments in Argentina’s history. During the Malvinas War in 1982, which was also the last year of the military dictatorship, and again from 2000-2003, which was the second worst moment. I always say that if they select me again, there’s going to be another crisis.
During both periods, the press helped shape history. Are there any memories from those years that come to mind?
There was one time when we went to eat with Menem to talk about politics, the economy, everything important. And then as an aside he started to talk about football. On the first page of every newspaper the following day, everyone had covered what he said about the sport and nothing else. But the association has always had a big role, and our job was always to interrogate the protagonists of the moment.
You’ve spent many years here now. Do you feel like a porteña? We’re meeting in an Italian café. Does this mean you subconsciously want to go back to Rome?
(Laughs.) My family is here, but Rome is my place of origin. I was born there and grew up there, but I’ve integrated into Argentine society and I’m comfortable here. A mother is from the place her children are.
You can’t see the future, but your book was quite prophetic. How did you come to write about Jorge Bergoglio before he was Pope?
The idea was conceived in 2001, but we had no idea we’d be writing about the future pope. Not even a remote idea. At the time, we were trying to understand what was happening in Argentina and Bergoglio, who was just named Cardinal of Argentina, invited us to participate in a conversation along with sindicalistas, businessmen and economists on April 10 of that year.
During the meeting, his simplicity, way of speaking, and knowledge about Argentina’s reality greatly impacted all of us, even colleagues who were secular. And from there, we thought, ‘we need to find out more about this person.’ At the end of 2001, Sergio Rubin and I told him about our idea, and the first thing he said was, “you’d be wasting your time.”
But Bergoglio thought about it for five years and every once in a while we’d call and remind him about the proposal and he would never said no. He’d just say, ”let me think a little more.”
What was it like to get to know Bergoglio?
Bergoglio was never a public person. He has always been low-profile. We’re still discovering things that he did here and never shared. So it was very interesting that he accepted our proposal and offered to speak with us. I’ve shared this a dozen times, but when I would call his office, the office of the highest authority of the Church of Argentina, he would answer the phone himself. For the first interview, we originally offered to pick him up and he said, “Don’t send anyone. I’ll come via public transit.” He’s a person that is very attentive to others. And if you’re speaking with him then you’re the protagonist, and he’ll turn the questions around. During our conversations, it was never question/answer style. There was always lots of exchange.
How did you approach allegations that Bergoglio did not intercede when he could have during the dictatorship?
It’s a topic that I personally didn’t want to bring up with him, but Sergio, [co-author of Conversaciones con Jorge Bergoglio] said, “We have to talk about this topic.” I said, “If he doesn’t want to talk, we should respect his silence.” But when we brought it up with Bergoglio himself and told him about our discussion, he said, “Let’s talk about it.” It was the first time he spoke about the topic and we included the conversation in the book.
How would you characterize Bergoglio’s contributions to the Vatican these past few months?
Bergoglio has a singular capacity to concentrate on whatever it is he is doing. During all of our conversations, despite all of his responsibilities, he was always very present, and that is an important quality to have if you are governing something as complex as the Church.
Was your interest in the pope born out of a personal interest in religion?
I’m a practicing Catholic, but I’m not a specialist in religious topics. I only had the idea that the Church is a protagonist of the reality of Argentina, and we had to listen to its voice if we wanted to understand the panorama of current events. Our book was what came out of the dialogue.
Any pending projects? Are you planning a sequel?
There are always more projects. Now the question is about his time as pope and in what manner his personality is impacting the world. When we finished the book, we had the sensation that there was a lot left to say.