Mardis Gras, Fat Tuesday, Martedi Grasso—whatever you call it, the eve of the Catholic Lenten season is a final hurrah before a 40-day period of prayer and fasting. Pope Francis now spends the day in solemn preparation for Ash Wednesday services, but it wasn’t always this way for the hip pontiff.
A lot of famous people had surprising jobs before they reached the big time. Whoopi Goldberg was a morgue beautician; Kanye West was a Gap store clerk; John Hamm was a set designer in the porn industry. So it should come as no surprise that Pope Francis wasn’t always involved in holy work. Back when he was known as Jose Maria Bergoglio, he worked as a nightclub bouncer in Flores, Argentina, to earn money as a student.
“I was the world’s worst bouncer,” Francis told the congregation of San Cirillo Alessandrino in a Roman suburb shortly after his election in 2013. He cut a less-than-intimidating figure, according to several biographies written about him. The most intimate, Francesco: Life and Revolution, was written by Argentinian journalist Elisabetta Pique, who has known Bergoglio since he was elevated to cardinal in 2001, and who he called personally shortly after his election. Pique describes the man before he became pope as “el Flaco” or the thin one and later, “Carucha” or “baby face,” as his friends called him.
Francis also had a girlfriend before he joined the priesthood—this woman is widely reported to have been a skilled Tango and Milonga dancer. Francis left her when he realized his religious vocation, but according to Pique, he was briefly swayed in the seminary when he met a woman at his uncle’s wedding. Pique quotes him as writing, “I was dazzled by a girl I met at the wedding of an uncle of mine, her beauty, her intellectual radiance surprised me. I was confused for some time, she kept on coming into my mind. When I went back to the seminary after the wedding, I couldn’t pray for a whole week, because when I wanted to do so, this girl appeared in my head.”
More famously, the would-be pope fell madly in puppy love with a girl named Amalia when he was just 12 years old. He told her, “If you do not marry me, I will join the priesthood.”
According to Pique, the man who became pope drew a picture of a little white house with a red roof that said, “This is the house I’ll buy when we get married.” When the young girl’s parents found the letter, they tore it up and forbade their daughter from seeing “that boy” again because he was “trouble.”