“I’ve experienced three ‘Covids’ in my own life: my illness, Germany, and Córdoba.”
1. Losing a lung
His first Covid-like moment came at the age of 21. He fell deathly ill with a lung infection during his second year in the seminary at Buenos Aires. “I remember hugging my mother and saying: ‘Just tell me if I’m going to die.’”
He says the experience changed how he saw life and gave him a good idea of how people with Covid-19 feel as they struggle to breathe on ventilators.
2. Removed as a disastrous leader
Fast forward to 1973-1979 when he served as provincial superior of the Jesuit province of Argentina and Uruguay.
“I was only 36 years old. That was crazy. I had to deal with difficult situations, and I made my decisions abruptly and by myself. “My authoritarian and quick manner of making decisions led me to have serious problems. It was my authoritarian way of making decisions that created problems.”
These years did not go well! The leadership of the Society of Jesus subsequently sent him to Germany to finish a doctoral thesis.
Pope Francis says he felt thrown off balance in a kind of solitude of non-belonging.
He spent much time watching planes land from a vantage point at the cemetery of Frankfurt, pining for his homeland. When Argentina won the World Cup during his time there, he felt the loneliness of a victory you can’t share.
3. Exiled to Cordoba
Pope Francis goes on to describe his third Covid as an experience of solitude at the very periphery of Argentina. He says this uprooting was a healing that came in the form of a radical makeover, especially focused on his way of exercising leadership.
The Pope spent one year, ten months, and thirteen days in the Jesuit residence there, celebrating Mass, hearing confessions, and offering spiritual direction. He hardly left the house, calling it a sort of self-imposed lockdown, which did him good. He wrote and prayed a lot and developed ideas.
He now sees his time in Córdoba as a period of harsh pruning.
It is against this backdrop that we can better understand his recent unusual New York Times Op-ed of November 2020.
“These are moments in life that can be ripe for change and conversion. Each of us has had our own “stoppage,” or if we haven’t yet, we will someday: illness, the failure of a marriage or a business, some great disappointment or betrayal. As in the Covid-19 lockdown, those moments generate a tension, a crisis that reveals what is in our hearts.
In every personal “Covid,” so to speak, in every “stoppage,” what is revealed is what needs to change: our lack of internal freedom, the idols we have been serving, the ideologies we have tried to live by, the relationships we have neglected.
This is a moment to dream big, to rethink our priorities — what we value, what we want, what we seek — and to commit to act in our daily life on what we have dreamed of.
To come out of this crisis better, we have to recover the knowledge that as a people we have a shared destination. The pandemic has reminded us that no one is saved alone. What ties us to one another is what we commonly call solidarity. Solidarity is more than acts of generosity, important as they are; it is the call to embrace the reality that we are bound by bonds of reciprocity. On this solid foundation, we can build a better, different, human future.”
Pope Francis: My life’s three moments of solitude Vatican website
Pilgrimage: My Search for the Real Pope Francis – Mark Shriver
Click below for an audio version of this Vincentian Mindwalk