"Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?"
"I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner."
The room is small and red.
Heavy red curtains, red-tiled floor, red coverlet on the bed. A painting of the Crucifixion is the only adornment.
It looks like a cell: a monk's or a prisoner's.
This is Room No. 5 of the Jesuit residence in Cordoba, Argentina.
Outside this solitary space, on the other side of its thick stone walls, students flock and scatter like birds. Buskers try their hand at American blues. Street vendors hawk homemade pipes.
But in Room No. 5, all you hear is the insistent echo of your own thoughts, your lonely prayers to a faraway God.
Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the man who would become Pope Francis, spent two years in this room during the 1990s.
It was a dark night for a man now known for his megawatt presence and huge flock of followers. He was 50 years old, forsaken by many fellow Jesuits, left to suffer in silence. It was, he would later say, "a time of great interior crisis."
This is the story of why Jorge Mario Bergoglio was exiled to this room -- and how the painful lessons he learned here are transforming the Catholic Church.
Cordoba lay in darkness when I arrived late on a July night, save for the dim halo of high streetlamps. My misconceptions about the city became clear by morning.
Cars honked through rush hour. Fashionable shops and fancy restaurants crowded the narrow streets. Dodging downtown traffic, I thought: This is where the Pope was exiled?
It may be 500 miles from Buenos Aires, but Cordoba is no Elba Island. More than 1.3 million people call the city home. It's bigger than Dallas and twice the size of Boston.
By chance, my first day in Cordoba was July 31, the feast day of St. Ignatius, who founded the Jesuits. It was a good day to officially begin my mission here.
Nearly every aspect of Pope Francis' life, from his career as a bouncer to his critiques of capitalism, has been picked apart by the press and a troop of talented biographers.
But as he prepares to make his maiden voyage to the United States, his time in Cordoba -- a dramatic passage for one of world's most famous men -- remains shrouded in mystery. In many timelines of the Pope's life, the years 1990-1992 are an empty, unexplained gap.
CNN's Chris Cuomo explores how a humble scholar became a religious rock star. See the people and places that shaped Pope Francis in a CNN special report, "The People's Pope," Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET.
I plowed through biographies, read dozens of articles and combed through every interview I could find, looking for references to his time in Cordoba. I even wrote the Holy Father a letter. A long shot, I know. More a prayer than a petition.
Receiving no reply, I tried another tack. I came to the city of his exile. Here in Cordoba, I planned to walk where he walked, kneel where he prayed, meet the people he met and read the words he wrote.
Since the early days of his papacy, I've suspected that one of Francis' central messages -- that even the worst sinner is deserving of mercy -- is more than a sentiment from the Catholic catechism. It has the ring of real experience.
And so I found myself in Cordoba's cultural heart, the Manzana Jesuitica -- the Jesuit Block -- a 17th-century complex that includes a tall stone church, a small chapel and the cloistered residence where 10 Jesuits live.
I thought it'd be good luck to attend Mass on St. Ignatius' feast day. Students from the nearby colleges packed into every pew of the Iglesia de la Compania, the Jesuits' church. Stuck in the back row, I couldn't hear most of the local bishop's homily, but I did catch the words "Papa Francisco" several times.
Some 57 years ago, the future pope came to Cordoba as a fresh-faced Jesuit novice, his hair and cassock coal-black. He was 21, about the same age as the students sitting beside me at Mass.
In a picture from 1958, the year Bergoglio entered the Society of Jesus, he looks confident and happy. His mother, who had wanted her eldest son to study medicine, appears apprehensive.
Bergoglio's call to priesthood was mysterious but strong, interrupting an otherwise ordinary adolescence. It was a spring day in Buenos Aires when he passed a church and was lured like a fish to a line.
The 16-year-old entered a dark booth where a priest was hearing the sacrament of penance.
"Something strange happened to me in that Confession," he later said. "I don't know what it was, but it changed my life."
It was Bergoglio's first shock from the "God of surprises," a deity who lies in wait and springs upon souls unawares.
He would later learn that God's surprises cut both ways.
The day after Mass, I went in search of Jesuits who remember Bergoglio from his days in this city.
The building where he began his Jesuit career has been bulldozed, replaced by a supermarket. But a keeper of its memories, the Rev. Andres Swinnen, lives just across the street, at Parroquia de la Sagrada Familia, a Catholic parish.
Swinnen entered the Jesuits one year before his friend Bergoglio, and is now in his seventh decade with the Society of Jesus. He is tall and elegant, with swept-back silver hair and an aristocratic air of nonchalance. As he opened the door of his parish, I motioned across the street to the site of the former novice house.
"You haven't moved very far," I teased, earning myself an eye-roll.
Like Bergoglio, Swinnen said he joined the Jesuits because he admired their tight communities, missionary focus and disciplined lives. The novices' time was managed down to the minute. "The schedule was set. The habits were set. You had to report at a certain time."
The austerity extended beyond the structured schedule. They used soap as toothpaste and newspaper as toilet paper, Swinnen recalled. Only last names were allowed, to ward off over-familiarity.
"It sounds like the military," I said.
It takes more than a decade for Jesuits to complete their training, which includes theological and philosophical studies, hands-on ministry and intense spiritual retreats. The idea is to train a company of men able to go anywhere and fulfill any mission, all for the "greater glory of God."
Bergoglio hoped to travel to the Far East, like his Jesuit heroes. But his request was denied because of a lung ailment that nearly took his life.
Instead, Bergoglio's mission field would be closer to home.
El Museo de la Memoria sits just a few blocks from the Manzana Jesuitica in Cordoba. It's a former police station where dozens of Argentines -- suspected guerillas or mere impediments to the military's brutal rule -- were tortured and killed.
As many as 30,000 Argentines were slain or "disappeared" from 1976 to 1983, a period known as the Dirty War.
The walls of the memory museum are lined with pictures of victims, some taken in their last moments, as they are dragged into the police station, and some showing happier days before they were arrested.
Walking through the museum, seeing the artifacts of interrupted lives, you realize why the Dirty War remains an open wound on Argentina's soul. Just before the exit, in lieu of a suggestion box, a sign pleads for information about los desaparecidos, the disappeared. As I walk out, a woman sits on the steps, crying.
Bergoglio was appointed provincial of the Argentine Jesuits when he was just 36. (The Society of Jesus divides itself into geographic regions called provinces, which are led by provincials who serve six-year terms.)
It was 1973, three years before the military coup and the beginning of the Dirty War. Bergoglio had finished his formation only two years earlier.
His maturity impressed Jesuit leaders, but his rapid rise was also aided by a series of misfortunes.
The man more likely to have been named provincial died in a car crash, at a time when the Jesuits' ranks were already thinned by convulsive changes in the Catholic Church.
The Second Vatican Council, convened in Rome in 1962, was supposed to throw open the church's windows and let in fresh air. Religious orders were encouraged to re-examine their original "charisms" or distinct gifts and missions.
Some Jesuits took this as a license to experiment with their vows of chastity, poverty and obedience. By the time Bergoglio was appointed provincial, a generation of Jesuits had slipped through Vatican II's open windows. The province was in disarray.
Bergoglio moved quickly to establish order. Too quickly, some Jesuits grumbled.
But the church pressures paled in comparison to the political atmosphere.
Jesuit residences were repeatedly raided by the ruling military junta. Swinnen said soldiers greeted him at gunpoint. The message was clear: The Society of Jesus was being watched.
In part, this was because Jesuits across Latin America were trading their breviaries for broadsheets. Liberation theology -- the idea that the Gospels express a "preferential option for the poor" -- was taking hold. Not content to serve in the slums, Jesuits were asking why so many Latin Americans were so poor in the first place. Detractors called them "communists in cassocks."
Bergoglio's colleagues say he kept a low profile, neither publicly praising nor condemning the military. His job was to protect the priests under his care.
Two Jesuits made that very difficult.
Under the influence of liberation theology, Franz Jalics and Orlando Yorio organized a "base community" in a Buenos Aires barrio, where they urged the poor to confront their oppressors.
Bergoglio allowed the priests to teach the Catholic faith but warned them to be wary of the military. They would be safer living with the rest of the Jesuits, he said.
Jalics and Yorio refused.
Eventually, Bergoglio gave Yorio and Jalics an ultimatum: Choose the barrio or the Society of Jesus. They chose the barrio.
Several days later, armed men seized the two Jesuits.
Bergoglio says he pursued every avenue to save them. After five months, the junta relented and released the Jesuits.
For years, Yorio blamed Bergoglio for the kidnapping, accusing the provincial of leaving him unprotected and fingering him to the military.
Jalics was more reticent, saying only that he and his former provincial had reconciled. (After Pope Francis' election, Jalics said that he did not blame Bergoglio for his capture.)
Because of the intensity and lingering pain of the Dirty War, I expected the Jesuits' kidnapping to be the main source of tension during Bergoglio's time as provincial. Had this led to his exile to Cordoba?
But even Jesuits who didn't like Bergoglio don't blame him for what happened to Yorio and Jalics. They had other problems with him.
When I heard about the "Jesuit ranches" near Cordoba, I pictured a priest wearing a cowboy hat, a stalk of straw between his teeth.
Sadly, these ranches, which once bankrolled the Jesuits' missions, are now museums, with nary a cow in sight.
Bergoglio resurrected aspects of the ranches, though, incorporating the unlikely academic subjects of farming and animal husbandry when he became rector of the Jesuit seminary in Buenos Aires.
The Rev. Alfonso Gomez recalls those days with a bemused smile, as if he still can't quite believe his own memory.
A studious and serene man, Gomez is the last person you'd expect to tell a pig-wrestling story. But soon after welcoming me into his spacious office at the Catholic University of Cordoba, Gomez relates, with relish, the tale of The Sow That Almost Escaped.
"It was fun," Gomez said with a wide smile. "It was hard, too, but many of us liked it. It was a very well-organized system."
It was Bergoglio's ideal assignment: forming young Jesuits.
After serving in high-powered posts like provincial, many Jesuits are "demoted" to discourage careerism and ambition, a sin that Ignatius called the "mother of all evils."
But Swinnen succeeded Bergoglio as provincial and made his friend rector of the Colegio Maximo, a decision that would divide the province for decades.
Bergoglio's style of formation, like the strict system he mastered in Cordoba, was minutely managed. He insisted on punctuality. Stragglers were sent to clean the kitchen.
"If you broke any of the rules there was always some kind of social or moral sanction," said the Rev. Rafael Velasco, who studied at the Colegio Maximo.
"There was very little time for freedom. It was more like a convent than a Jesuit house."
Bergoglio discouraged his students from reading liberation theology and reassigned professors who taught it, alienating politically minded Jesuits.
He preferred more direct means of helping the poor, building farms around the seminary, making young Jesuits milk the cows and harvest the crops. The food fed the surrounding barrios of Buenos Aires.
Seminarians would go straight from classroom to the pigsty, a pungent reminder of the Jesuits' aspiration to "find God in all things."
But many of the more intellectual Jesuits preferred classrooms to cows. They wanted more intellectual freedom and fewer chores. A rupture within the province began to emerge.
Even Jesuits outside Argentina -- especially those committed to liberation theology -- were bemused by Bergoglio's methods.
But Bergoglio was a strong personality, Jesuits said. Once he made a decision, he could rarely be swayed to reconsider.
Even more troublesome for the province, his devotees honored Bergoglio's every word as holy writ. And, after holding high Jesuit office for 15 years, he had attracted a sizable entourage, perhaps 40% of the province.
The Rev. Arthur Liebscher, an American Jesuit studying in Argentina during the 1980s, remembers Bergoglio's retinue as brash and cocksure.
"Prophets are fine," he said with a laugh, "but their disciples are really hard to take."
Bergoglio's followers were certain that their leader had carved out the one true path. Other Jesuits weren't so sure.
In 1986, Bergoglio's six-year term as seminary rector ended. Liberation theologians, whom he had removed from positions of power, now ran the province, appointed by Jesuit leaders in Rome.
One of their first tasks was to decide what to do with Bergoglio.
They sent him to Germany to finish his doctoral thesis, perhaps hoping that his absence would heal hostilities within the province. It might also get his mind off Jesuit formation.
But Bergoglio was 50 years old, with decades of pastoral experience, now stuck in dusty stacks of German libraries. At night, he took walks near the airport, waving at planes bound for Buenos Aires. He was restless and homesick.
After just three months in Germany, Bergoglio decided to go home, a minor act of rebellion against his Jesuit superiors. They allowed him to return and to teach a class at the seminary in Buenos Aires. He looked like a different man, some Jesuits say. His hair was shaggy; his fingernails long.
But Bergoglio's presence soon reignited the old debates over how to be a proper Jesuit.
Bergoglio, for the most part, tried to stay removed, leading by example instead of argument. But the debate took on aspects of Latin American politics, Jesuits say, with the campaign revolving around the "caudillo" -- the strong man. His coterie clashed with the new Jesuit superiors, and Bergoglio did little to stop it.
"My impression is that he was aware of the great goals he had," said Liebscher, "but he didn't realize that, in the process, he was stepping on a lot of honorable people."
Finally, Bergoglio's bosses decided they'd had enough. They shipped him off to Cordoba, 500 miles away.
Brother Louis Rausch remembers calling Bergoglio soon after he heard the news. It was 1990.
"Have you packed your suitcase?" he asked.
Rausch is toothpick-thin, with wavy hair, hipster glasses and an excited way of speaking. As a Jesuit brother, he is a member of the Society of Jesus but not an ordained priest.
When I asked Rausch how well he knew the future pope, he pulled a letter from his pocket. In it, Bergoglio teased him about his countrified family. It was Rausch who taught farming at the Jesuit seminary.
Now Rausch runs the Iglesia de la Compania, the Jesuit church. He recalled that his friend didn't answer the question about packing for Cordoba. But Rausch understood what the silence meant.
"He knew that the time ahead would be very difficult."
Before they hung up, Bergoglio asked his friend: Are you praying for me?
When he arrived at Room No. 5 in Cordoba, Bergoglio was a priest without a portfolio. At least, not one that would occupy much of his mind or time.
His official duty was to hear confessions, listening in his room for the buzz of the doorbell to tell him that some guilt-wracked soul wanted to unburden itself of sin.
Some confessors, though, avoided the priest with the solemn face. There were whispers that he was unwell.
Occasionally, Bergoglio would say Mass, filling in for the head priest of the Iglesia de la Compania. He tried to finish his doctoral thesis, but, as with many long-procrastinated projects, inspiration's fire had dimmed. He set it aside, unfinished.
Instead, he read and prayed, thought and wrote, musing about his childhood days, about the problems that plague religious communities. He plowed through a five-volume history of the popes.
When he needed a change of scene, Bergoglio walked to the Iglesia de Cristo Obrero, a solitary figure in black following the path of the Primero River as it softly streamed within high stone walls.
When I visited the church, the graffiti slogans outside outnumbered the parishioners within. It was ornate and sepulchral, with little natural light filtering in from the bright day outside. A few old women prayed in the pews, passing rosary beads through wrinkled hands.
I wanted to know more about what Bergoglio did in Cordoba, how he filled his long days, so I visited Ricardo Spinassi, who was the housekeeper at the Residencia for 33 years.
Spinassi said his old friend was a creature of habit.
He began each day with the same chore, washing one of his two pairs of socks, and ate the same meal -- vegetables and chicken -- for lunch every day.
In the early morning hours, he prayed in the Jesuits' domestic chapel, alone with the bones of Jesuit saints.
"He was there even before the old church ladies," one Jesuit said with a smile.
In the afternoon, while other brothers took post-lunch siestas, Bergoglio bowed his head for several minutes before a statue of St. Joseph, a favorite Christian figure since childhood.
"He prayed like a saint," Spinassi said.
Bergoglio often helped with housework, preparing meals, folding the laundry and changing the soiled sheets of sick and elderly Jesuits.
Spinassi said that Bergoglio also offered more significant help, giving him 9,000 pesos donated by German nuns to buy his house.
Bergoglio gave Spinassi grief, though, when he visited the house and found a pool in the backyard. Spinassi said there had been a mistake: He had only asked for an above-ground pool. But Bergoglio boiled.
"He was very angry at me," Spinassi said with a hangdog look. "And he was right."
Spinassi let me see the pool, but only if I promised not to take pictures. He didn't want the Pope to see them and get angry again.
He believes that Francis doesn't live in the Apostolic Palace, the traditional papal residence, because Pope John Paul II installed a pool.
(There is no pool at the Apostolic Palace, but there is one at the papal summer residence, Castel Gandolfo. Francis has refused to live in either palace.)
I asked Spinassi what Bergoglio did for fun during his days at the Jesuit Residencia. He looked at me silently for several moments.
Did he watch TV?
No, not really. Except for the occasional soccer match.
Did he drink cocktails or play cards?
No. When he received whiskey for his birthday, he gave it away.
Did he chat with the other Jesuits?
No. He kept to himself, Spinassi said.
Bergoglio did receive a few visitors, fellow Jesuits worried about his health.
"You would hear that he was not doing well," said Liebscher, the American Jesuit. "There was a real concern there."
Bergoglio grew gaunt and spent many hours in solitude.
"He understood that he had to remain silent and obedient because he was being punished," said Rausch.
"Some people said he was crazy," said Velasco, one of the Jesuits who studied under Bergoglio in Buenos Aires. "But that was not true."
Velasco said he visited Bergoglio in 1990, not long after the exile began. They talked about the Society of Jesus, and Bergoglio tried not to be critical, but couldn't help himself.
He fumed at being pushed aside like an old piece of furniture and accused Argentina's Jesuit leaders of uprooting the society from its traditional missions.
But he saw no way out of exile.
"If you don't agree with the superiors who the Society have assigned you," Velasco said, "then you have a problem with the entire Society."
It is normal for Jesuits, even talented leaders, to move from high to low assignments. But some said that casting Bergoglio out to Cordoba was clearly a punishment, and that he was suffering.
"I saw it in his face," said the Rev. Juan Carlos Scannone, an elderly Jesuit who has known Bergoglio since the 1950s. "I could see he was going through a spiritual purification, a dark night."
Why did Bergoglio take his time in Cordoba so hard?
His Jesuit colleagues had different explanations.
Some said that he was humiliated to have been tossed aside and given such an unimportant job. Or that he had lost his purpose in life. Others said he saw his vision for the Society of Jesus slipping away. And that he deeply missed the bustle of Buenos Aires.
One of the men who sent Bergoglio to Cordoba, the No. 2 Jesuit in Argentina at the time, emphatically denies that it was a punishment.
"The reasons for allocating a Jesuit from one house to another, and from one activity to another," said the Rev. Ignacio Garcia-Mata, "constitute the ordinary mode of the society since it was founded by St. Ignatius."
None of Bergoglio's friends told me they actually spoke to him about Cordoba. It's as if the subject was too emotional or embarrassing.
But I did find two journalists who managed the scoop of all scoops: an interview with the Pope himself.
Their book, "Understanding Pope Francis: Key Moments in the Formation of Jorge Bergoglio as a Jesuit," has just been published in English.
A devout Catholic, journalist Javier Camara has pictures of Francis throughout his house, including one of him and his wife meeting the pontiff last year.
Camara invited me and his co-author, Sebastian Pfaffen, to his home for a traditional Argentine asado. Over red wine and steak (salad for this vegan) we talked about the Pope's time in Cordoba.
Even the city's ardent Catholics don't know Bergoglio spent time here in the 1990s, the journalists told me. He wasn't a big deal at the time and didn't socialize much.
Instead, the Pope told them it was a "time of purification."
"It is a dark time, when one does not see much. I prayed a lot, I read, I wrote quite a bit and lived my life," he said. "What I did in Cordoba had more to do with my inner life."
The Pope didn't divulge much about his interior darkness, but Camara and Pfaffen located documents that offer insight into Bergoglio's mind, if not his soul.
Bergoglio worked on several essays during his time in Cordoba. One is called "Silencio y Palabra" -- "Silence and Word."
It was written, he said, to help religious communities overcome serious disagreements. From the first sentence, the essay strikes a personal tone.
"When we find ourselves in a difficult situation, sometimes silence is not an act of virtue," Bergoglio writes. "It is simply imposed upon us without any choice."
But even imposed silence can be a grace, he continues.
Drawing on the "Spiritual Exercises," the set of prayers and contemplations he learned decades before as a Jesuit novice, he explores the difference between self-pity and self-sacrifice.
"It could happen that one falls into a kind of spiritual victimization," Bergoglio writes, "considering that 'they hurt me without any reason.'"
The only way to avoid such thinking, he concludes, is to stay humble, keep praying and give God the room to work.
But what happens when God seems absent from the scene?
That's the theme of another essay Bergoglio published when he was in Cordoba, "El Exilio de Toda Carne," "The Exile of All Flesh." The essay began as notes for a spiritual retreat Bergoglio led in 1990, several months before he began his own exile, lending the text a shadow of premonition.
"The man or woman who consciously takes charge of his exile suffers a double loneliness," Bergoglio writes.
They are lonely amid the crowd, strangers in a strange land. But they also taste a spiritual loneliness, "the bitterness of solitude before God."
This isolation is felt most acutely in prayer, Bergoglio writes, when the exile sets himself apart from others -- in the quiet of a dark chapel, perhaps, before his brother Jesuits have awoken.
The exile also feels this isolation in prayer itself, when he contemplates the distance between his desires and God's plans.
The Hebrew prophets felt this pain, Bergoglio writes, citing Jeremiah, who told God he was too young to carry such weighty responsibility.
Still, Jeremiah carried out his mission, trying to lead the Hebrews through political turmoil. In the end, he was remembered only for the "infighting" and contradictions he left behind, Bergoglio writes.
Jeremiah's mission failed, leaving the exile anguished, weeping by the rivers of Babylon. Some scholars suggest that he lapsed into a period of silence. Unsure of how to get back home, the prophet reached for his last resort: prayer.
"It's the prayer of a man who gave everything, and would like -- at least -- that God would be on his side," Bergoglio writes. "But in life, sometimes it seems as though God puts himself on the other side."
Nearly everyone I spoke to in Cordoba encouraged me to interview the Rev. Angel Rossi, a man Pope Francis refers to as his "spiritual son."
On my last day in the city, I managed to sit down with him in the domestic chapel of the Manzana Jesuitica.
Rossi looks a bit like a young Bergoglio: same wire-frame glasses, same salt-and-pepper hair.
In spiritual matters, they could be twins. Rossi leads the Jesuit community at the Manzana Jesuitica, as well as running a charity, delivering lectures, directing spiritual retreats and writing.
Bergoglio accepted Rossi into the Society of Jesus in 1976, when the former was provincial. By Rossi's estimation, they lived under the same roof for seven or eight years.
I asked him to describe Bergoglio.
If you know him well, that's almost impossible, Rossi answered.
He is humble but confident, a disciplined rule-breaker. He is quiet but freely speaks his mind. He is deeply spiritual, but crafty -- a cross between a desert saint and a shrewd politician. He is a man of power and action, who spends a great deal of time in prayer and contemplation.
It's a description that many Jesuits might recognize in themselves.
"Contradiction is part of who we are," Rossi said.
But those contradictions often confused Catholics in Argentina, who pegged him as a retrograde conservative. Rossi called the decision to send Bergoglio to Cordoba "humanly unjust" and says it caused consternation among younger Jesuits.
But Cordoba changed Bergoglio for the better, Rossi said.
"I would say that many things that he is living through today got their start here in Cordoba."
It was like a seed planted in the hard soil of winter, Rossi said. For many months, the earth looks barren, but in the spring, it bears fruit.
"They are hidden from the outside," Rossi continued, "but one is pleasantly surprised to see where these great people have gone in these moments of silence."
I asked: What was different about Bergoglio after Cordoba?
"It is not a different Bergoglio," Rossi corrected me. "It is a fully blossomed Bergoglio, one who has amplified his reach and found his mission."
Two years into his exile, in June 1992, Bergoglio was named auxiliary bishop in Buenos Aires. He had grown close to the city's Archbishop Antonio Quarracino, who personally petitioned Pope John Paul II on his protégé's behalf.
Six years later, in 1998, Bergoglio himself was appointed Archbishop of Buenos Aires, the most powerful Catholic in Argentina.
It was a dramatic reversal from the solitude and suffering he endured in Cordoba, but Bergoglio said he carried important lessons back home.
"You must live your exile," he told a politician who was forced to resign. "And when you come back you will be more merciful, kinder, and you will want to serve your people better."
As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio said, he made sure not to repeat his mistakes. He consulted his assistant bishops and priests, inviting their opinions before making decisions, an approach he has carried into the papacy.
Before I left the Jesuit Residencia, I took one more look at the room where Bergoglio stayed, touching the desk and opening the armoire, imagining it full of a future pope's black cassocks.
I walked the short distance to the domestic chapel where Bergoglio had prayed in the dark. I knelt in the first pew -- his spot -- the hard wood creaking under the weight of my knees. In the early morning silence, with statues of Jesuit saints staring down at me, I took a moment to meditate on everything I'd learned in Cordoba. Then I rose and left the church.
I flew home with a full notebook, a reporter's dream. But I still had many questions, and little time left to find answers -- an editor's nightmare.
Looking for the last pieces of the puzzle, I went to see the Rev. Timothy Kesicki, president of the Jesuit Conference in Washington.
Kesicki is a kinetic mix of energy and ideas; a humble man despite his high-powered position, which essentially makes him the chief liaison between North American Jesuits and the superior general in Rome. Nicknamed the "black pope" because he wears black vestments and leads the church's largest clerical order, the superior general has unrivaled influence over the Society of Jesus.
As we talked in Kesicki's downtown Washington office on a recent afternoon, he would leap from his seat to grab a book that explained an important point about the Jesuits. Shortly before we met, he had sent me a copy of the guidelines for Jesuit provincials, to help me understand the decisions that Bergoglio made as a Jesuit leader and the decisions Jesuit leaders made about him.
As I read a section about "uniting hearts and minds," my eyes grew wide. The Jesuit Constitutions, on which the guidelines are based, states:
"Anyone seen to be a cause of division among those who live together, estranging them either among themselves or from their head, ought with great diligence to be separated from that community, as a pestilence which can infect it seriously if a remedy is not quickly applied."
So, that's why Bergoglio was removed, I thought. Even if he did nothing wrong, he was clearly causing a division within the Argentine Jesuits.
It's not easy to move men, Kesicki said. Just ask any secular CEO about the hardest part of their job: They'll almost always say personnel.
At the same time, Jesuits are called to be in the social trenches, the crossroads of ideologies, places where the Word and the world converge and conflict. Arguments over how to define success in such places seem almost inevitable.
"One could argue that if you're not having those kinds of disagreements," Kesicki said, "you're not truly Jesuits."
"So that tension is part of the Jesuits' DNA?" I asked.
"It's the DNA of the Gospel!" he answered. "Look at the apostles: Peter died upside down on the cross. Is that what he signed up for?"
Earlier in our interview, Kesicki asked something similar: "Was the crucifix a promotion?"
The question rang in my head for a few days. I thought about Bergoglio in Cordoba and the Jesuit spiritual exercises that urge him to identify with the crucified Christ.
I remembered reading an interview with Bergoglio in which he expressed admiration for a book called "A Theology of Failure," written in 1978 by the Rev. John Navone, an Italian-American Jesuit.
Navone suggests that, in human terms, Jesus was a failure.
He was hated by the Romans and by many of his own Jewish people. Even Jesus' family and followers didn't fully understand him. Most poignantly, Jesus died believing he had been forsaken by God and had failed at his divinely appointed mission.
But that's not the end of the story. The instrument of death and despair -- the cross -- becomes a symbol of resurrection, new life, proudly placed atop countless churches.
In 2010, Bergoglio told two journalists that Navone's book led him to ponder the theme of patience.
"There are times when our lives do not call so much for doing as for our 'enduring,'" he said, "for bearing up with our own limitations as well as those of others."
I called Navone to ask about his influence on the Pope's thoughts: how the enduring Bergoglio had become forbearing Francis.
I asked him how much he knew about Bergoglio's exile.
Navone knew all about Cordoba.
"There was a blessed juncture between my theology and his crisis," he said. "It was a kind of light in the darkness to him."
As it happened, Navone and I spoke on the day Francis made it easier for Catholics to annul their marriages, and about a week after he encouraged priests to forgive women who have had abortions.
Navone and I talked about mercy, and how it's hard to forgive others if you aren't intimately acquainted with your own failures. We talked about a Pope who travels to the peripheries because he himself was sent there. And we talked about Francis' apparent internal freedom, his refusal to resign himself to others' expectations.
By his own admission, Bergoglio wasn't a perfect person when he left Cordoba. He didn't fully reconcile with the Jesuits until after he was elected pope in 2013.
But the way he prays, thinks and acts were all formed by the Society of Jesus -- and, like all Jesuits, he believes that being good requires more than avoiding conflict and putting a few coins in the collection plate. Faith is a daily discipline, requiring spiritual exercises for the soul, even when -- or especially when -- your soul is suffering, 500 miles from home, alone in a little red room.
I don't know exactly what happened to Bergoglio during his dark night in Cordoba. I likely never will.
But when I see the Pope now in St. Peter's, preaching mercy to all manner of sinners, I can't help but think back to the former outcast, kneeling in the dark of the domestic chapel, alone with the God of surprises.
He’s a Marxist, socialist and impostor who wants to redistribute wealth but people dare not criticize him because the media fawns over him. This is what some conservative critics say about Obama — and Pope Francis.
A rabbi. An imam. A Hindu. An atheist. A minister raised in the Baptist church. How it that the head of the world’s largest Christian church has captured hearts across religious — and even non-religious — lines?
They hail from the pontiff's home — Buenos Aires, Argentina. And they’re driving their VW bus all the way to Philadelphia. Two parents, four kids on an exciting — and bonding — adventure.
Two Catholic churches just outside Philadelphia — a 100-year-old Anglo church and a bustling Latino congregation — are in the midst of merging, reflecting a change in the profile of the church in America. The process is not without conflict.