Conrad O’Riley enjoys an authoritative biography of Pope Francis


Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope

Austen Ivereigh

Allen & Unwin, 464pp, hbk

978 1760113285, £20

On 27 June 1992, twenty-one bishops were consecrated in Buenos Aires Cathedral. One among them stood out. A priest who was present noticed that after the ordination, a ‘large number of very poor people … went to greet him – they were all people from the margins. At which I thought: aha. There’s something going on here I need to find out about’.

The bishop was Jorge Bergoglio, the former Provincial of the Jesuits in Argentina (in which role he was far from universally popular), and the man who would go on to become Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires and then Pope Francis. The fact that he was thronged by the poor and the outcast was typical of a priest who has defined his entire ministry by an ‘option for the poor’, and who famously called for shepherds who smell of the sheep.

Pope Francis is often presented as an enigma cloaked in a mystery. The great achievement of Austen Ivereigh’s biography (the first full-length English biography of the current Pope) is that he shows this to be untrue. Bergoglio is a product of his time, place and experience, just as we all are. His life story is well told here, in direct and readable prose. Ivereigh is an excellent scene-setter, which is particularly valuable in a biography of a man from a society and culture whose history and customs may well be unfamiliar to western European readers. From the style and substance of Peronist Argentina to the foundation of the Jesuits by St Ignatius, Ivereigh is a reliable and entertaining guide to the influences on Bergoglio.

However, in addition to showing how Pope Francis was shaped and moulded by events, Ivereigh also demonstrates that there were certain key factors in his work and thinking which have remained remarkably consistent. Foremost among them, as the book’s title suggests, has been Bergoglio’s longing for the reform and revitalization of institutions which have become tired, unfit for purpose, and in some cases even corrupt. Part of the reason that Bergoglio has frequently been misunderstood is that he is not primarily liberal or conservative, left wing or right wing. He is instead a radical, and as the real meaning of the word implies, he seeks to go back to the roots, to first principles, in order to create genuine and authentic reform. As Francis himself has said, true Church reform is ‘born from within the entrails of the Church itself, and not from outside’. Thus, Marxist ideology has no more place in the life of the Church than does right-wing nationalism, and at different times Bergoglio’s rejection of these alternatives has earned him criticism from a number of quarters. Instead, Ivereigh finds Bergoglio’s authentic voice elsewhere: he is ‘a Gospel radical with a pastoral strategy that prioritized the poor’.

From the beginning of the book, Ivereigh identifies three great reforms which have lain at the centre of Bergoglio’s life: reform of the Argentine Jesuits, reform of the Argentine Church, reform of the Universal Church. Bergoglio’s canvas has been enlarged as his sphere of influence has increased through the years, but the picture he wants to paint has remained the same. His palate is dominated by several key themes which have remained constant throughout his ministry: the option for the poor, the insistence that the Church must always look beyond itself to the peripheries (when we hear Jesus knocking at the door, is he asking to come in – or begging to be let out of confinement?), and the fundamental importance of mercy (God never tires of forgiving, but we tire of seeking forgiveness). These are the core ideas around which Francis has built successive platforms for reform.

Mercy lies at the centre of much of Pope Francis’ thought. It stems from ‘his discernment that a world being transformed by technology and wealth is prone, above all, to the illusion that human beings, not God, are sovereign. Mercy is the great antidote to progressive optimism as well as conservative pessimism, for it grounds its hope in God’s forgiveness of our sins, rather than our belief in our own resources’. He uses mercy as a verb, urging his listeners to ‘allow yourself to be mercy’d’ by God. But we are also called to show mercy to others, by ‘improving your view of the other by putting yourself in their shoes’.

Central to the institutional side of Francis’s desire for reform of the Church is the concept of collegiality. Francis believes that the South American Church is rapidly becoming the ‘source Church’ for the world, the place from which the rest of the Church – Europe and North America in particular – might draw inspiration and strength. This process must be encouraged in part by strong national and regional Bishops’ Councils, respected in their own right and not merely branch offices of the Vatican Curia. It was hugely significant that Francis spoke on the night of his election in the ancient formula which describes the Roman Church, which ‘presides in charity over all the Churches’. It remains to be seen what the full impact of this will be, both for the Roman Catholic Church across the world and for its ecumenical relationships.

Francis remains far from universally popular within his own Church, yet he has captured the imagination of the world. This book helps to explain why that is so. Why is Francis such an iconic spiritual leader to so many? Because he has consistently remained true to himself, Ivereigh concludes, and because he has ‘the political genius of a charismatic leader and the prophetic holiness of a desert saint’. ND