“I will reveal the real Uncle Jorge”: Pope Francis according to his niece

In this exclusive interview with My Pope Philippines through Il Mio Papa, we talk to Pope Francis' niece, Maria Ines Narvaja

Here’s an old photo of the Bergoglios! Can you spot Pope Francis?

Universidad del Salvador: the Jesuits founded this university, whose reputation is well-known in Buenos Aires, with over 28,000 students calling it their alma mater. In an office of the Faculty of Science of Education and Social Communication, we ran into a certain Maria Ines Narvaja. The lady has been an employee of the institution for over 22 years, but only a few know that she is the niece of Pope Francis.

Marta Regina, her mother, is one of the Holy Father’s siblings. Maria Ines is a quiet, reserved person. She is not fond of interviews and photographs. Even when she forces a smile, she doesn’t have qualms about making snappy comments—which did not bode well for our interview.

It’s a good thing that a copy of the magazine became an ice breaker. Ines would glance at her family’s featured photograph, and slowly her defenses would break down. “Everyone’s there.”

Maria Ines talks to Andreas Di Quarto for this interview. The magazine which her hand rests on has a photo of her family. It served as an icebreaker for this exclusive interview

My Pope: Let’s talk about your Uncle Jorge. What can you tell us about him?

Maria Ines: He was always caring, even if he wasn’t always around. For instance, on birthdays, he seldom showed up, but we would feel his presence, which is the same until now. He frequently uses the telephone. He used to call me every week to ask how I was doing. In a way he grew up with us. My parents always told me that every decision should be made by my uncle. Which is always why we took a bus to visit him. Whenever we walked with him in his garden, we would tell him everything. He was like a spiritual father to our family. We always turned to him for important advice in our studies, our doubts, for anything.

MP: Was he an important influence on you growing up?

MI: Most definitely. He was our advisor, but he always respected our individual freedom. He never forced his decisions on us, even though he has a strong personality. And he was very strict. As a Jesuit, he was very disciplined. He looked for that same discipline in everybody. For instance, my brother, Jose Luis, always helped him with chores. And Uncle Jorge always expected him to be on time. No matter what time he slept, Jose Luis had to be there on time and fulfill all his responsibilities.

Here are Pope Francis’ photos throughout the years. From left: as young Jorge Mario Bergoglio in Argentina, as a seminarian, as cardinal in Argentina, and during the papal conclave when he was elected pope

MP: Did he ever criticize you?

MI: Never, not once did I allow him to criticize me! *laughs*

MP: What was the relationship like between you Uncle Jorge and your mother, Marta?

MI: Very deep. They used to speak all the time on the phone. Uncle Jorge was older than her because he was the second, while my mother was the youngest.

MP: What was it like growing up with someone of his status in the family?

MI: From my earliest memories, he played a very important role. And because of this, we grew up with the instruction of not saying we were his nephews and nieces. We were not allowed to tell anyone because we were not allowed to ask favors. My parents would not be swayed: You have a different surname, so don’t take advantage of this relationship. Uncle Jorge didn’t know about this and I am very sure he would help us of ever we needed it, but this was strictly forbidden. Come to think of it, I have been working here for 22 years and I have colleagues who just found out that I am his niece.

Argentina’s Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected Pope in 2013. He chose the name Francis when he assumed papacy, a nod to St. Francis of Assisi, whose heart was devoted to the poor and the environment

MP: What were your memories of the election?

MI: To be honest, I couldn’t say that I was shocked with the result, because even if he didn’t tell us about the Conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI, we were already aware of what transpired in that Conclave. On the day he was elected, March 13, 2013. I was here in the office. I heard the noises in the streets—the cars everywhere were blowing their horns as though Argentina had won the World Cup.

MP: This wasn’t a surprise to you, was it?

MI: It does feel weird. On one hand, I was thinking that he might become the new pope. On the other hand, I didn’t think that they would have the courage to elect him. May he was elected because they don’t know him as well as I do! *chuckles*

In January 2015, a crowd of 7 million gathered under the pouring rain in Manila, Philippines to hear mass lead by Pope Francis.

MP: Did you expect him to have this effect on the papacy?

MI: We knew that he would stay true to himself. Wherever he goes, something always happens; he’s not the type of person that would leave things as is.

“He wants people to be upfront with him. He doesn’t like those who suck up to him. He prefers someone who tells him, ‘I disagree with you, but I respect you.’”

MP: What did you talk about before he went to Rome?

MI: We talked about the Church and the Papacy. For instance, I was joking about the red shoes that are part of the pope’s wardrobe. Uncle Jorge and I had a good laugh about that. He said to me: ‘Did you notice that I didn’t’ wear the red shoes?’

MP: When was the next time you spoke to each other after the election?

MI: Uncle Jorge was elected on Tuesday, and he called me on Sunday. He frequently calls, which is a good thing for us who do not travel. This way, he is always with us. On TV, he is the pope, but on the phone, he remains Uncle Jorge to us. I can’t speak for his predecessors, but I’m guessing that the telephone bill at the Vatican increased exponentially. Whenever there is a need to make a decision, he first listens to all sides, and only then does he make a decision. Sometimes, he calls me to keep updated on the news here.

MP: What time does he call?

MI: Usually, he calls at 12 noon. He wakes up early. When he was in Buenos Aires, he sometimes called at 5 in the morning. Now that there is a time difference, it’s stabilized.

Pope Francis enthusiastically smiles and waves to the crowds whenever he holds a General Audience in the Vatican

MP: What do you talk about?

MI: Politics. But in the highest sense of the word. Politics is the highest and most dignified aspect of good works to him. I’m talking about politics whose primary goal is not the politicking of dubious worth. He is also concerned about people being the leaders of their own futures. He isn’t in favor of asking for help from other people.

“You cannot think of the love of God without caring for society, without love for the poor.”

MP: What characteristics does he value?

MI: He wants people to be upfront with him. He doesn’t like those who suck up to him. He prefers someone who tells him, ‘I disagree with you, but I respect you.’

MP: What was the most valuable lesson he shared with you?

MI: That the love of God cannot be separated from loving your brothers and sisters. That you cannot think of the love of God without caring for society, without love for the poor. And he taught me to be independent, he taught me that creativity cannot exist without discipline, he taught me about responsibility and honesty, about finances, and about being joyful.

MP: I’m sure there is a flaw you could point out in your uncle…

MI: Plenty. For instance, he doesn’t clearly say whether he means ‘yes’ or ‘no’. You need to read between the lines. That’s why I used to be upfront with him and ask him directly: ‘What is it, Uncle Jorge, yes or no?’

MP: What will you do when you see him again?

MI: I’m hoping to spend time with him, even for just five minutes. I’m hoping they allow us to be with him. I don’t know how to think about those moments, but for sure I will be overcome with emotion. Because when he was elected as pope, they ‘stole’ him from us.

Maria Ines Narvaja, the niece of Pope Francis, in her office at the Universidad del Salvador

MP: You’ve never visited him in Rome?

MI: No, never. Genuine friends dislike always seeing each other.

MP: What did your two children say about their grand-uncle?

MI: The children were shocked about the name change. Regina, my youngest said, ‘Mama, why did Uncle Jorge choose Francis? He’s still Uncle Jorge to us!

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This article appears in My Pope Philippines magazine’s October 2017 Special Launch Issue. Words by Andrea Di Quarto of Il Mio Papa.
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