Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Great Reformer: Francis and the making of a radical Pope, by Austen Ivereigh

Photo courtesy of Austen Ivereigh

Photo courtesy of Austen Ivereigh

The Great Reformer is a substantial book. 480 pages in the new UK paperback edition, including notes, acknowledgements and a thorough overview of the sources, this biography of Jorge Mario Bergoglio—now Pope Francis—combines a properly rigorous analytical basis with a lively, readable narrative. It is also one of the very few mass-market biographies that don’t give me the uncomfortable feeling that the author is trying to crawl inside the subject’s head and assert a personal claim to its contents. (Paul Vallely’s Pope Francis: Untying the Knots was another enjoyable exception. Maybe Francis biographies are just my thing? I’ll report back when I’ve finished reading Jimmy Burns and Elisabetta Piqué.)

Like Deutscher’s Trotsky (but with footnotes), The Great Reformer is a partisan biography in the best way. As a Latin-Americanist, scholar and journalist, Austen Ivereigh knows Argentina; more to the point, he knows Bergoglio’s Argentina. As a theologically articulate Catholic and former Jesuit novice, he understands Ignatian spirituality and the institutional life of the Argentine Society of Jesus, in which Bergoglio was a divisive reforming figure. What Bergoglio has read, he has read; he understands his subject’s views and assumptions, and often shares them, too. Whether the reader shares these assumptions—about marriage, about Marxism, even about God—is neither here nor there. The point is that this kind of biography is the closest thing currently available to an authentically Bergoglian experience short of being Jorge Mario Bergoglio.

A great deal has happened in Francis’ seventy-eight years on earth, more than I can possibly begin to address here. Some of it, like his record during the Dirty War, may never be fully elucidated—although it’s now clear, from this and other accounts, that the negative coverage that arose around the time of his election as Pope has little basis in fact. But one especially interesting difference between this biography and others, and indeed stories about Francis in general, is that it bypasses the idea that the difference between the apparently conservative, sombre, uncommunicative Jorge Mario Bergoglio—the dark horse of the papal conclave, unknown to the global majority of his flock and frankly disliked by a vocal faction among the rest—and the huggy, outspoken, radical Pope Francis lies in some kind of transformative moment: a conversion on the road to Rome. It’s a believable story, an appealing story, but for Austen Ivereigh it doesn’t hold water. I spoke to him recently, and here’s what he had to say about the essential nature of Francis:

Some of his biographers talk about a conversion in Jorge Bergoglio, in the early 1990s, when he was banished to Córdoba. Obviously I accept that he changes—Bergoglio develops over time in sometimes extraordinary ways—but to me they’re all outgrowths or developments of the same person; I see an essential continuity between the Jesuit Bergoglio, the cardinal Bergoglio and the Pope Francis of now in terms of his essential outlook and views and priorities. So I don’t believe he’s converted from being right-wing to left-wing; I don’t believe he’s gone from being a reactionary to a progressive; I don’t believe he’s gone from not caring about social justice to caring about social justice. If you read the Jesuit Bergoglio’s writings over twenty years, you will instantly recognise Pope Francis; what is amazing is how fixed, in a sense, is his vision in his thirties, and how consistent it remains.

The one area where there has been a significant change in him is in his style of governance; he came to see that his highly charismatic, personal leadership of the Jesuits ending up giving glory to him rather than God, and divided the province. As bishop, his leadership became far more patient and listening. But for the rest, I see that at each different stage of his life, he has discerned the appropriate way of being for that role, and I think he’s been given the spiritual gifts to achieve it. And so, yes, he acts differently as cardinal from Jesuit provincial, and differently again now he is pope, because the role in each case demands different things. He is the same man, but he looks different because the role is different and he has responded to the role in a totally complete focused way. The mission shapes him. This is very Ignatian. Jesuits are different people when they go from being the university professor to being the missionary in the jungle—they’re going to look different, they’re going to speak different, they’re going to act different, they’re going to seem very different to you. It’s the same person, but they’ve become the person that God needs in those circumstances.

Jimmy Burns in his new biography talks about Bergoglio becoming archbishop, and for the first time, critiquing socio-economic structures. He tells it as if Bergoglio has undergone some kind of awakening, as if he didn’t care about these things before. But I think it’s more accurate to say he didn’t pronounce on those matters when he was provincial and later auxiliary bishop, because those roles do not come with a public platform, and because he would never want to eclipse the role of the metropolitan archbishops to speak about these things. Bergoglio is naturally reticent, naturally silent. But once he is is archbishop of Buenos Aires, he begins to speak out boldly, because that is what the new mission demands of him. And now, as pope, it’s hard to stop him!

KJM: It’s interesting, because—on a great sliding scale from benign misunderstanding to outright prejudice—perhaps a misunderstanding of this from the outside is what’s informed the anti-Jesuit trope of the “jesuitical”, flexibly-minded priest.

Yes. Totally. The term “jesuitical”, in fact, precisely comes from the suspicion that Jesuits are all things to all people: that they’re chameleon-like, that they have no principles, and because of that they are ultimately flexible. And there’s a truth to that. Obviously they’re not unprincipled, but arguably their only principle ultimately is to empty themselves for the sake of the Gospel; all things are relative to that. Can’t the same be said of Christ? When you contemplate Christ in the Spiritual Exercises he will appear to be lots of very different things, even within the same week of meditations, because what matters is the mission.

Writing a biography of a living figure (especially such an opinionated one as Jorge Mario Bergoglio) is a difficult undertaking. Whatever the pope says or does inevitably has a profound effect that extends far beyond the walls of the Catholic church. Feelings run high, reactions are visceral, anecdote spreads faster and further than data…and data can be very hard to come by. But the great strength of Ivereigh’s book is precisely this ability to look past the external change, however dramatic it may seem, and see something of the dynamics at work beneath. It’s very Jesuit. And I have a feeling that, whatever may happen in the Francis papacy and whatever new evidence may come to light, Ivereigh’s approach is going to stand the test of time.

Austen Ivereigh presents Pope Francis with a copy of The Great Reformer. Photo © Osservatore Romano

Austen Ivereigh presents Pope Francis with a copy of The Great Reformer. Photo © Osservatore Romano

The new, paperback edition is available in the US from 25 August (Picador) and in the UK from 3 September (Atlantic Books). To read Austen Ivereigh’s account of his experiences as a Jesuit novice, and the events that led to the writing of the book, read my interview with him on Project SJ here.

3 comments on “The Great Reformer: Francis and the making of a radical Pope, by Austen Ivereigh

  1. Pingback: Interesting times: an interview with Austen Ivereigh | Project SJ

  2. Kate
    August 25, 2015

    Cracking good review. Definitely an encouragement to read a biography if the biographer can be trusted at every level, as you suggest here.

  3. Jackie
    August 26, 2015

    This makes me eager to read the book, which sounds like a true biography, rather than one hastily cobbled together to cash in on the subject’s popularity. I like the idea of different facets of someone’s personality showing in different circumstances, yet their moral beliefs remain. Would that not be one definition of maturity?
    The author must have been thrilled to present his book to Pope Francis,a thrilling yet humbling experience.

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