By Austen Ivereigh
445 pp. $30
German Cardinal Walter Kasper, the man dubbed the pope’s theologian, had a message that some of his more prominent critics might have needed to hear. “The pope is not a liberal,” Kasper declared in a November address at the Catholic University of America in Washington. “He is a radical.” The cardinal spoke in the wake of October’s Synod of bishops on marriage and the family, which revealed serious disagreement among top church leaders on issues such as homosexuality and divorce.
Pope Francis does not shy away from confronting even the most entrenched religious ideologies, nor does he bow to political expectations. He seems fearless in the face of church opposition or partisan pressure — indeed, one souvenir T-shirt in many gift shops in Rome shows him in a superhero cape, soaring to the rescue. Francis is a radical also in the spiritual sense: He is not afraid to question religious culture when it gets in the way of living the Gospel. For all his resonance in popular culture, he recognizes that there is something profoundly countercultural and holy in living the selflessness of Christian life.
In this new era for the church, the pope is able to make ancient church teaching sound like headline news and is himself a constant trending topic on social media. It wasn’t long ago that the church was dismissed as passé and unable to change, but now, 2,000 years after the death of Christ, the Catholic Church seems resurgent. Who is this larger-than-life man leading the charge? What are Francis’s origins, how did he come to his beliefs and where is he taking his church? “The Great Reformer,” a new biography of the man born Jorge Mario Bergoglio, offers an illuminating guide.
Catholic journalist and church insider Austen Ivereigh has carefully parsed church documents and the pope’s early speeches and writings and has spoken to dozens of Francis’s friends, associates and parishioners to take readers beyond the front page. Amid a wave of new books about this unpredictable pope, Ivereigh helps fill in the biography of a man who has long been reluctant to embrace the spotlight. This pope, who delivers stellar morning sermons and seems to question long-established doctrine in off-the-cuff remarks, seems less surprising — but no less remarkable — when viewed through Ivereigh’s lens.
The author immerses us in daily life on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, where Francis grew up and lived for many years. He emphasizes the influence of Bergoglio’s grandmother Rosa, on whose knee the boy learned the faith. Less puritanical than his parents, who would not allow divorced people into their home, Rosa introduced the future pope to a version of Catholicism that affirms holiness where one finds it, even outside traditional religious boundaries.
As a young Jesuit teacher in 1960, Bergoglio sent a letter to his 11-year-old sister, Maria Elena, detailing the cold and hunger his impoverished elementary school students faced and asking her to pray the rosary for them. “Don’t forget that on that plan a child’s happiness depends,” he wrote. Connecting social justice to spirituality, he was sensitive to the cries of the poor early in life. His recognition of the “virtuousness of ordinary people” drew him closer to Christ.
At 21, Bergoglio nearly died from a lung disease, and he credits a wise and attentive nurse with saving his life, an experience that Ivereigh suggests parallels the current condition of the Catholic Church. The “daringly astute” nurse caring for Bergoglio tripled the dosage of his medication. “She knew what to do because she was with ill people all day. . . . [She] lived on the frontier.” But, Ivereigh writes, the doctor overseeing Bergoglio’s care “lived in a laboratory.” It’s that juxtaposition of the laboratory of pure ideas against the real needs of the faithful that Ivereigh sees as shaping Francis’s view of the church today.
Invereigh portrays many of Bergoglio’s efforts as aimed at “reconnecting the center with the periphery.” To the future pope, the slum is the center of the city, the poor and uneducated are spiritual teachers to the great and powerful, and prostitutes are women worthy of a Catholic cardinal’s public protection. (Francis once said of the women forced into sex trafficking, “I see in them the wounds of Christ.”) The notion of an outsider moving into the center is all the more poignant in the elevation of this first non-European pope in nearly 1,300 years. This is a church on the move.
When Bergoglio was rector of a Jesuit college, he started a farm that at its height fed 400 hungry children a day from a nearby neighborhood. Ivereigh’s description of Bergoglio putting on his boots to tend to the farm’s pigs suggests the real-world grittiness that Francis is bringing to the Vatican. “Our vocation asks that we be pastors of large flocks, not strokers of a few preferred sheep,” he told his students. This “humble pope” was formed by the people of the community.
Ivereigh’s detailed depiction of Argentina’s political climate during the 19th and 20th centuries sometimes weighs the book down, but it’s worth wading through to understand Francis’s perspective on politics and religious power and his often-radical calls for social justice. After experiencing years of political upheaval and violence in Argentina, Francis grew to distrust ideologies that, as an associate put it, “seek a kind of total explanation of reality, whereas Christian hope is beyond all ideologies because it makes room for God to act.” Ivereigh helps readers see that Francis’s personal evolution correlates with his critique of modern church culture.
In pushing the church forward, Francis today insists that “God is not afraid of new things” and that the complexities of human life are not necessarily black and white. “Jorge Bergoglio’s radicalism comes from his willingness to go to the essentials, to pare back to the Gospel,” Ivereigh writes. Francis found his way to the essentials while putting in place the post-Vatican II spiritual renewal in his Jesuit order by focusing on “poverty, holiness, missionary focus, obedience to the pope and unity.” During his time as provincial superior of the Society of Jesus in Argentina, he attempted to reorient a politically charged church culture toward the spirituality of everyday holiness.
To those who worry that Francis is damaging the church, Ivereigh replies that, on the contrary, he is restoring it. Francis may be the one man who can effect major change in the church — what it emphasizes, how it’s received by Catholics, and even its media coverage — while leaving its core teachings alone. Francis supposes, as do Christians worldwide, that by faithfully living the radical messages of Jesus, you really can change the world. Ivereigh chronicles an unlikely reformation unfolding before our eyes that may be the blueprint for the life of that world to come.