What was your reaction when you heard that Bergoglio had been selected as pope?
It was exciting because of Argentina, because of his personality, and because of his openness toward evangelical Christians. I got kind of emotional, simply having known him.
He came in second to Pope Benedict XVI in the last election and pulled out of the vote voluntarily, because he thought, 'We shouldn't be doing this, vote after vote.' I said to him when I saw him afterward, 'What a pity! I thought I would be able to say I know the pope as my friend.' I said he'd probably get elected the next time, but he said, 'No, I'm too old.'
It was a total surprise [yesterday], because I also thought he was past the age. Since last time he didn't win, I figured he wouldn't win this time. But here we go: He got elected. He's not too old.
You count the pope as a personal friend. What can you tell me about his character—as a man, and a Christian, not just as a Cardinal?
You know he knew God the father personally. The way he prayed, the way he talked to the Lord, was of a man who knows Jesus Christ and was very spiritually intimate with the Lord. It's not an effort [for him] to pray. He didn't do reading prayers; he just prayed to the Lord spontaneously. It is a sign that good things will happen worldwide in the years of his papal work.
He's very warm and gentle and spiritual. He may not go around smiling all the time—he's not a Hollywood actor—but he's a very warm person; you don't feel cold and distant from him. He's always been warm. He likes to mingle with people.
He's gentle in his conversation. He's always asking people for prayer. It's surprising that he did it in public [at his first address], but anybody who knows him, [knows that] he always would say, 'Please pray for me.' He really meant it. He said it always.
What can you tell me about Bergoglio's leadership style?
He's a very Bible-centered man, a very Jesus Christ-centered man. He's more spiritual than he is administrative, although he's going to have to exercise his administrative skills now! But personally, he is more known for his personal love for Christ. He's really centered on Jesus and the Gospel, the pure Gospel.
We'll see what the effects will be for international relationships and openness, because he's not a manipulator. He's a straightforward, straight-shooting person. He says what he thinks and he does it sincerely.
Although he's gentle, he has strong moral convictions and he stands by them even if he has to confront the government. And he's done it before. With the evangelical community, it was a very big day when we realized that he really was open, that he has great respect for Bible-believing Christians, and that he basically sides with them. … They work together. That takes courage. That takes respect. It takes conviction. So the leaders of the evangelical church in Argentina have a high regard for him, simply because of his personal lifestyle, his respect, his reaching out and spending time with them privately…
Not many decades ago, there was a confrontational attitude [between Catholics and evangelicals] and it was not pleasant…
So, tensions will be eased. There will be no confrontational style….He has proved it over and over in his term as the cardinal of Argentina. There was more building bridges and showing respect, knowing the differences, but majoring on what we can agree on: on the divinity of Jesus, his virgin birth, his resurrection, the second coming.
Do you have any personal stories or memories of him that really exemplify his relationship with evangelicals?
One day I said to him, 'You seem to love the Bible a lot,' and he said, 'You know, my financial manager [for the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires] … is an evangelical Christian.' I said, 'Why would that be?' And he said, 'Well, I can trust him, and we spend hours reading the Bible and praying and drinking maté [an Argentine green tea].' People do that with their friends, share and pass the mate, and every day when he was in town, which was often, after lunch he and his financial manager would sit together, read the Bible, pray, and drink maté. To me, he was making a point [about his relationship with evangelicals] by telling me that: trust and friendship.
From CT’s Story Titled “Argentine Evangelicals Say Bergoglio as Pope Francis Is 'Answer to Our Prayers”
In a move that Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano called "unprecedented and shocking," before Francis offered the world the traditional papal blessing, he asked those watching to first pray for him.
Such a request is one of Bergoglio's trademarks, said Juan Pablo Bongarrá, president of the Argentine Bible Society.
"Whenever you talk to him, the conversation ends with a request: 'Pastor, pray for me," said Bongarrá. He recalls when Bergoglio once attended a weekly worship meeting organized by Buenos Aires's charismatic pastors. "He mounted the platform and called for pastors to pray for him," said Bongarrá. "He knelt in front of nearly 6,000 people, and [Protestant leaders] laid hands and prayed."
Prayer came up frequently as several of Argentina's leading evangelicals, known for their unity efforts in Buenos Aires, described their thoughts on the new pope.
"His election has been an answer to our prayers," said Norberto Saracco, rector of Buenos Aires's FIET seminary and co-leader of the capital city's Council of Pastors. "Bergoglio is a man of God. He is passionate for the unity of the Church—but not just at the institutional level. His priority is unity at the level of the people."
Relations between evangelicals and Catholics are much better in Argentina than in other Latin American nations, said Saracco. Bergoglio has played a central role in Argentina's CRECES (Renewal Communion of Catholics and Evangelicals in the Holy Spirit) movement over the past 10 years, and has strongly supported the Bible society. "He has very good and friendly relations with leaders of other religions," he said.
Bongarrá said Bergoglio respects and promotes interfaith dialogue. The two men have worked regularly together since 2001 when members of the National Evangelical Christian Council met with members of the Bishops Conference and issued a joint statement on the eve of the nation's financial crisis.
Bongarrá last met with Bergoglio before Christmas when he wanted Catholics to participate in the Protestant churches' "Christmas Is Jesus" campaign. They shared lunch at Center Baptist Church and discussed "how to fight against the secularization of society," he said.
"We evangelical leaders that know him are very happy with his election," said Bongarrá. "Bergoglio is a great man of God. We [evangelicals] have had a good relationship with him for many years. We think that a new time is coming for the Catholic Church, because our brother wants to promote evangelism."
Though the pope doesn't speak for Protestant Christians, he holds an important role as one of the most public faces of Christianity, said Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals.
"Around the world, there are millions of people who don't grasp the differences between Protestants and Catholics," he said. "To them, Christians are Christians and the pope speaks for Christians."
However, American evangelicals will benefit from Francis's conservative stance on issues such as abortion and gay marriage, said Anderson. Meanwhile, the new pope's focus on poverty and his ascetic personal habits could also start a needed discussion about the global poor.
"There's been a lot of talk [in America] about the middle class and the rich, but little about the poor," said Anderson. "Perhaps Pope Francis can bring us back to the biblical and Christian care for the poor and vulnerable."