He was born and raised in a lower middle-class neighborhood in Buenos Aires, Argentina. His dad was born in Italy; his mom was a first generation Argentine of Italian descent.
His grandmother, who once stood on a chair in a public square and denounced Italian strongman Benito Mussolini, was a huge influence on his life. She taught him the Catholic faith, the stories of the saints, how to pray the rosary, and to be open to people of other faiths.
He entered the priesthood at 18 and joined the Jesuit order shortly thereafter. The Jesuits, often referred to as “the Pope’s army,” are extremely well-educated and ready to go to the frontiers to help spread Jesus’s message of faith, hope, and love.
He rapidly rose in the Jesuit ranks coming to oversee all the Jesuits in Argentina and Paraguay at the incredibly young age of 36.
He guided the Jesuits through the Argentine Civil War — often referred to as the Dirty War — and later became head of the Jesuit formation process.
He was, during this time, by his own accord, authoritarian and heavy-handed. His approach caused deep divisions within the Jesuit order and he was exiled to Cordoba, Argentina, where he would live for two years in what he has called a state of deep interior crisis.
He emerged from the crisis and once again rose to a powerful rank — cardinal of Buenos Aires.
But this rise was different: He consulted others in his decisions, he reached out to Jews and Muslims, to the poor and powerless, to the grieving and heartbroken.
He was getting ready to retire at the age of 75 but was called to Rome to help elect a new pope.
Jorge Mario Bergoglio would become Pope Francis on March 12, 2013, and his humility and mercy would impress millions from that day on.
He continues to inspire by his frugal living and his powerful actions: dinner with the homeless, visiting with prisoners, visiting with migrants, visiting premature babies.
He inspires, yes, but he also challenges us with his words. “Life grows by being given away and weakens in isolation and comfort,” he wrote in “The Joy of the Gospel.”
He calls us to reach out with mercy to the poor — yes, the financially poor, but also to those who are wounded physically, spiritually, or emotionally. In other words, he calls on us to reach out to each other, “to leave security on the shore and become excited by the mission of communicating life to others.”
Get out of your comfort zone, he says. Get your shoes soiled by the mud of the street.
Is his voice relevant as we embark on the era of President-elect Trump, when so many of his Cabinet appointees admire Ayn Rand and her theory of objectivism — that “man exists for his own sake,” that the pursuit of his own happiness is “his highest moral purpose,” that he “must not sacrifice himself to others, nor sacrifice others to himself”?
For me, and hopefully for many others, Francis’s voice is needed now more than ever and his message of faith, humility, and mercy is even more urgent.
Happy 80th birthday, Pope Francis.
Please keep pushing us all to be more merciful to each other. Your words and your example are a light to the world.
Mark K. Shriver is the author of “Pilgrimage: My Search for the Real Pope Francis.’’