“See you when you get back!” That was the last thing that young Argentine Sebastián García Alaniz said to Bishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio in March 2013, prior to his departure on a trip to Rome to attend the conclave that would elect the Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic Church. He never returned.
His relationship with the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, whom Sebastián referred to Pope Francis simply as “Jorge”, at the request of Cardinal himself, went beyond the pastoral plan. Sebastián tells us: “I considered him more than a friend, he was also part of my family.” Maybe that’s why Pope Francis himself had made a phone call to Sebastián just days after his ascension to the Papacy. The Pope wanted to talk to the young man, because for him Sebastián had so often been his companion that of course, the Pope wanted to ask for his prayers for the mission that had just taken.
Now 27 years old, Sebastian is married to Vanessa and is father to a beautiful baby named Francisco. The person responsible for the youth of Catholic Action in Buenos Aires Archdiocese tell us the story of the friendship, respect and affection that he lived out with the Holy Father and the thrill of participating in WYD 2013 and recognizing the pope’s face as that of a friend.
Fabiola Goulart: How was the then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio while living in Buenos Aires?
Sebastián Garcia Alaniz: Back when the former Cardinal Bergoglio was living in Buenos Aires, he was someone who was incredibly close to the people. Concerned with reality in society. Always in touch and walking with the people. A humble person, and this was said in various stories from his biography, such as when he used the bus and the subway. When he was invited to a parish to talk to young people he was always willing, taking into account all his responsibilities. He put time aside to be close to any youngster, always encouraging and accompanying young people in such phrases as “Get out!”, “Do not be closed,” “Make some noise”, among others. And they embodied this. He was a bishop who, by his actions, called at the attention of any young person, in my case, he was one of the people who made me love the diocesan Church.
Can you tell us how you met Bergoglio personally? What was your relationship with him like?
I had the opportunity to get to know Pope Francis in depth thanks to some work I did at college. In 2007, I conducted an interview where we talked about the social reality and politics of the country at that time. I had previously known him for his involvement in different pastoral areas, but after the interview I started working in the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires. I remember that when I called the Archbishop to request the interview, the secretary met me and informed me that they would contact me to schedule a date. I thought the office would call me. Days after the Cardinal himself called me to set the date. At that moment I realized the special closeness with which he treats people. From there we began a friendship and not simply through the church, but would be very close, where we were to talk about our lives within the Church of Buenos Aires. We came to have a very close relationship … we would often meet just to talk, drinking ‘mate’ (a typical drink of southern South America) as we would coordinate pastoral work with young people from different parishes. This relationship of closeness is the sort that Pope Francis had with many young people and leaders of the Archdiocese.
What was your reaction to learn that he had been elected Pope?
In order to understand my reaction at that time we have to go back a few days. Always at the beginning of the year we would meet the Archbishop to articulate the agenda for January and February. In the Argentine summer of 2013, we spoke by phone about planning an event. I remember very well. We learned a day later about the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI. Then the next day he called me, I talked a little and, with all his characteristic humility, said: “Sebastian, we have to postpone our meeting because I have to travel to Rome for the conclave.” I said, “Sure, Jorge, no problem. Thank you for calling. See you when you get back! I’ll pray for you.” “Yes, please, because I need your prayers,” he replied.
They were days of great uncertainty. I recall that I was at work when arose the “white smoke” and everybody stopped what they were doing to watch the broadcast. When I left the French cardinal, Jean-Louis Tauran appeared and said his name, and I did not understand. When I saw him come out onto the balcony of St. Peter, I could not believe it. Something that will be remembered for all my life. A bishop friend transformed by the Holy Spirit in the Father of all. There was much excitement, especially since days before we had talked. He was something impressive. A reaction of joy for everyone. I remember that we called on all young people and met at the Buenos Aires Cathedral door to celebrate. It was a very great gift from God for everyone.
Is it true that he called you days after being elected? What did you talk about?
After those days of great emotion, together with the Youth of Buenos Aires Catholic Action we organized different events around the joy of having a Pope who had been our Archbishop. I remember that we organized a vigil with direct transmission from Rome to attend the Mass at the beginning of his pontificate. It was very emotional because he phoned Buenos Aires minutes before and spoke with hundreds of people who were in the cathedral and the surrounding areas and squares. It was something beautiful.
At the time this, many Argentinian bishops and priests who were traveling to visit him and I sent a letter through them. The answer had been a personal phone call. When he called me I could not believe it. He was a very close and friendly in conversation, just as he always was. We joked about the possibility of seeing ourselves in Rio and I told him that I would pray for him. I felt a lot of emotion. He made that same act with others.
And you met in Rio during World Youth Day 2013?
The World Youth Day in Rio was another gift from God. The immensity of the young Church. An unprecedented journey, where I met people, gained stories to tell and saw wonderful places. I did not have the opportunity to see him on a personal basis, but I could greet along with many others. I recommend living this experience to every young person. It’s difficult to explain in simple words. You can only live it. Rio 2013 marked a before and an after point in the Church in Latin America. You feel really strong the presence of Jesus and Mary through the faith experience of young people around the world.
You can tell that you are friend of Pope Francis? How would you describe the love you feel for him?
I consider him more than a friend, he’s part of my family. Here he formed many friendships through the closeness he had to the people. It’s just the same as he is doing now as Pope. Obviously with a very special grace of God. I had the opportunity to be with him in Rome. It’s amazing how the Holy Spirit changed him from being Cardinal Bergoglio to Pope Francis. I thank God for being a witness. We live in an important time for the Church and young people should pray a lot for him. I like him a lot, he has an amazing love. In 2014 I got married and in 2015 there was the birth of our first born son, and we gave our son the name Francisco, through this love we have as young Catholics for the Pope.
How would you present Pope Francis to young people who may not already know him?
Pope Francis is a very close person. If you do not know him, seek information about him. He has many examples of life that will help you grow a lot. He continues to have gestures of closeness and humility with the world. Take advantage as a young person, in this Year of Mercy, to follow the example of the Pope and be closer to your friends, family, etc. He is closer than you think. Pray a lot for him.