The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope

Jorge Begoglio, known to the world as Pope Francis, is a man simultaneously simple and complex. He is simple in his lifestyle, radiant joy and off the cuff remarks, complex in his bicultural Argentine-Italian background, depth of learning, and multiple gifts.  His birth in 1936 would send him through tumultuous times in his Jesuit community and Argentine politics, which honed his political and leadership skills to a keen edge.

Dr. Ivereigh was wise not to write this biography in strict chronological order. He starts his nine chapters with vignettes of Jorge’s life after his election and then covers a period of his past. The end defines the journey.  This book could use a good summary time line for the reader to reference as the story unfolds. Each chapter does give the years covered beneath the chapter titles.

The Great Reformer is important because few of us knew of Jorge Bergoglio before his elevation. Even in his native land he did not hang with the shakers and movers; he preferred to spend his time with the poor. He largely eschewed press interviews. He was something of a public figure as an auxiliary bishop and later Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires, and had some notoriety among is fellow bishops in Latin America. Even so, he was never a public front-runner for Pope. Speculations about other Latin American prelates were more common. He was a dark horse candidate, despite an early showing of support in the previous enclave that elected Pope Benedict.

The portrait that emerges in Ivereigh’s book can be summarized using a mnemonic device with the letters FRANCES.  The F stands for Freedom. Frances is not enslaved to the opinions of others. He speaks off the cuff and was never concerned about personal attire, so much so that the acupuncturist that cured him of vascular disease was amazed at how tattered were his clothes when he took them off to receive his treatments. He set aside official rubrics to wash the feet of a  non-Christian woman on his first Holy Thursday mass as pope. The F could just as well stand for Fresh. The heart and pastoral dimension he has brought to Rome is a breath of fresh air and a voice for the people, not the curia. He is a disciplined wild man  and pastor before he is an institutional man.

The R stands for Resurrected. Frances radiates life and joy. He said that the problem today is not letting Christ in, but rather letting him out! He wants to break us out of the tombs of spiritual worldliness and “adulterated forms of Christianity” (p. 215) along with its “dour judges” and  those afflicted by “the evil spirit of defeatism”.  Resurrection is not resuscitation back to an old life, but something really new,  in the shell of the old, duly smashing holes in the shell where needed so new life can grow. This new life is about reality (another good R word) over disincarnate ideas.

Audacious is the best word beginning with A. In his first encyclical The Joy of the Gospel, he gives his own church quite a chiding, saying no to unbridled capitalism and spiritual worldliness. That kind of language upset conservatives even when St. JP II was pope. The left tried to co-opt Frances, but he was and is equally prophetic when he addresses liberals who use the Marxist rhetoric of class struggle or make themselves self-appointed saviors of the church (p.140). He helped ferry people out of Argentina during Argentina’s “dirty war” when many were “disappeared” by the military regime, and he earned the ire and death threats from the drug lords in Buenos Aires.  His audacity points to Christ and the gospel, not to himself.

Frances is a no-fuss man. That N phrase can be taken in two senses: humble and poor.  Most people already know the story of his refusing the archbishop’s mansion in Buenos Aires. The book gives lots of charming detail on the simplicity of his life, which continued when he was made pope. In Bergoglio’s case no-fuss goes deeper than clothing and shoes, to a non-presupposing manner. At the first function he attended as Archbishop, the dignitaries did not know who he was. (p 239). You wouldn’t pick him out of a crowd of two people, it seems.  He loves the poor and gives them his time rather than hanging out with the rich and the famous. He prefers indirect methods to achieve his ends. He displays prophetic audacity at times but without drama. It sounds almost like a contradiction, but it is really the virtues of meekness and mildness that Frances has.

The C stands for contemplative. He takes a long, loving look at the Real every morning. He sees things as they really are.  He is living proof of 17th -century Jesuit Louis Lallemant’s statement that the man of prayer can accomplish more in a year than another in a lifetime. His contemplation-in-action is better than a dozen books on prayer. Sitting before the Blessed Sacrament distilled an education of remarkable depth and breadth (including chemisty) into practical wisdom. When people were hungry, he grew food at the Jesuit seminary, tons of it. (pp. 177-179) He fed the seminary, poor families, and hundreds of children.  Like Lallemant, he believes the interior law is more important than external rules. (p. 103) As a good contemplative, he saw politics as a means to harmonize different visions and interests to help ordinary people. He avoided political ideologies, utopian or nostalgic. (p. 202) A particularly helpful teaching from Bergoglio’s time of greatest personal trial was his contemplative stance of wise passivity. He said that at times God does the fighting for us, and it is a mistake to get involved. (p. 208)

Just reading the pope’s life is exhausting simply because he is so Indefatigable. That is what the I stands for. How did he find the energy to do so much?  It bothered me that he never took vacations. That said, he maintained his health and balance, despite heavy responsibilities at a young age. Add the fact that part of his upper right lung removed when he was quite young. (pp 49-51). He gets up at 4:30 a.m. to pray for two hours. He used public transportation to get around as Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires rather than a chauffeur-driven limousine, a decision that must have meant more time traveling. (p. 239).  He did most of his own phoning. As auxillary bishop he substituted for priests on vacation. (pp. 229-240). He was elected pope at age 77 and has been sprinting ever since.  Maybe in his  case, no vacations was good training. He is incredibly effective without being enslaved to the idol of efficiency. He has mastered time.

The best word that comes to mind that starts with S is spirited.  He fought against spiritual worldliness even before his election, The vice takes many forms,  including high-spending prelates, airport bishops frequently away from their  dioceses and idolized efficiency. (p. 85) Pope Frances simply puts the gospel and the poor first. He is spirited in another sense of easily relating to charismatics and those of other faiths.  He eschews ideologies. This is the way Ivereigh summarizes Francis’ spirit:

Bergoglio’s talks show him developing two major vaccinations against the lure of ideology. The first was the God’s-holy-faithful-people idea:  God’s power was to be discerned not in elite schemes but in the ordinary believing poor. The second was a series of governing “Christian principles,” a kind of sapiential wisdom captured in a series of criteria for discernment. In 1974, when he addressed the provincial congregation, there were three: unity comes before conflict, the whole comes before the part, time comes before space. By 1980, he had added a fourth, anti-ideological principle: reality comes before the idea. (p. 142)

Any one of these five ideas has the potential for transforming our lives, the life of the church, and the life of the planet. The one which most impacted me is the last. Many of us need to get out of our heads.

Free, Resurrected, Audacity, No fuss, Contemplative, Indefatigable, Spirited. That would be a nice way to close, but there is a missing letter/word. It could come under Contemplative, but is so central and important a theme in Francis’ life that it deserves separate mention, even at the expense of this neat mnemonic device.  The letter is D and the word is Discernment. Jorge Bergoglio has been discerning from his teens, starting with his discernment to become a priest. He is a master of it and learned from the Master of Discernment St. Ignatius Loyola. From an early age, he displayed and ability to know what to keep and what to let go of.  He displayed great wisdom in reversing the decline of the Jesuits in his province as master of novices and provincial superior. He threaded his way through the “dirty war” in Argentina and helped many escape without adding to the conflict. He knew when to move forward and when to return to the sources of Ignatian spirituality. When he was eliminated from leadership as a Jesuit and banished to a relatively insignificant posting, he knew how to let be and suffer (I almost used suffering for the S word). Most impressive was his encouraging those who wanted his election at the conclave that elected Pope Benedict to put their support behind Cardinal Ratzinger rather than be divisive. How many electable candidates would have done that at his age? He discerns, decides and acts.  We have seen more discernment since: The C-8, the eight cardinals who advise him on matters at meetings every two months to get a wider perspective than the curia in Rome affords, his long encyclical The Joy of the Gospel, and more recently Laudato Si on caring for the earth. People of discernment are willing to take risks, and Pope Frances is one of those.  We end with eight letters instead of seven with FRANCIS the Discerner.

Austin Ivereigh has done the English-speaking world a great service with this biography. Take time to read it and understand this remarkable man.

— Reviewed by Brother Thomas Crutcher



The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope
Austin Ivereigh
Allen & Unwin (London, 2014)
445 pp.