GUAYAQUIL, Ecuador (AP) — A Spaniard by birth, the Rev. Francisco Cortes walks slowly with a cane with a built-in flashlight and admits to a lifelong weakness for cigars.
It’s been 30 years since he last saw the pope, who then was simply the Rev. Jorge Mario Bergoglio and was in charge of the Jesuit order in Argentina.
The now nearly 91-year-old priest must have made a strong impression with his work at the Colegio Javier parochial school mentoring young men sent to him by the future pontiff, because he is the only person with whom Francis is meeting privately on his visit to Ecuador.
Better known as Padre Paquito, Cortes was to spend five minutes with the pope Monday in a small room adorned by flowers and religious paintings after Francis celebrates an outdoor Mass and before the two lunch together along with 21 other Jesuits.
“I don’t know why he set the meeting. We haven’t even corresponded,” Cortes told The Associated Press in an interview. “I’m really just a Mr. Nobody,”
He said he wasn’t sure what he would ask the pope.
He has been at Colegio Javier since 1963, first as a teacher, then as headmaster. He was never a pushover with students, he said.
“I could really challenge them and they knew it was for their own good — and we’d end up friends.”
He and the pontiff, who is on his first trip to Spanish-speaking Latin America since being elected pope in 2013, last saw one another in Argentina in 1985 at the ordination of a student sent to Cortes by the future pope.
With a permanent smile on his face, Cortes was quick to respond to a reporter’s questions, but talking is complicated by a battered throat. He confessed to having smoked as many as three cigars a day until two years ago. His doctors have been watching him more closely to make sure he lays off them, he said.
Doubly so, with the pope due to visit — and just four days before Cortes’ birthday.
Never in the three times they met personally in the 1980s was a photograph taken.
“Let’s hope that now there is,” he said.
This story has been corrected to say Colegio Javier is a parochial school, not a seminary.