The Great Reformer: Pope Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope. Austin Ivereigh. Henry Holt publishers. 2014. 445 pp.
In every papacy, a man and an office meet in the cultural environments shaped by the interplay of Church and nations in that era of human history. Great papal narratives set man and office in their moment of history. George Weigel’s Witness to Hope situated the philosophically personalist Pope John Paul II on the bi-polar historical world stage where the Polish world actor took the side of Church, nation, and man against the depersonalized tyranny of Communist atheism. Vittorio Messori’s Ratzinger Report pitted an intellectually and liturgically formed scholar cardinal, in the conversational tone of biblical personalism, against the turbulent confusion following the holy ferment of Vatican II.
Austen Ivereigh’s The Great Reformer is the story of a man called from a nation at “the ends of the earth” to put on the shoes of the fisherman and lead the Church out into the periphery where she might be mother as well as teacher in showing the mercy of God to the sobrantes (the left-over people) at the margins. Mr. Ivereigh wrote his Oxford thesis on the "Church and Politics in Argentina" and his account is rich in history—of Argentina, of the Latin American Church after Vatican II, and of the Jesuits after the Council.
But he discovers an even more radical historical formulation presented by the distinctively Latin American Church. The Church is being drawn from a decaying monarchical form to bypass the modernism of libertine atheism (the decayed form of the Enlightenment) and return to the collegial fraternity of apostles. Only this true fruit of the worldwide Second Vatican Council can counter the delusion of self-reliance afflicting modern man and the spiritual worldiness weighing down the self-referential Curia and careerist clergy.
Moving the encounter of the Church and the world to the margins seemed for many faithful Catholics an abandonment of the intellectual battle lines they had so carefully constructed and suffered for in conscious allegiance to the popes before Francis. And just when many Catholic businessmen and economists rejoiced that free markets as creators of wealth were finally being recognized by chastened Communists and modern pontiffs, the new pope predicted only ruin if we trust the organization of society to “the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation.” They condescended, “What could one expect from a son of Latin America and a grandson of old Europe? What could he know of the Oikos nomos -- the economy -- the ordering of the household? A Jesuit from Latin America stuck in the quasi-Marxism of liberation theology -- didn’t this movie come and go two decades ago?”
But as they looked across the old ideological lines expecting to find a pope against them instead of their ally, he was nowhere to be found. This, too, was not his hill for battle. Communism and Capitalism tug at one another and the rope is knotted. Abortion and Homosexuality are obsessions of their advocates; and those who speak too often in opposition find themselves talking about evils which most of humanity shuns by not mentioning the taboo. The sacrament of humanity -- the Church -- cannot define herself by obsessions or opposition to obsessions.
In rhetoric the locus of an argument is called the line of stasis. The contested issues of the European Church and the international demarcations of the bipolar Cold War are being left behind for a new line of stasis pitting the Spirit of Mercy against the Evil One. The pope is wildly popular, said a bishop, because he seems new by reminding people of someone they heard about long ago. He, too, was cheered and greeted with psalms and hosannas.
The first pope from the New World is returning to be bishop of the capital of his grandfather’s country and his father’s birthplace. Rome cannot consider him a stranger. His papacy, as well, is not so confusing nor is he “running from the issues.” He seeks, with both John Paul II and Benedict XVI, a return to a deeper encounter between man and God. He arranges that encounter not with the huge crowd or in intellectual disputations. His strategies are different from the popes before him, but he is a loyal son of the Church as surely as he is a grandson of Rome.
G.K. Chesterton said that what St. Benedict had stored in barns like grain, St. Francis spread in the world like seed. Mr. Ivereigh contends that the same relationship holds today, though the critics most hampering the pope within the Church today are Benedict XVI devotees who mask their opposition to him in their pained confusions and half-hearted loyalty pledges. The fifth chapter of the book, "The Leader Expelled (1980-82)," is about the rejection of Bergoglio by the progressive Jesuit intellectuals who then ruled the Order. Today it is not progressives but the “orthodox” who are disappointed in his ways. He has always been opposed by intellectuals.
All true reform, says Ivereigh quoting Congar and channeling Chesterton, is the return to some original form. Pope Francis is a Jesuit—his spiritual life is shaped by the exercises of Saint Ignatius. Each of his days is marked by the Office, the Rosary, the Mass, and Eucharistic Adoration. He is a big heart open to God but also a discerning soul allowing situations to mature before acting. Is this action an act of compassion and good, or is the Evil One posing as a spirit of light?
The Ignatian Pope asks these kinds of questions. Discerning spirits -- a continual awareness of the reality and machinations of Satan, while resting in the mercy of God is the best description of his approach to governance. He has certainly known the definitive call of the Holy Spirit. He was called to the priesthood as definitively “as being knocked from a horse” after confession when he was sixteen. And like Peter at the home of Cornelius, he has recognized the Holy Spirit in those not of the fold in his remarkable ecumenism of prayer with Evangelicals in Argentina.
Francis is much more a man of prayer than a theologian (but let us not dimiss the theology of the knees). Like the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius he starts from the mercy of God, but then discerns the spirits. Before he will organize us around the “issues” he will ask us to reflect by “keeping silence, praying and humbling ourselves” as he wrote in Silencio y Palabra (Silence and Word). He especially understands the scourge of our day in which evil presents itself as good or “the bad spirit comes in the guise of an angel.” This kind of deceit and temptation appears sub angelo lucis. The way to deal with such Spirit is not to fight it head on, because only God can defeat such a Power. He tells us, "Be gentle! The evil ones will take that for weakness... The devil emboldened will show himself and his true intentions, no longer disguised as an angel of light but boldly and shamelessly.”
Did this not happen at the extraordinary synod in October 2014 when the pope was much criticized by conservatives for not “speaking up” against falsehoods? He only spoke at the end reminding the free-speaking bishops they were both with Peter and under him. His disciplined silence allowed over the next few months that several prominent episcopal “angels of compassion and light “ were exposed by their own deeds and words to be thieves, liars, and racists. Francis brings the church back to the original underlying conflict with our original foe -- the father of lies, a murderer from the beginning, and he does it as a Jesuit conforming to the original spirituality of that warrior mystic Saint Ignatius.
When the bishops of Latin America returned from the Vatican Council they were struck by its message about bishops and collegiality and the people of God. They were also struck by how the bishops of the continent with the most Catholics played such a small role in the give-and-take of that great spiritual event. Over the years, the Latin American bishops would form not a national conference but a continental conference: CELAM. Its first conference was in Rio de Janeiro in 1955, but after Vatican II it progressively developed a theology of "Church and the people" from Medellin (Columbia 1968) to Puebla (Mexico 1979) to Aparecida (Brazil 2007).
This experience of collegially developing a theology of liberation and communio rooted in a matured understanding of God’s holy faithful people is a central experience in the life of Bergoglio. He understands himself as a brother priest and a brother bishop. Fraternity and collegiality, governing and learning through synods in which there is real dialogue and disagreement is central to this new Peter whose favorite papal title is Bishop of Rome.
It is this trait, above all, which will allow him to do what his predecessors did poorly -- to govern, to rule. (A fascinating section of the book outlines meetings of bishops at St. Gallen in Switzerland, concerned that the local church/central church dynamic had gone too far central. While the theological concerns of prelates Martini, Kasper, Lehman, and Danneels were very different than those of the Latin American bishops, this was the common ground where they met the Argentine bishop who carried the concerns of the southern Church.)
The bishop of the poor will not leave the organization of governance to inertia. He knows how old he is and he knows the rot he has been called to expunge. Like Moses on the advice of his father-in-law, Pope Francis immediately appointed men to help him govern. Some of those men are not as pure as the pope. He, too, will have his Judas priests. Let us see who is washed out and who stays to govern.
Mr. Ivereigh has said that if Pope John Paul II was a prophet and Pope Benedict a priest, then Francis will be king; he will rule. His ability to govern was well known among many, if not all, of his elector cardinals. Pope Francis has lived in patriarchal fraternity with the Jesuits. He experienced and shaped the most dynamic international bishops’ conference in the universal Church. He will govern as Peter, not Louis XVI.
He will also talk more like Peter than a professor. That is not to disparage the professor popes which the Church needs at different times, especially in eras marked by confusion of doctrine. Peter was a net fisherman. The men of Galilee did not fish singly with a pole and a hook and a worm. They worked together on a large net in a rough sea, and when push came to shove they knew they were a body; and they had a leader who would assess the situation and make the decision needed in times of crisis. Francis returns the Church to its original communio of governance that Christ ordained: the patriarchal fraternity of the Apostles under Peter.
Francis will not consider it clericalism to govern, pray, or relax in communio with his brother priests. He does not think masculine fraternity is a dirty word and he considers the art of politics to be the forging of bonds, not the slaking of ambition. He is a man who can lead while he shares a net with other fishermen. Like John Paul II -- and unlike Benedict and most popes of the last century -- he is a nation-man. He shares a communal masculine identity with countrymen tied to a particular soil. Unlike most Europeans and North Americans he has no feminist implant rewiring his brain to apologize for this fraternal aspect of his nature and the nature of political life.
He may be a Porteño—a man of the port city of his upbringing - but he was a 'Gaucho Cardinal' [see chapter seven, covering the years 2001-2007]. He identifies not with the Enlightenment liberals who ruled his county’s trade and commerce from the port cities, but with the great cowboy leaders who led bands of free men in the countryside. The gauchos are what Robin Hood and his band of merry men are to Englishmen, what Armenius and his warrior Bund mean to Germans, and what Wilhelm Tell and his confederates are to the Swiss. Those bands of men under a democratic but forceful leader are immortalized in the Argentine epic poem "El Gaucho Martin Fierro" (1872). In their story, which Bergoglio could recite copiously, is the soul of the nation. It is why the early aspirations of Juan Peron (1895-1974) will always embody the soul of Argentine more than the necessary military junta of 1976 or the understandable armed insurrection of the Montonero guerrilla movement.
Francis has a spiritual communal sense of Trinity and the Body of Christ and humanity. It overflows in the words of his fellow bishops from Aparecida. He accepts the formulation of Alberto Ferre of Uruguay that Latin America is a continental Christian patria with a concert of nations rising from this God-soaked soil. Francis is man of soul and communio. He will never prefer the European Enlightenment and its superstate enforcing libertine atheism over a Catholic nation protected by men sharing the work and protective duties of fatherhood and fraternal citizenship. Pope Francis is not a pacifist.
He thinks that Europe without Christ is a barren grandmother. The Catholic Americas he sees will be a concert of nations and nations governed by agreement as well as force. He has a high concept of politics and expects that protective personalities are shaped by religion and then act in civic leadership. He knows Latin American nations have passed the era of the Marxist Castro and Chavez. He knows his nation and continent are aping the North while passing though the era of libertine atheists led by feminist Lady Presidents: Michelle Bachelet of Chile, Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, and Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner of Argentina. He meets the nation-men around the world and awaits his own continent to shape a Republican Christian, if not a Martin Fierro then a nation-man like Juan Peron.
There are three keys to the papacy of Francis, says Mr. Ivereigh:
1) Evangelize through mercy; this era of human history is the kairos of mercy. If John Paul declared a feast day after Easter for the Divine Mercy, Pope Francis will ground his whole pontificate in that truth.
2) Learn and hear the infallibility of God’s holy faithful people (santo pueblo fiel de Dios). This is not Marx’s proletariat. It is not a council of laity who wish to pass resolutions and to project their voices. This is the people at prayer and pilgrimage. They are not shouting at the government or the clergy; they are praising God and bringing Him their concerns. Just as often, they are raising their hearts of love and petition to His mother.
Ecclesial men and civic men must accompany them in prayer and then ensure that nation and Church act in accordance with the needs expressed in prayer. When the people recite the creed during the Mass, God’s holy and faithful people are speaking without error. When old women in the U.S. kept the fires burning for Eucharistic adoration when seminaries were getting beyond "wafer worship," it was the faithful women who were without error. The beautiful CELAM bishops' document from Aparecida in 2007 was deliberately drafted within touching distance of pilgrims praying near the clay statue of Our Lady of Aparecida. It was not so the pilgrims could see the bishops, but so the bishops could hear the people. If such a practice frees the whole Church to come before God in prayer, we might even call this matured sensibility "liberation theology."
3) Institutional reform will come by restoring the Church’s mission to the poor and faithful who can carry forth a more universal deepening of holiness in both diocese and parish. To enable that return to the first mission, a reformer must assemble real synods of governance and dismantle structures and depose careerists who are impediments to the reform.
A set of four governing Christian principles provide practical guidance to true reform which is never to be mistaken for the false reform of adopting the regnant ideology of a given era:
Unity comes before conflict; the whole comes before the part; reality comes before the idea; and time comes before space.
The pope's favorite image of Mary is not from Guadalupe. He met her in Germany—Mary, the Untier of Knots. He had seen his Jesuit brotherhood torn asunder and men pulling against each other with a rope of liberation and a rope of order as the knot grew more tight. He saw his beloved country torn apart between an oligarchy of super-rich and an ideology of liberating violence answered by a response of order, turned into an even more brutal violence of hidden torture and murder.
Each kept pulling and killing and the knot grew more tight. He sees the tired but rich German Church of Walter Kasper, and the living word made a dying letter by the American Raymond Burke. He sees the envy of Marxism and the greed of Adam Smith. He is too much a man of Trinity, Church, and nation to reduce ecclesial or civic life to such options. He knows for sure that most knots are not undone by pulling. Start with God’s mercy, often be silent, pick where you will contest, act boldly. The Great Reformer is a poetic, historical, spiritual masterpiece about Francis and the "Making of a Radical Pope."
David Pence MD is the author of Religion, Sex, and Politics. He blogs at DoctorPence.