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He never gets the date of my birthday wrong

· Alicia B., Liliana and Alicia O. tell of their friendship with Pope Francis ·

Touching with a hand. On its own this would not of course be a treatment but it’s a good start. Putting oneself in the other person’s shoes: this is the thought, the thread that links Alicia B., Liliana and Alicia O. to Pope Francis: trying to experience to the full the situation of a poor, humiliated and frightened person – impossible? No, it can be done.

This is what Alicia Barrios did when in less than 24 hours she changed her life and began her pilgrimage with her father, Jorge, to places of hardship: to the prisons of Buenos Aires, to the poor neighbourhoods and to the Borda Psychiatric Hospital, the outermost reach of mental ailments in this South American country.

Alicia is a well known Argentine journalist, a sort of Oprah Winfrey of the local radio and television. Beautiful, well-off, with a career in the spotlights, on 25 December 1999 she met the Archbishop of Buenos Aires for the first time. Alicia Barrios was struck by his view of the situation in Argentina and in the world; by his idea of the Church’s role and future; by the approach and the language of extreme simplicity that were characteristic of Jorge Mario Bergoglio.

So it was that step by step, from one stage to the next, over 15 years she shared as a “pilgrim journalist” a journey into the wounds of suffering in the “existential peripheries”, caressing distress and endeavouring to recount the facts and to present them in a different way, “Journalists are like priests”, Alicia declared, “they must have a calling, a vocation, they must sense the mission”.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the woman continued, “is a person with a great sense of humour and he has kept it even as Pope. He is a gentle man, modest and very available. He is truly made like this; a direct person, accustomed to not having too many filters that come between him and people”.

“Personally, when I met him, I found the same person I had known years earlier, with the same consistence between faith and life and also with great sensitivity and skill in listening. He was a cardinal who acted as a priest and now he is a Pope who acts as a priest. His way of seeing things has certainly remained the same. Yet, as my friend Fr Pepe said too, I found him rejuvenated. This has to be obvious, there is in him an energy, a strength that is really at the root of the amazement he elicits in us all”.

“And it is clear above all”, Alicia Barrios went on, “that this energy which characterizes Bergoglio is not the result of an effort or of enthusiasm about the role he has received, but rather flows from peace, from peace of heart. This is what he communicates instantly. It is obvious that his heart is embraced, is carried in the arms of Jesus’ tenderness, and this is all he wants to tell the world”.

Liliana, however, is Pope Francis’ cartonera friend. She is 58 years old and has a minimal state pension. The money is not enough. At night, therefore, she collects paper and cardboard: those who earn their bread by reselling in the morning recyclable material that has been thrown out as rubbish are the poor of the poor in Argentina. “I do it for my son and for my grandchildren”, she explained. “Who knows whether Our Lady will help me sort them all out!”.

Bergoglio is the Pope of the cartoneros. The fight for the recognition of their rights is one of the historic battles fought by groups of the association based in the Parque Avellaneda district, in the south-east part of the city, one of the most popular quarters of Buenos Aires. Liliana remembers that in the period when he was archbishop Pope Francis actively supported the cartoneros in many of the projects implemented for their social inclusion and for the legal recognition of their work.

“Jorge Mario Bergoglio is a person who fights for the poor and lives like the poor. We became friends in that period. He has an incredible memory”, Lilian recounted and her voice was full of esteem, “he never gets the date of my birthday wrong. He never had a car or a bodyguard, he eats in the street and he has always lived consistently with what he thinks and says. Jorge made the protection of us poor people his raison d’être”, she concluded.

Then there is Alicia Oliveira who has known Pope Francis for more than 40 years and in 1973 became the first woman judge of the Argentine criminal court. The military coup came three years later and the very young Oliveira, ousted from that office, was persecuted by the military.

“I became an unemployed woman. After they dismissed me, Bergoglio sent me a splendid bunch of roses. We used to see each other twice a week. He was accompanying priests; he always kept me informed on what was going on”. Therefore Alicia told a story linked to those years of terror. “When some had to leave the country because they couldn’t stay there a moment longer, they were given a send-off with a dinner. And he was always there”.

Alicia Oliveira often speaks to the Pope on the telephone. She feels excited at having such an important “friend” and remembers when he celebrated her sister’s marriage. She is a politically committed woman and very modern. She is about 60 years old, she has four children and a marriage behind her, and considers herself progressive. Her sense of justice has always been the driving force of her life. “When I think of Bergoglio, there is one thing about the man which I admire and in which I share profoundly”, Alicia said, “the conviction that absolute certainties are the refuge of those who are frightened, and that a person who seeks refuge in fundamentalism is someone who is afraid to set out on a search for the truth”.

These are the long-standing friends of the Pope. They are very different from each other but very like so many other women.

Silvina Pérez

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