Monsignor Oscar Vicente Ojea, 76, is the head of the Argentine Synod and one of the persons closest to Pope Francis.
In a feature interview marking the 10th anniversary of the Buenos Aires-born pontiff’s papacy, Ojea shares his reflections on the gestures, travel and words of fraternal love and peace transmitted by the pontiff to the wider world.
There is a text which you sent out to invite the people to the celebration of the Thanksgiving Mass, calling upon them to renew their joy over the ministry of Francis and to pray for his pastoral work. What are the events to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Pope Francis going to be like?
The various regions nationwide will be celebrating such an important event, this is a moment of pride for us Argentines and especially for us bishops. Imagine the immense joy in the Synod when Pope Francis was elected. I remember that two months later he taped a message for all his compatriots and my first memory from that was: “Pray for me so this does not go to my head.” I would like to comment on that because it was a display of humility and fraternity.
We, with enormous affection and pride in having our Pope emerging from our diocese, are going to celebrate in the different regions of the country. And we in the Synod have invited all creeds, whether Christian or not, to celebrate the Pope. We know of his work for unity and the affection the Pope has for Argentina’s different creeds because one dialogue which does work in Argentina is the inter-religious. We’ve travelled far along that road of ecumenical dialogue so we’ll be meeting up with true friends when celebrating these 10 years of the Holy Father.
Could you tell me how you experienced that day when [Jorge] Bergoglio was elected pontiff?
Yes, I have that day very much in mind. I was at home in the episcopal residence of San Isidro with no idea that he could be elected Pope. Just a month beforehand, conversing with him in Buenos Aires, he had told me that he had presented his resignation and was thinking about where he should go to confess. He was going to live in the home for retired priests in Condarco street – nothing was making me think that a bishop who had presented his resignation was going to be elected Pope, So when I heard it on television, my joy was enormous. I remember how I yelled out and got all the bells in the cathedral ringing at once. I was so happy that the same night I dreamed that it was not true. I dreamed that a cardinal – probably the one who had appeared on television to announce that Bergoglio was Pope – was telling me: “No, it’s not true” and I woke up happy that reality was otherwise. So I wrote to him to tell him about this dream and after a while he answered me saying: “I laughed at your dream, I too thought it was all very crazy when the votes in the conclave started piling up but suddenly I experienced a peace which I realised was not mine. Thanks to that peace I’m surviving, I’m shielded by that peace.” I recall those words in the first letter I have from him as Pope and I’m convinced that this profound peace which permits Pope Francis to work as he does, tackling the present in all his pastoral work, is really in his actions continuously. When I had the opportunity to see him, I told him: “In Buenos Aires you were not required by the media so much, now you’re a communications boom.” He replied to me: “You know I felt the Lord telling me that I have to be myself. The key to communication is authenticity, being oneself.”
The image we had of Bergoglio was of a serious person, frowning with a worried face, while in the Vatican he would seem to be always laughing. What could that have been, the Holy Spirit, his [new] role or was the image we always had of him incorrect?
In my case I did not feel the difference so much because as his suffragan bishop, we shared some pretty amusing things. But I think it was the function, the Pope’s consubstantiation with his mission. There is a beautiful phrase of his about the joy of the Gospel, which says that the mission is not an external adornment: “I am a mission in this world.” The person identifies with his mission. We might say that in that profound identification the Pope has found a way of communicating with people, he enjoys being near people. He enjoys his Wednesday audiences, he enjoys his travels a great deal and he gives me the impression that he finds the source of his joy in his pastoral work.
You, more than anybody as his suffragan bishop, spent time with him. Did that Bergoglio crack jokes and laugh in the same way as he does in Rome?
He cracked jokes and laughed, yes, above all in intimate circles. Perhaps it was less noticeable outside them.
We might say that four items have marked these 10 years of the papacy of Francis: the reform of the Curia, the issue of abuses, the pandemic and the war. Perhaps we can start with the reform of the Curia.
That had been discussed prior to the recent conclave of the cardinals in Rome so he has not done anything more than carry out that mission by recently presenting Predicate Evangelium, the new Apostolic Constitution with the reform of the Curia. So he has carried out that mission, as well as working on economic reforms.
As for the issue of the abuses, I could be present at the 2018 meeting with all the other synod heads where it was clearly determined that this issue was the main cause of the Church’s loss of credibility. There we conversed over a series of strategies to combat such a tremendous scourge for society and the Church. A short while ago in a newspaper I saw a photo of the Pope laughing next to an abuser, giving the reader to understand that the Pope approved of him or was backing him up. That really gave me much grief because nothing could be further from the truth. I can personally bear witness that abuses are a leading focus of the Pope’s struggle within the Church.
I would like to reflect on the issue of the pandemic. We have the image of him alone in Saint Peter’s Square, reading out the Gospel of the tempest calming down, the apostles with Jesus who falls asleep, whereupon the boat starts to rock from the gale and the storm. The Pope then appears using this image to explain the pandemic. We all felt fragile but while we had an important need to be comforted, at the same time we needed to row together because we are all together in the same boat. So we experienced this reality of our lives being intertwined with others and sustained by the common people. I would say that the Pope presented the pandemic and worked hard to illuminate us via the Gospel as to what we were undergoing. The Pope saw the pandemic as an opportunity for us to be able to live in equality as human beings. Northern Italy was scourged by the pandemic and suddenly a part of the First World was left without beds or oxygen and with tremendous anguish because it was the first zone to succumb and request aid from outside. And suddenly there came along unknown persons, as we have also seen in our homeland, nurses who were the only link for families to know how their loved ones were, giving them news: “Eating now, getting better.” I’ve seen the families waiting for the nurses close to the sick and able to transmit some news. During the pandemic we have seen very profound experiences of solidarity and humanity. In my diocese the work of women in the soup kitchens and the neighbourhoods with the highest sacrifice, which – I never tire of saying – we must boost more and more. Kids taking food to the elderly in [poor] neighbourhoods where the phenomenon of solidarity is more clearly seen. In my diocese the heavily infected San Jorge neighbourhood was a no-go area where nobody could enter or leave because of the general contagion. Their parish priest rang me up and said: “What can we do about this?” Since the Campo de Mayo [military base] is extremely close, I called the Defence Ministry and within a few hours the soldiers showed up, spending 20 days in the neighbourhood preparing and giving out meals. When they left, the people gave them such a warm farewell – and that in our country with everything the relationship between the people and the Army has implied. I’ve tried to highlight this every time I could but the news from those times does not seem so important. For the Pope the pandemic was an invitation to take care of ourselves and feel ourselves to be all alike, belonging to a common humanity.
We’re missing the fourth item, which is the war.
Having been several times to Rome, I’m aware of the enormous efforts being made by the Holy Father on behalf of peace. His visit to the Russian ambassador to the Holy See as an initial gesture, the constant allusions to the martyrdom of Ukraine, the continual allusions to the children killed in the war. When it stops being news, there is no Angelus which the Pope does not pray. It’s very difficult for him to mediate in a war between two Christian Orthodox countries, belonging to common roots but profoundly divided between themselves. But since the patriarchs of Constantinople and Moscow went their separate ways [in 1589, reaffirmed in 2018], this has greatly influenced a distance which is also cultural.
The Catholic Church has limited scope for action but the Pope is nevertheless doing what he can. It seems to me that he gave a key reply to the media in his most recent airborne interview: “If I go to Kiev, I must go to Moscow.” It’s a way of saying: “If I’m going to be useful, I must be for both sides.” Normally, when you are a mediator, you have to overcome certain críticisms, because you are appealing to construct peace and I know that the Pope is appealing most intensely. When he burst into tears in front of the Virgin in Piazza España, the Pope really believed that he would be able to take to the Virgin some fruit of peace. But apparently the international powers have armed and collaborated towards arming a war which somehow seems to sustain a certain balance [of power] somewhere. But he is perfectly aware of this and doing everything possible on all sides for a happy ending.
When he was in Buenos Aires he gave plenty of focus to the poorest neighbourhoods.
Indeed. As the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he sent out young priests to the low-income neighbourhoods so that they could accompany with great vigour the religiosity of the people there, often attending the celebrations there such as the washing of the feet [on Maundy Thursday] in Holy Week and there he made manifest how we in this city need to preserve certain values found in those neighbourhoods such as the senses of community and solidarity even in the midst of many evils such as the issue of drugs which punishes our youth so much. And in low-income neighbourhoods you have to work in the field, not from the outside because that is far more complicated. From there the Pope wanted to show the rest of the city how necessary it is to include everybody and not leave anybody out, not even the most stricken. Beginning with proximity to the worst hurt, the most excluded, those estranged from their families due to drugs and thus deeply alone. The lack of job horizons for school dropouts, social exclusion in the broadest sense. So somehow by placing our focus there, by starting with the last in line, we began to think big and see how we could include everybody and not shut ourselves in to live in a world only for some.
In his encyclical Laudato Si the Pope speaks of a throwaway culture which affects excluded human beings as much as the rubbish. Is the throwaway culture the culture of the capitalism of an accelerated consumer society?
When the Pope raises the issue of a throwaway culture, he does so a bit by telling a story of exploitation. This is not just exploitation, as in industrial society, but also exclusion, discarding people, which is another phenomenon. When this goes unheeded, the criticism is of an unbridled capitalism which does not take social factors into account and where there is no humane outlook towards others. So there is an appeal to humanise capitalism more than a critique of capitalism.
Why are some messages of Pope Francis better received outside the Church than by some Church sectors? To what do you attribute that?
I’ll again cite Laudato Si as an example – it’s surprising how by putting himself in the place of just another inhabitant of this planet, he can make himself understood by all those unbelievers, agnostics and members of other churches and creeds in what seems to me to be a really key issue. How can we fix the world? We all have a duty to the environment. What am I going to do with the world I received? Is it ethical to leave it as a rubbish dump? We have to change our lifestyle and consumer habits, that’s what young people are telling me, perhaps in a disorganised way. But where’s our responsibility? That’s what any inhabitant of the world is saying. He is, of course, a shepherd of the Church but he’s saying: “We share the same planet and we’re abusing it.” And this carries plenty of impact because then people see a Pope extremely close to reality.
Concretely, he bothers the elites.
He bothers the elites.
Since the Pope is not coming [here], it would seem that some Argentines do not want him. It is said that nobody is a prophet in his own country. What can be said about this odd relationship, what is your own evaluation of this knot?
It struck me as very nice a letter which was sent to Francis on the fifth anniversary of his papacy by a group of Argentines of different ideologies and ways of thinking. It gave the Pope much joy to receive this letter and he answered it at once, also addressing Argentina, when he said: “If I did anything right in these times, take it as your own – you are my people, the people I love, the people who raised me and the people who are somehow now offering me up to render this service to other persons.” I believe that it is a pride for Argentines to have a Pope who lives in absolute devotion to God and his brethren, using a more popular language which is totally committed. With the experience of his years, he lives the present, yielding himself up to every pastoral situation of the present. I believe that he is bestowing on the Church an enormous dose of life and that is the Gospel. The Pope’s source is the Gospel, translating it into today’s moments.
Should we feel proud as Argentines to have given the world an Argentine who is carrying out a very important mission for everybody?
Beyond any doubt.
I would like you to send a message to lay people and the Church itself regarding the celebration of these 10 years of the papacy of Francis.
I would like to invite them, those who can participate and who can put their hearts into these tributes which we are making to Pope Francis, to all feel part of this pride and joy in having him as the supreme shepherd of the Church, plus an invitation which I always make to read the messages which the Pope has left us without allowing ourselves to be carried away by interpretations and narratives while asking ourselves, without being able to go to the source itself, what the Holy Father is communicating to us means. This is a great blessing which we his brother bishops also want to give to the Argentine people in these days of celebration.
Production: Melody Acosta Rizza and Sol Bacigalupo.