The Corner

Reframing Pope Francis as the Gospel Radical He Is

Today is the day that my friend Austen Ivereigh’s book, The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope is released in the United States. It’s a good read, providing a better understanding of this man from Argentina, Jose Mario Bergoglio, the first pope from the Americas, who would take the name Francis (which while welcome was really quite radical in itself).

Austen is clearly fond of Bergoglio and sees him as a great gift and opportunity. But not because he is a radical rupture with the past. The Great Reformer overflows with a love for the Church and the pope emeritus (reflecting Pope Francis’s own attitude of gratitude toward him and his spiritual and intellectual gifts and humble leadership), a knowledge of humanity and power and politics, as well as a trust in the Holy Spirit.

I’ll have longer reflection on the book and a Q&A with the author to come, but I wanted to mark this day at least quasi-properly — though living in London, its author may be sensibly turned in for the day by now. The book reflects tremendous research and knowledge of Argentina (where he long ago reported on), of the Jesuits – and Austen’s a great writer. At times the book reads like a novel, but not in a reckless or over-the-top way. The drama of life is dynamic enough! The Great Reformer is a rooted, lively, insightful read.

As Austen explains his “curiosity” about Francis, who he almost immediately found fascinating – as so many did and have – in the intro to his book:

What I really wanted to know was who he was, how he thought, how being a Jesuit shaped him, where he stood among all those controversies I had studied so long ago. In those first hundred days of the electrifying Francis pontificate, he had taken the Vatican, and the world, by storm – flipping the omelet, as he liked to say. People were trying to fit him into straitjackets that just didn’t apply in Latin America, and even less in Argentina, where Peronism exploded the categories of left and right. The misreading had given rise to contradictory claims: A slum bishop who was cozy with the military dictatorship? A retrograde Jesuit who became a progressive bishop? Some tried to claim he was both, and “converted” during his Cordoba exile in the early 1990s. Those in Argentina who knew him well said this just wasn’t true. …

There have been many good book about Francis and, especially, translating his own words from his time as cardinal (one of my favorites is On Heaven and Earth). This is a first real comprehensive look, in depth and with some time as pontiff under his belt. 

As Austen describes it, The Great Reformer is

chronological but not rigorously so: it zooms in on stories that bring our subject into focus and then pans back to take in the land and history that shaped him. In the early chapters, where I have called him “Jorge” until he was ordained, there are excursions into the divisions and tensions and in Argentine political and church history that are essential to understanding his vision. The Jesuit story, worldwide, and in Argentina, past and present, figures strongly: both Saint Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises, which have so deeply formed Bergoglio’s thinking, spirituality, and leadership, and the struggles within the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) over its renewal after the Second Vatican Council, play a major role in the first half of the book. Throughout, The Great Reformer takes seriously Bergogolio’s Jesuit spirituality of discernment as the key to his decision-making. He made judgments not just on the basis of information and interests, but where he saw God’s will, and its opponent: the temptation of the “bad spirit.”

This would certainly explain why, while it typically doesn’t make world headlines, Pope Francis repeatedly talks about the Devil (#DamnedDevil to you on Twitter) as he models how Christians can sort our way back to the life of the Gospel in Christ.

The Great Reformer is a great portrait of a free man. And by a man who I have known to want to follow the Spirit in opening hearts to the loving mercy of God at a time of great challenge, after decades of hurt, confusion, and conflict. In this way, too, he knows his subject well.

(Austen is a founder of Catholic Voices, an effort I am involved with here in the U.S. We talked a bit about that and his previous book, for Our Sunday Visitor, How to Defend the Faith without Raising Your Voice — which might come in handy for a Thanksgiving table or Christmas party! — in 2012 here. )

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