They were just 12, and her father didn't approve of their childhood love. Sixty-five years later, she watched him step onto St. Peter's balcony as Pope Francis.
BUENOS AIRES - Almost a decade before he began the long journey that would take him from the seminary to St. Peter’s, Jorge Bergoglio was in love. It was pre-adolescent, platonic, and filled with naive sincerity. But something quietly stayed with Amalia, the woman in question, and she never forgot him.
They met in the neighborhood of Flores, in Buenos Aires, when they were both around 12 years old and had a crush on each other. Amalia, who told the brief story of their puppy love to the Argentinian press two days after Bergoglio became Pope Francis, described the innocence of how they met.
She remembered a letter that young Jorge sent to her, in which he imagined a future where they would be together for the rest of their lives: “I remember that little letter, and on it he had drawn a white house with a red roof. He said "this is the house I will buy you when we get married."”
Amalia explained that they were too young to call what happened between them “a relationship.” Even still, Bergoglio’s sweet intentions has stayed with her for more than 60 years. “We were not boyfriend and girlfriend," she explained. "I have the impression that I was the first person with whom he thought he could have a home and a family. He didn’t propose bad things to me, he proposed a home and for me, that meant a lot.” The young Bergoglio even told her that if she wouldn't marry him, he'd become a priest.
Angry parents, a farewell
Certainly in the context of the era, as well as the ages of Jorge and Amalia, the boy's letter got a blunt reaction from the girl’s parents. “My father gave me a beating -- how dare I get such a letter from a boy? My mother came to get me at school and scolded me: ‘So, boys send you letters?’ I said to her, ‘no mamá, just Jorge’. And she said ‘what do I care, you’re a fine young lady who we taught better.’”
So, after the clear message from her parents, Amalia asked Jorge to leave her alone and stop sending her letters because she was scared of more repercussions. “I said look, please, Jorge, don’t come any closer -- if my dad finds out, he’ll kill you,” she laughs, telling the story to a small group of reporters.
The two would never see each other again, as he rose through the ranks of the Church hierarchy to become a Cardinal and the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, and she married and had a family.
On Wednesday, along with the rest of the planet, Amalia was surprised to hear that Jorge would be Pope Francis. “I jumped to my feet when it was announced. Jorge, I send you a big hug, with a lifetime of love,” she said.
Her entire life, all of the memories of her childhood, are vivid in Amalia’s mind, even these days. There is neither nostalgia for the past nor tears for a love that was denied. What this woman shows is respect and a wonderful memory of the type of person that Bergoglio has always been. “His heart was always this way; he’s a pastor who offers himself to others, he gives food to the poor and clothes to those who need them,” she said.
Amalia knows that it will be difficult to see him again, to remember their shared past, or to embody the hug she sent him through her TV set on Wednesday: “He is on a very high seat, I’m very humbled and I’m sure he will not lose his humility. But our surroundings force us to live differently, I am his past. A sweet, innocent and humble past.”