'The Great Reformer'

Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope
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The Great Reformer is a magnificent book that should gain a wide readership. It is a tour de force of biographical research and good judgment, and it provides useful background information to readers who are new to Argentine history, the Jesuits, or Catholic language and customs. Austen Ivereigh manages to illuminate every aspect of Francis’s leadership—especially the unusual aspects that have attracted admiration from some and worry from others, and in many cases both at once.

Ivereigh has organized his book chronologically, but each chapter begins with some quality of Francis’s life as pope that illuminates—or is illuminated by—the period in Francis’s life covered in that chapter. For example, the opening chapter, which describes Francis’s own immigrant background, is prefaced with an account of his papal visit to Lampedusa, where he met with African immigrants to Italy. Similarly, the chapter on his election as a Jesuit provincial at age thirty-six begins by describing his intimate style as pope, a style that reflects his insistence—both as a provincial and now as pontiff—on personal encounter with the poor. As provincial, Jorgé Bergoglio lived at the Colegio Máximo, a Jesuit seminary. There he helped people escape Argentina’s military dictatorship, although he would later be (falsely) accused of collaborating with the dictatorship. The chapter recounting Bergoglio’s early years as archbishop of Buenos Aires, including his pivotal role at the Latin American bishops conference at Aparecida in 2007, is prefaced with an account of how he became a candidate for pope at the conclave that finally elected Pope Benedict XVI—and of why Bergoglio withdrew his name.

As its title indicates, the book tells the story of someone whose whole life as a leader in the church has been dedicated to reform—first in his own Jesuit province, then in the archdiocese of Buenos Aires, and finally as pope. Francis’s principles for reform have been remarkably consistent. They were, in the first instance, based on his reading of the works of St. Ignatius Loyola, himself a reformer. They were also based on his knowledge of the history of the Jesuits and, in particular, of the Jesuit-sponsored communities of indigenous people called “Reductions” or “groupings,” which the Jesuit missionaries organized in order to protect the Indians from the greed of the Spanish colonists. “The Jesuits acted, essentially, as seventeenth-century community organizers among the poor,” Ivereigh writes. The independence of the Jesuits and their indigenous communities offended the absolutist monarchs of Portugal, France, and Spain; and so the Jesuits were ordered to withdraw.

Another source for Bergoglio’s theory of renewal of church culture and life was Yves Congar’s True and False Reform in the Church (1950). Congar taught that true reform “was always rooted in pastoral concern for ordinary faithful people: it was oriented to, and shaped by, the periphery, not the center.” Again and again, Bergoglio launched his programs and initiatives with the exhortation to go out to the peripheries and, once there, not to impose an “ideology” but to learn from the people—from the santo pueblo fiel de Dios, “God’s holy faithful people.” As Ivereigh puts it, true reform involves not eschewing but honoring and learning from “the forms of popular religiosity—the devotions and the processions, the shrine festivals and the offerings, the novenas and the rosaries—which are described so powerfully in the Aparecida document [written by Bergoglio] as the place where the poor encounter God, make vital decisions, and are converted.” The pueblo fiel serve as “the hermeneutic of true reform.”

Bergoglio’s first target of reform in Argentina was the Society of Jesus, which had experienced such a severe dearth of vocations that not even one person was ordained in the province the year after his own ordination. He implemented a bold new program at the Colegio Máximo, combining a return to humanistic education with direct missionary outreach to the poor and manual labor (because the poor are those who have to work). “It was,” writes Ivereigh, “a radical inculturation into the lives of God’s holy faithful people,” including learning and praying the devotions the people were fond of. Bergoglio’s idea for the seminarians was that “only by sharing the lives of the poor…could they discover ‘the true possibilities of justice in the world,’ as opposed to ‘an abstract justice which fails to give life.’” Students found this vision “deeply attractive” and the Colegio began to overflow with vocations, even as the neighboring poor community of San Miguel was transfigured. But Bergoglio’s reform was eventually disowned by the older, left-leaning Jesuits, who did not believe it was sufficiently grounded in a scientific analysis of the social situation of the poor, and were offended to discover Jesuit seminarians learning and praying the devotions of the uneducated.


In 1992 Bergoglio was named auxillary bishop in the archdiocese of Buenos Aires under Archbishop Antonio Quarracino, who “had seen the way Bergoglio’s pastoral operation had transformed San Miguel and was shocked at how the Jesuits had ostracized him.” Bergoglio set about reforming the church in Buenos Aires along the same pastoral lines he had already used with the Jesuits. Overall, this meant a program of going to the peripheries as a way of combating what the French Jesuit theologian Henri de Lubac had called “spiritual worldliness” (“using the church for temporal ends—for political or personal gain—so turning it into an instrument of human maneuvering”). It was Bergoglio’s goal, as bishop, to reform the local church, to save it from an “elaborate network of spiritual worldliness stretching from the church in Buenos Aires to the Vatican,” Ivereigh writes. Bergoglio attended to four major areas: “the poor, politics, education, and dialogue with other churches and faiths.” In his mind, these four were all related to one another. The option for the poor required a critique of power; it also meant a renewal and expansion of the church’s educational ministries. Meanwhile, developing relationships with other Christians and with Jews and Muslims enabled the option for the poor to become an interreligious priority. By going to the peripheries of society, Bergoglio was able to inspire people to retrieve the basics of civic engagement—caring for one’s neighbors and identifying their good with one’s own. The left wanted more ideology; the right demanded more patriotism. But Bergoglio remained focused on neighborliness and practical solidarity.

As archbishop of Buenos Aires, he played a crucial role in the general meeting of CELAM (the conference of the Episcopate in Latin America) at Aparecida, Brazil, in 2007. Given the task of drafting the meeting’s concluding document, Bergoglio stuck close to the pueblo fiel approach. The document was, Ivereigh says, “the expression of a new maturity, of a local church come of age.” Ivereigh argues that the whole conference represented a breakthrough.

In its vision and vigor, its fierce advocacy of the poor and its missionary spirituality, its bold proclamation of the birth of a new springtime of faith, Aparecida was now the program, the key to a major new effort of evangelization in Latin America.

Ivereigh compares Aparecida’s success to the timid and inward-looking conclusions of the recent Synod for the New Evangelization, which ended up reinforcing the sense of a church “in desolation, turned in on itself, excessively focused on the shadows, with an exaggerated fear of perceived threats.” It was “the rich-world church…blaming the culture, rather than itself, for its decline.” As for the Aparecida document, “Nowhere else in the world was there anything to compare with it. That made it, just as obviously, the program for the universal church. All that was needed now was a Latin American pope to bring the flame out from the periphery, into Catholicism’s increasingly tired and desolate center.” Thus we come, in Ivereigh’s book, to the Francis papacy, with the Latin American church making a credible bid to replace the European church as a “source church” for the rest of the world.

At the time of Argentina’s bicentenary, the Argentine bishops conference, under Bergoglio’s presidency, released a document inviting the country to an ambitious project of renewal based on the common good, in the spirit of Aparecida. Ivereigh argues that the “deep thinking” behind this document can be found in some of Bergoglio’s more recent writings. As Ivereigh explains:

What held the pueblo back was no longer messianic Marxist ideology but what he called a “theist gnosticism,” a new, disembodied thinking that in church terms could be expressed as “God without church, a church without Christ, Christ without a people.” Against this elite “airspray theism,” Bergoglio set what he called lo concreto católico, the “concrete Catholic thing,” which was at the heart of the history and culture of the Latin-American people.

This “concrete Catholic thing” is, even more than Pope Francis himself, at the heart of Ivereigh’s book. Through an exposition of the pope’s accomplishments, Ivereigh lovingly presents “the concrete Catholic thing” as something that still has the power to create true solidarity, hope, and renewal in church and in the world. Commenting on Francis’s exhortations against spiritual worldliness, Ivereigh notes, “The church, Francis endlessly pointed out, was not an NGO but a love story, and the men and women were links in this ‘chain of love.’ ‘If we do not understand this,’ said Francis, ‘we have understood nothing of what the church is.’” The question put to the reader is: Can we still, even in the twenty-first century, believe in a love story? In this love story? If so, Ivereigh suggests, and only if so, we can begin to see the possibilities for genuine reform in our own hearts and in the church. 

Published in the February 6, 2015 issue: 

John Cavadini teaches in the Department of Theology at the University of Notre Dame, where he is also McGrath-Cavadini director of the Institute for Church Life.

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