Father Dante Aguero, MIC, of Argentina, during a trip to Rome before the election of his fellow countryman, Pope Francis.
The Election of Pope Francis
Mate (pronounced ma-tay). It's the national drink of Argentina. Remember that. It comes up later.
First, let's address the fact that our new Holy Father is from Argentina, and how when he was elected on March 13, our Marian confreres in that South American nation nearly went berserk. In a good way. And for good reason.
Father Dante Agüero, MIC, superior of the Marians' Argentinean Vicariate, says that when Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, archbishop of Buenos Aires, was elected Pope, it was a day he will never forget. Father Dante was praying the Divine Mercy Chaplet at the time.
"At 3:09, my cell phone starts ringing," he recalls. "I picked it up and received the news that white smoke was coming from the Sistine Chapel, which meant we have a new pope. Here in our city, you could hear the bells ringing from all the churches. We ran to the TV and turned it on, and there was the white smoke and all the people in St. Peter's Square cheering and waiting to hear the identity of the new Pope.
"When we heard 'Jorge Mario Bergoglio' we were so excited, we started screaming with joy, running around the room like children."
Their excitement has less to do with national pride as it does with the fact that a certain down-home, unassuming spirituality indicative to Argentines has taken to the world stage in the figure of our new Holy Father. And this personal style plays no small role in why the world seems smitten with Pope Francis, evidenced even in glowing coverage in a mainstream media that hasn't been too kind to Catholics in recent years.
"The world has gotten a glimpse of the man he is, and what they're seeing is a man who is very humble, very holy, a Pope who affirms the dignity of each individual he meets, who is faithful to the doctrines of the Church, but who also has respect of people of other faiths," says Fr. Dante, a native Argentine who leads the Marians' parish work in Rosario, Santa Fe, including administering two elementary schools.
Voted to replace Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Pope Francis is the first non-European Holy Father in the modern era and the first Pope ever from Latin America. How does his cultural heritage help to define him?
First, Fr. Dante is quick to point out that Pope Francis is an ardent apostle and defender of the teachings of the Catholic faith — "a protector of the treasures of the Church," he says. The difference between Pope Francis and other Popes of the modern era, he says, is one of style.
Before our new Holy Father was elected on March 13, Fr. Dante and his fellow Argentines remember Cardinal Bergoglio as a man who rode public transportation and eschewed the elegant trappings of his position. Unlike Europe, Argentina has no tradition of kingdoms and all the splendor and riches that come with being royalty. That explains why some of the traditional pomp and grandeur that comes with being Pope makes Francis uncomfortable, says Fr. Dante. His nationality illuminates why, for instance, Pope Francis has chosen modest living quarters inside the Vatican rather than taking up residence in the regal Papal apartment.
These qualities are underscored by a particular beverage Pope Francis fancies: mate.
"He's the first Pope who drinks mate!" Fr. Dante says.
It's the national drink of Argentina and other South American countries. Made with dry leaves and water, similar to green tea but served with a metal straw from a shared hollow calabash gourd, mate is more a social experience than mere refreshment.
"Sharing is an integral part of daily life here," says Fr. Dante. "You drink it with family, friends, and new acquaintances. You must, no matter what you're doing, stop and drink mate if invited (laughs).
"Drinking mate is a symbol of brotherhood, friendship, and closeness," says Fr. Dante. "We don't say to each other, 'Let's spend some time together.' We say, 'Let's drink mate!'"
So a Pope who drinks mate is a Pope who brings to his position the effusive, unrestrained, all-loving, all-welcoming deportment typical of Argentines, and South Americans in general.
Moreover, Pope Francis "has a heart for the poor, reaching out to them in a personal way," says Fr. Dante. "Here in Argentina, he would go into poor neighborhoods, dangerous neighborhoods taken over by drug dealers and crime, and he would celebrate Masses in these poor places. This is who he is, as the world is now learning. He wouldn't just hand out money; he would help people find employment. He would help them make connections with other people in order to establish stability in their lives. But all the while, he would instill in people the need to have God in their lives. He was very low profile about all this. He never wished to draw attention to himself.
"This is how we can convert hearts," says Fr. Dante. "One to one, and all the while being tender, serving as a model of what it means to be a follower of Christ.
"At the same time, our country has had a lot of political struggles in the last 10 years," Fr. Dante continues. He has not been afraid to confront the government in matters of corruption and policy when policies run counter to the teachings of the Church, such as gay marriage and abortion. This man tells the truth. He fights on behalf of Catholic traditions. He is a man whom you cannot find any contradictions, and the world is paying attention. He is inspiring not just Catholics, but people of all faiths.
"Even on our regular television news broadcasts," says Fr. Dante, "they speak so much about Pope Francis. It's as if these are Catholic networks. There is so much optimism."
Still ecstatic with our new Holy Father, Fr. Dante hastens to reiterate, "We have a Pope who drinks mate!"