Pope Francis ministered door-to-door in the most crime-ridden pockets of Buenos Aires
Credit: Courtesy Gustavo Vera

They still call him “Jorge.”

And old friends from back home in Argentina remember Pope Francis – a.k.a. Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the name he was born with – as the fearless “street priest” he remains at heart.

Gustavo Vera and Lucas Schaerer, who work with the non-governmental organization La Alameda on problems of human trafficking, drug-smuggling and corruption, first met Francis in 2008 when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires – and they needed his top cover.

“We needed protection,” Vera says in an interview for this week’s issue of PEOPLE. As they tried to clean up the streets of Buenos Aires, Vera says their workers and the crime witnesses they were aiding were assaulted.

“We heard Archbishop Bergoglio give a homily on human trafficking and slavery and decided to approach him,” Vera says.

“From that moment on, we worked together on the streets. … And when there was a witness being intimidated by the perpetrators of the crimes, Jorge would make sure to be photographed with that witness to send a clear message: ‘We are all standing with this person who has been so brave.’ ”

More than that, Francis arranged new housing and jobs for witnesses who needed to relocate to stay safe. “He would personally help, console and bless the people we rescued together – drug addicts, prostitutes and human slaves kept” in clothing factories, says Schaerer.

On what he remembers as one of their most difficult days working the streets, Schaerer says Francis told him something he recalls to this day – something he sees reflected in the open-armed papacy that has endeared his old friend to so many across the world. “I remember he told me: ‘The Church should be like a battlefield hospital – ready to take in those that have been injured by life’s tragedies and sins.”

Francis nicknamed his two street pals “los Troskista de Dios” or “God’s Trotskys,” and kept them from harm, too.

“I am pretty sure Lucas and I would have ended up floating down the river face down had we not had Jorge’s support and involvement in our neighborhood association,” says Vera.

Now that he is at the Vatican, at the global helm of the Catholic Church, Francis still checks in with “God’s Trotskys.” Once a week, he calls Vera, says Schaerer. “He asks how the people in the neighborhood are. He keeps tabs on the life he left back in Argentina.”

And he hasn’t lost his old sense of humor.

Francis hosted Vera, Schaerer and Schaerer’s family in August at Santa Marta, the simple, dorm-style Vatican guesthouse where he bunks with dozens of housemates after refusing to live in the luxe Papal Palace apartments his predecessors called home. The occasion was the baptism of Schaerer’s two daughters and, despite the holy business at hand, the Pope had not forgotten his nicknames for his friends.

Schaerer’s is ‘perejil‘ or parsley. “Because he says that I am in all sauces due to the fact that I also work as an investigative journalist and am always in the middle of trouble.”

“Jorge is very quick-witted and the funniest thing is that he remembers his quiet jokes for years.”

For more on Pope Francis’s private world and his upcoming visit to America, pick up the new issue of PEOPLE on newsstands Friday