Politics & Policy

Who Is Pope Francis?

Pope Francis (Franco Origlia/Getty)
Unlocking the mystery.

Pope Francis certainly does make news. This week was no exception, but what week is, for anyone keeping an eye out? Having done doctrinal work on Argentina, and with some Jesuit discernment in his past, Austen Ivereigh makes a natural author for a book on Pope Francis. And so it is: The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope has recently been released. What kind of radical reformer is he? Who is he? What has his life been like? What are his influences? For anyone remotely curious about Pope Francis, this is a good read. Ivereigh — a friend who in London founded Catholic Voices, a movement I’ve had some involvement with here in the U.S. — talks about the pope and the book in an interview with National Review Online. — KJL


Kathryn Jean Lopez: You have a long history with Argentina. What is it that interested you there so?

Austen Ivereigh: I’m proof that Ph.D.s can be useful. Twenty years before Pope Francis got elected, I did a doctorate at Oxford University on the Church in Argentina — above all, its relationship with political developments in the first half of the 20th century. On a number of visits in the late 1980s and early 1990s I spent many months at a time in Buenos Aires, grappling with what I can describe as the backdrop to the life of Jorge Mario Bergoglio — the integration of migrants, the rise of nationalism and Catholicism, the crisis of democracy and the birth of Peronism, and eventually the emergence in the 1970s of a seductive but brutal guerrilla movement that was defeated only by a genocidal dictatorship. At the time, the doctorate — which was published as Catholicism and Politics in Argentina — helped me explore a lot of questions about faith and public life. But it also left me uniquely able, all these years later, to understand Bergoglio’s backstory as an Argentine Jesuit. So I felt almost an obligation to write his story. Even though I didn’t know him, I believed I understood him — although that only made me more curious about him. I’m very pleased that a consistent reaction from readers of The Great Reformer is that I’ve enabled them to grasp the pope’s Argentina, and that they understand him so much better as result.


Lopez: How deeply did his grandmother affect the priest he is today? What do the most influential women in his life indicate about how he sees women, what’s perhaps behind his “theology of women” talk?

Ivereigh: Nonna Rosa was the major influence on the young Jorge. She was his day-to-day carer from his earliest years, his loving teacher and guide, a great storyteller. From her he got his traditional Catholic piety, his love of Italian literature and poetry, as well as his political streak — she was a courageous defender of Church freedoms under Mussolini and sometimes clashed with his thugs. Young Jorge learned from her to see the dignity and worth of others; her faith led her to reach out to those (such as divorcés) who were stigmatized in the Church at the time. She modeled God’s mercy for him. There would be many other women in his life, but Rosa remained his great love.

The issue of Francis and women remains a curiosity. He admires strong women, and his close women friends have all been, like Rosa, bold and unconventional. He has said often — he said it as archbishop — that the Church needs a “theology of women.” He doesn’t qualify this: He doesn’t say a “better” theology or a “new” theology. He thinks we need to start from the divine character and purpose of femaleness as distinct from maleness and work from there. What he says about the importance of women can sound a little mystical or even mystifying, but one thing’s for sure: He likes and enjoys the company of women and counts women, even now as pope, among his closest friends and collaborators.


LOPEZ: He grew up near Mercy Plaza? It’s an address that seems to have made its imprint on him. What’s mercy in the eyes of the man who would become Pope Francis?

IVEREIGH: ​The Plaza de Misericordia in Flores is named after the convent of the Mercy sisters, who taught him as a child and to whom he always remained close. He has always experienced God as mercy; at key moments of his life he has had direct knowledge of it. He believes the Church needs to reflect and embody that quality of the divine. He created a neologism, misericordiar, and would tell people to let themselves be “mercy’d” by God. It’s about surrendering to love, renouncing the illusion of autonomy and control. He’s convinced, as I say in The Great Reformer, that the contemporary world’s greatest temptation is precisely the one presented by rapid technological development: to make idols of mechanisms, confusing ends and means. His focus on the poor derives from his perception that the poor (who have less access to technology, power, and autonomy) are less tempted in this respect and therefore more receptive to God’s mercy.

When he declared a kairos of mercy on the plane back to Rome from Brazil a few months after his election, he was expressing that conviction — that mercy is above all what the world needs to know at this time. To be saved is to surrender to the truth of God’s unconditional love – to know ourselves, as the Jesuits put it, as forgiven sinners, dependent on God, rather than as self-righteous princes. This, of course, is a harder lesson for the rich and educated than it is for the poverty-stricken and the powerless. And it is why opposition to Francis has always come from elites invested in their own narratives — whether from left or right. Those who allow themselves to be “mercy’d” believe in the Gospel, not ideology. Sooner or later, Francis asks us to choose.

LOPEZ: Pope Francis may have taken the name of the founder of the Franciscans, but he is very much a son of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits. Should everyone trying to understand what’s going on with the papacy today take a look at Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises? Is this the single most important thing to know about the current pope?

IVEREIGH: The Spiritual Exercises are one of the keys that unlock Francis. He became, from very early on in his Jesuit life, a master retreat-giver and spiritual director, absorbing at a very deep level Saint Ignatius’s rules for distinguishing the movements of the Holy Spirit from other motions which can look deceptively similar to those of the Spirit but which are in reality diabolic temptations. People are amazed by how often Francis refers to the Devil; it’s because he’s very familiar with him.

John Paul II was a philosopher, Benedict XVI was a theologian, Francis is a spiritual master. When I went through the many, many articles he wrote over 20 years as a Jesuit for spirituality journals — amazingly, they were gathering dust on the Jesuits’ shelves; I am the first biographer to have studied them — I was struck by the depth of his grasp of the Exercises. They are key to his leadership, his reforms — everything important about him. They are also key to his attempt to release the evangelizing energies of the Church. He wants the Church to offer the First Week of the Exercises — when you look back over your life and realize that you are a forgiven and loved sinner — rather than jump to the Second, which is when we choose to follow Christ in His Church. You need the First before the Second. Hence his vision of the Church as a healer and a mother, not just a teacher. That’s the program of his pontificate.


LOPEZ: What’s the most important insight about Francis you gained in sitting down to write The Great Reformer?

IVEREIGH: That he has an extraordinary capacity to hold things in tension, creating space for the Holy Spirit to act. That makes him fearless and bold, even though his natural traits are introversion and anxiety. As I saw more and more instances of this, I never ceased to be amazed. At the beginning of chapter 7, after he’s made a cardinal in 2001, I record a clear shift in him, towardt a more charismatic spirituality and parrhesia — a fearlessness, in speaking out against corrupt governments and local mafias, that really take your breath away.

On this point about holding things in tension — you really saw that in the October synod. At the end, he gave an address that really reminded me of the kinds of things he used to say as a Jesuit retreat-giver: Live in the tension, don’t give in to ideology or other temptations to flee that tension, speak fearlessly but listen humbly, and wait for the Holy Spirit to bring about new, creative possibilities.

In the five weeks I spent in Argentina and Chile, in the dozens of interviews I carried out, and the huge amount of reading I did of him and about him, what hit me continually was how he has made his life’s work — both intellectually and in practice — the question of how the Spirit acts in the Christian body and what blocks or releases it. He sees his own role as a Church leader in hosting that. He told the synod fathers that they were there sub et cum Petro — with and under the pope — and explained that this was the guarantee of an authentic Church discernment. He’s convinced that this is how the Church develops. But in the meantime, as we saw in the synod, you have to endure great uncertainty and turmoil. Some people would much rather put everything back in the box, where it can be clearly labeled. At the synod they weren’t backward in coming forward with their criticism.

But I don’t think he’s too ruffled. He is a man deeply at peace, even when all around him are tearing their hair out, because he is convinced of the sovereignty of the Holy Spirit. His task is to unblock drains, build tunnels and bridges, and clear the runway; the Spirit will do the rest. I’ve become ever more convinced of this dimension of Francis, even more so since finishing the book; it’s implicit in almost every Bergoglio story in The Great Reformer, but if I were starting again, I would want to bring it out even more than I do.


LOPEZ: Why are God’s “surprises” so important to him?

IVEREIGH: Because if you are not disconcerted and surprised by God, then He is not in charge of your life. You’ve put someone or something else there. If your religion doesn’t allow room for God to act, it’s an ideology.


Lopez: Who are “God’s holy faithful people”? How are they key to The Great Reformer?

IVEREIGH: ​El santo pueblo fiel de Dios is an expression that Bergoglio started using in 1971, a couple of years before he was made provincial. It was for him the key to authentic Church reform — beginning with the Jesuits, who were at the time divided and internally conflicted over the post–Vatican II renewal, as well as politics. Vocations had dried up, and the province was hemorrhaging Jesuits. Bergoglio was suddenly and unexpectedly made provincial at a young age in order to deal with the crisis — which he did, very effectively: it was his first reform. He did so, in part, by persuading the Jesuits to identify with the values, traditions, and concerns of the mass of ordinary believers, the poor majority, rather than with elite schemes and ideologies. It was a radical “inculturation.” He later sought to persuade the Argentine government — with rather less success — to do the same; and he had the same message for the European Parliament in Strasbourg just recently. It is also his vision for the renewal of the Church — to focus on the ordinary people, not the princes. Look at how he is with crowds when he goes among them — he makes ordinary people the protagonists.

LOPEZ: You write about the continuity between Benedict and Francis. Surely this will sound contradictory to many picking up a book titled “The Great Reformer”?

IVEREIGH: It’s one of the book’s revelations: how Benedict XVI saw that the Latin American Church was emerging as the source for the universal Church and nurtured it. It’s a surprising and illuminating story. He took the decision to resign while in Latin America, looking ahead to World Youth Day in Rio, and knowing that very probably either Bergoglio or another Latin American cardinal would be elected. Benedict’s resignation was not the sudden act of an exhausted man, but the prophetic, prayerful decision of a pope who saw the future. I show in the book how close the relationship between Francis and Benedict was and remains. To pit Francis against Benedict, as some try to do, is a big mistake. They’re very different men, and very different popes, but there’s an essential continuity.

LOPEZ: And this idea of “reform rather than rupture, of reform not revolution” is part of Pope Francis’s life story?

IVEREIGH: Absolutely — it’s key. Bergoglio in Argentina and Ratzinger in Germany both become aware, in the 1970s, of a “false” renewal following the Second Vatican Council – one that, in the name of reform, seeks to conform the Church to modernity rather than modernize the Church in order to evangelize the world, as the council fathers intended. Bergoglio resisted the avant-garde progressives in his own order, seeing in their ideas the imposition of an elite ideology. That didn’t, however, make him a “conservative,” as some of his opponents in the Jesuits would later claim (a view presented uncritically in at least one of the early Francis biographies). His stance was basically that of Paul VI, who famously in 1974 warned the Jesuits against abandoning their roots.


LOPEZ: What is Pope Francis’s practical plan for getting us out of our “spiritual worldliness”?

IVEREIGH: Detachment from wealth, power, and pride, through dependence on Christ and the Holy Spirit; putting the Gospel before ideology, and God’s poor before the princes. And transforming the culture of the Church so it is geared to mission rather than maintenance. A big part of that is clearing the money-changers from the temple courtyard, clamping down on the countless ways in which we “trade” our faith or the Church for particular advantages. Francis sees spiritual worldliness as the worst of all temptations for the Church, because it is the most insidious and subtle. We appear to be promoting God’s interests, but in reality we’re promoting our own.


LOPEZ: What is the essential character of Francis’s reform? Do we even know?

IVEREIGH: Of course, there are reforms to structure and governance which were mandated by the cardinals in the pre-conclave meetings: to clean up finances, change the culture of the Vatican, and reorganize the curia to make it the servant of the bishops rather than their master. All these are key, because they’re about getting rid of the obstacles to evangelization. But more important is the introduction of collegiality — mechanisms of participation of the local Church in the universal Church that make it easier for the local Church to pastor. This was the major concern of the cardinals who sought his election in both 2005 and 2013. Finally, the purpose of Francis’s reform is to enable God’s mercy to flow more freely — for people to see the Church not just as teacher but as mother and healer. He wants to make it easier for people to be in relationship with God through the Church. All this is spelled out in Evangelii Gaudium, but The Great Reformer shows how this vision was born in him many years ago.


LOPEZ: What does the pope have against NGOs? He’s always saying the Church isn’t one.

IVEREIGH: One of the symptoms of spiritual worldliness is managerialism. There’s a kind of paradox here: Francis believes in good and effective governance and is always looking to bring in lay expert talent from the outside — which is what he did right at the start, when he gathered seven top businesspeople and basically asked them to plan a root-and-branch reform of Vatican finances. But he dislikes the way in which the Church sometimes tries to ape the technical language and methods of business and management, which alienates the Church from the values and language of the ordinary faithful. In a lot of the reporting of Francis’s reforms, there’s an assumption that he’s trying to fill up the pews, like a business trying to expand its customer base. But he doesn’t think like that. Like Benedict XVI, he thinks faithfulness is more important than numbers. If he wants to open the doors of the Church, it’s because he believes that evangelization is intrinsic to Christian life, without which we die; but it’s not a marketing strategy to increase clients and revenues.

LOPEZ: You describe Pope Francis as a natural writer. Is some of this lost on those of us reading him in English?

IVEREIGH: Sometime I’d like to write something on how poor translation bedevils Francis. Because he communicates directly, spontaneously, and colloquially, he is constantly misunderstood. Sometimes it’s because he’s translating from Argentine Spanish into his excellent but imperfect Italian. A recent example: In saluting a new theological commission, he said that the addition of women to the commission was “the strawberries on the cake.” Some women took offense: why is he calling us “strawberries”? But fresas en la torta would be more like “the icing on the cake”: in other words, not only are they great theologians, but the fact that they’re women as well is a particular reason to celebrate. There are so many examples of this it’s amazing. One I give in the book: In Rio de Janeiro in July 2013, he told Argentines he wanted them to hacer lío, which in Argentine political culture has a particular resonance: to create a bit of noise, stir things up. But one Church news agency translated it as “make a mess.” What on earth does that mean? Yet you see it now on T-shirts at Catholic youth rallies.


LOPEZ: You write that even as a young man “he loved to work, and his extraordinary capacity for it has impressed others throughout his life. As cardinal, he was evangelical about the vital importance of work for a person’s self-worth and dignity, and he was a determined opponent of the scourge of long-term unemployment.” What’s behind this conviction? He talks about it often.

IVEREIGH: Francis is the first pope born of recent migrants to the New World. That gives him a particular affinity with the core aspirations of those who leave one land for another, in search of work, as well as the with devastation of unemployment. His major critique of contemporary capitalism is the way that it appears to accept long-term joblessness as a necessary or inevitable part of a well-functioning market. For Francis, if the market generates large numbers of what he calls the leftover people, los sobrantes, then it’s not working properly. His criticism of market capitalism is not a criticism of the market but of a mentality that basically says we don’t need to be too concerned about poverty and inequality because eventually prosperity will trickle down. Francis says that’s just not true.


LOPEZ: Yet you argued recently in the British weekly Spectator that Francis is essentially a conservative.

IVEREIGH: He is, in the tradition of Edmund Burke and classical Peronism. He has spent a lifetime in opposition to the abstract ideologies of the French Revolution, detached from the soul and values of ordinary people. Back in the 1970s, he was constantly warning the Jesuits he was in charge of against what he called their besetting temptation of “avant-gardism” and “fascination for abstract ideologies that do not match our reality.” Later, as cardinal archbishop, he challenged the Kirchner administrations in Argentina for the same detachment — just as he did recently the European Parliament at Strasbourg.

He has, I think, a strongly conservative understanding of the importance of civil society and social institutions, and over current debates on marriage and sexuality it is very clear where he stands: for marriage based on what he calls the “anthropological reality” of a man plus a woman, that children have a right to a mother and a father, and so on. And you won’t find a more powerful opponent of abortion. It amazes me to find him portrayed by some media as a liberal, and amazes me even more to find Catholic conservatives buying into that, too. Francis can no more be pinned down in terms of left–right politics than can his predecessors, but in cultural and historical terms there is no doubt where he stands. I have a quote in The Great Reformer from 2009, when he said that a country “either preserves its foundational being or it dies.” A people has a soul, a set of values, and a government’s legitimacy derives from its rootedness in those values; that’s an essentially conservative view of politics, in opposition to an enlightened elite (of either left or right) using the state to act on society to modernize it.


LOPEZ: Did you ever figure out just what “had gone wrong between Bergoglio and the Jesuits”?

IVEREIGH: My book offers the first detailed account of what happened. It’s not a simple story, and I take most of chapter 5 to tell it. It is far more dramatic and uncomfortable than people have realized. His success as leader of the Jesuits turned round the province and brought in a whole new generation of Jesuits who found both him and his model of being a Jesuit deeply compelling. But it also threatened an older, more intellectual group of Jesuits who regarded the Bergoglio model as un-Jesuit and out of step with the Society of Jesus worldwide (which in many ways it was). They persuaded the superior general in Rome to intervene and displace Bergoglio and the other leaders in the province. That in turn led to a number of years of tension and ferment in the province, culminating in Bergoglio’s internal exile and his closest followers’ being sent abroad. Then Bergoglio was made a bishop and he cut his ties to the Jesuits for the next 20 years. After he was elected pope, there was a great rapprochement. The Jesuits are now delighted with him, but so great was the black legend about Bergoglio in the Society of Jesus that a collective groan went up from Jesuit houses across the world when he was elected. In the book I trace the origins of that black legend.


LOPEZ: He will visit the United States for the first time next fall. What might we expect? What is it he’s never been here before?

IVEREIGH: It’s doubly interesting because I think the U.S. Church is still unsure about him — including many bishops. Many worry that Francis looks at the U.S. through a Latin American lens of suspicion. If it goes well, the visit will break a lot of ice. He’s scheduled for a two-day visit in Philadelphia at the conclusion of the World Meeting of Families but is very likely also to address the U.N. in New York and Congress in Washington, D.C. Both will be moments for promoting his “culture of encounter” — a set of principles of coexistence in a pluralist society — and for revitalizing politics and public life. It’ll be fascinating. He has said he’s also planning to go to three Latin American countries in 2015 — presumably in November, after the synod in October. I’m guessing Mexico, Cuba – and El Salvador, to beatify Oscar Romero.


LOPEZ: You describe in the book how Bergoglio was in Cuba in 1998 as part of the Latin American delegation for John Paul II’s famous visit. How do you think that helped shape the news of recent days?

IVEREIGH: I couldn’t get at any stories about his visit, but he left a valuable legacy in the form of a little-known book, Dialogues between John Paul II and Fidel Castro. Since the news about the restoration of relations, and about the revelation of his role, I’ve been going back to it. It shows a deep and sophisticated grasp of all the big issues Cuba faced, and the distinctive contribution the Church was making to resolving them. It shows, if nothing else, that he has been deeply involved in those issues for many years. And he is close to Cardinal Jaime Ortega of Havana, who was another key player in the rapprochement. You see in Dialogues the view of the then-archbishop that neither communism nor “liberal capitalism,” as he calls it, speaks to the soul of the Cuban people; and that the ideological confrontation between the Communist regime and its enemies in the U.S. has led to a paralysis — typified by a punitive embargo which has fed the Communist narrative of a nation under siege — from which the ordinary Cuban has suffered enormously. From that book it’s easy to see why ending that impasse would be a major priority of his after becoming pope.


LOPEZ: In a sound bite or tweet, where is Pope Francis taking the Church?

IVEREIGH: To become more pastoral, missionary, and evangelizing; to be of and for the poor, and to reconnect the center with the periphery, from where holy change comes.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Onlineand founding director of Catholic Voices USA.


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