When about 7,000 awed strangers first encounter him on the public stage, he is not yet the pope—but like a chrysalis stirring, something astounding is already present in the man. Inside Stadium Luna Park, in downtown Buenos Aires, Argentina, Roman Catholics and evangelical Christians have gathered for an ecumenical event. From the stage, a pastor calls out for the city’s archbishop to come up and say a few words. The audience reacts with surprise, because the man striding to the front had been sitting in the back all this time, for hours, like no one of any importance. Though a cardinal, he is not wearing the traditional pectoral cross around his neck, just a black clerical shirt and a blazer, looking like the simple priest he was decades ago. He is gaunt and elderly with a somber countenance, and at this moment nine years ago it is hard to imagine such an unassuming, funereal Argentine being known one day, in every corner of the world, as a figure of radiance and charisma.
He speaks—quietly at first, though with steady nerves—in his native tongue, Spanish. He has no notes. The archbishop makes no mention of the days when he regarded the evangelical movement in the dismissive way many Latin American Catholic priests do, as an escuela de samba—an unserious happening akin to rehearsals at a samba school. Instead the most powerful Argentine in the Catholic Church, which asserts that it is the only true Christian church, says that no such distinctions matter to God. “How nice,” he says, “that brothers are united, that brothers pray together. How nice to see that nobody negotiates their history on the path of faith—that we are diverse but that we want to be, and are already beginning to be, a reconciled diversity.”
Hands outstretched, his face suddenly alive, and his voice quavering with passion, he calls out to God: “Father, we are divided. Unite us!”