Making Sense of Pope Francis

Austen Ivereigh’s The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope offers many insights into Francis, but does have a serious weakness

“Who can figure this pope out?” was the question raised by friends at a recent lunch. The nine of us spent a lot of time voicing fear, concern, confusion, and speculating about what he is up to. (And as mothers to a collective 62 children, we had to discuss the pope’s “rabbit” quote.) A quick look around the blogosphere makes it clear we are not the only ones having this discussion.

Pope Francis is quite a mystery. After the long pontificate of John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI was a familiar successor. We knew who he was—or at least a little bit, if not his whole life story. And though Benedict brought his own ideas to the papacy, widespread confusion about the future of the Church didn’t set in.

When the former Cardinal Bergoglio stepped out to face the world as Pope Francis, he was a complete unknown. It took the news service I was watching several minutes to announce who the new pope was even after his name had been announced from the loggia. Resources are slim when trying to get a clear picture of this man who became pope.

British journalist Austen Ivereigh has done a great service in writing The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope, (Henry Holt, 2014). Ivereigh unfolds the life of Pope Francis, revealing how his life in Argentina has prepared him, in much the same way Karol Wojtyla was prepared by Krakow, to be the leader of the Church for our times.

Major themes

The book brings to light several major themes in the life of Jorge Bergoglio that are crucial to understanding this pope and his papacy.

He is a son of Ignatius: Ivereigh makes clear that Bergoglio, through and through, is a Jesuit with the heart of St. Ignatius. His seminary formation, which took place before the chaos of Vatican II, instilled in him the deep treasury of Ignatian prayer and the discernment of spirits, which he has used as a guide throughout his life. Even today, the Argentine pope gets up at 4:00 am to pray and prepare for the day.

After Vatican II, the Jesuit Order in Argentina attempted to scuttle much of its theological traditions and practices (along with many other segments of the Church). Bergoglio, as provincial (who faced the added drama of Liberation Theology that affected so much of South and Central America), was able to hold onto many of the Society of Jesus’s treasures, ensuring that the province not only remained intact theologically, despite a percentage of Jesuits who disagreed with him among the ranks, but flourished under his leadership.

One Argentine leader speaking of Bergoglio, quoted in The Great Reformer, said: “Bergoglio was completely different from the Third World priests. … While they went into politics to make up for what was lacking in their faith, he stayed close to his faith and from there sought to enrich politics. He said what mattered was not ideology but witness.” (105)

Bergoglio expanded the Jesuits’ ministry to the poor, while also increasing the number of seminarians and priests who entered the society. Meanwhile, other provinces that abandoned the older traditions and teachings of St. Ignatius saw their ministries and numbers decimated.

Francis has the heart of Saint Francis: The second important perspective that Ivereigh offers to his reader is how this Jesuit is also very Franciscan. Much of Bergoglio’s ministry has focused upon the needs of the poor and living a very humble life himself. During Argentina’s economic crises, he found creative and effective ways to help those in need, including large numbers of the middle class who were left destitute. When rector of a Jesuit college, Bergoglio had the property’s fifty acres planted with crops and livestock brought in to help support local hungry families. He could be found along with the seminarians tending the fields and the livestock—even the pigsty. Later, when Argentina faced yet another economic crash, Bergoglio as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, was able to provide an infrastructure to quickly meet the needs of the people through the parish programs he had set in place before the crisis occurred.

Part of his zeal for the poor came when a mother asked for food and blankets for her children late one night. He told her to come back the next day, but she insisted, “My children are hungry and cold tonight!” He realized then that the needs of the poor can’t be put off until a more convenient time of day, but must be met with urgency.

Humility and poverty punctuated even his life as archbishop. Bergoglio had the previous archbishop’s vestments cut down to his size rather than order new ones and instead of moving into the elegant archbishop’s residence, transformed a few offices at the chancery into his living quarters. He also opted to fly coach and take public transportation instead of traveling in luxury.

Ivereigh makes clear that Cardinal Bergoglio was not interested in engaging the media or hobnobbing with the rich and famous—or even the Roman curia. He was a simple prelate who much preferred time among the poorest of the poor. As when elected pope, most of the time when he received accolades or promotions, no one knew who he was because of his own reserve and focus upon the poor.

Argentine politics made him politically astute: Argentina’s tumultuous political scene provided Bergoglio the skills to see beyond popular slogans, slick politicians, and greased palms. His true mettle  was tested during Argentina’s seven year “Dirty War,” where the government sought out political dissidents, mainly communist guerrillas, torturing and eventually killing them. Both dissident and innocent people were arrested, never to be seen again, including priests. Bergoglio created an elaborate network to help those sought by the government to escape via Brazil to Europe. His silence and political prudence saved many lives, a story that has also been told by Nello Scavo in Bergoglio’s List:How a Young Francis Defied a Dictatorship and Saved Dozens of Lives. (See K.V. Turley’s CWR review, “Bergoglio’s List: An Unexpected Discovery”.)

Despite serious disagreements with those who supported communist theologies, Bergoglio worked tirelessly to protect his priests. Though two were arrested (because, as Ivereigh makes clear, of their own poor judgment) no Jesuits were killed during the Dirty War years.

The war, as well as the decades of political tumult before and after, not only provided Bergoglio with political and practical skills but the wisdom to navigate the political maze of whom to trust by turning his attention the humble faithful, whom he calls the pueblo fiel. The witness of those who most need to rely upon the power of Providence helped him to see who was really wearing the white hats in such a knotted political mess. Bergoglio saw them (and still sees them) as both the antidote and vaccine against ideologies.


His papal agenda is a fruit of his struggles in Argentina: Unwittingly, Francis’s papal agenda has been marinating for decades in his native Argentina. Because of both the political and theological chaos, the country presented a smaller model of the global scale he now encounters. Corruption, poverty, and moral decadence, Ivereigh explains, have created a world that Pope Francis sees as a field hospital where basic needs must be met simply for survival. Evangelization, Pope Francis signaled through his first encyclical, is an important part of meeting these basic needs—one that is “artisanal not industrial,” person-centered and not one-size fits all. “This was his vision,” says Ivereigh, “a Church shaped by the periphery, which puts the poor first, that was ambulant, materially simple, boundary-leaping, and lived from the sweet joy of evangelization.” (86)

A serious weakness

The Great Reformer, however insightful it is, is not without a serious weakness. Ivereigh suggests that at the heart of Pope Francis’s reform effort is collegiality, or a more shared vision of power within the Church where local bishops have more power and influence both in Rome and within their home diocese. Ivereigh, in order to illustrate this point, contrasts the rigoristi, bishops he describes as focused upon morals and rules (whom Ivereigh paints as tyrannical) to the reformisti, bishops focused upon collegiality (who are portrayed as having their hands tied to make the Church relevant in their diocese). In reality, the situation is much more complex, with bishops, curial members and popes not fitting neatly into these two camps. (There should be additional camps; for example, the corrupt which is also undoubtedly an issue—one Ivereigh does not shy away from but seems to attribute to the rigoristi.)

Historically, power typically pools in Rome when there is a crisis within the Church, such as after the French Revolution when the French Church was stripped of its teaching responsibility, properties, and civic authority. So too, the post-Vatican II world was marked by much chaos and confusion. This pooling limits collegiality and centralizes the power of the pope. While Ivereigh is generally very respectful of John Paul II, he places the Polish pope in the rigoristi camp. John Paul II faced a serious set of issues that required him—much like Bergoglio did against the Jesuits—to be focused upon rules because of the chaos that had ensued after the Council. Moreover, the Polish pope made it clear that he believed in collegiality, proclaiming himself first among equals.

Ivereigh makes an absurd swipe at John Paul on this front, suggesting that John Paul’s efforts to heal the rift between the Eastern and Roman churches was ineffective because he himself presented such a poor model of living out the first among equals model. To suggest that a rift that has existed for a millennia could have been smoothed over by John Paul being more collegial, is simply laughable.

Ivereigh paints an image of Bergoglio that leads one to believe he is in the reformisti camp, but it is an odd characterization. While it is true that Francis has strong reformist leanings because of what he saw to be limitations upon some of his own efforts within Argentina’s unique political situation, the fit ends there. Many of the bishops whom Ivereigh says are in this camp are promoting reforms on the basis that members of their flock don’t find the Church relevant to their lives. However, these are also dioceses where the leadership has not encouraged a full living out of the Second Vatican Council with an unapologetic presentation of the Church’s teachings upon sexuality, contraception, with few seminarians, and so forth. Many reformisti have ideas more akin to those of the Jesuits that Bergoglio so vigorously disagreed with when he was provincial of the order in Argentina.

Bergoglio has never had a problem filling seminaries or making Catholicism understandable and accessible to the people and he has done it by holding fast to the treasures of the faith. Coupling collegiality with orthodoxy, Bergoglio has shown throughout his career that he is both a reformisti and a rigoristi—to borrow Ivereigh’s terms. The two are not mutually exclusive.

Despite that significant weakness, the book is well worth the time to read. In addition to the bigger picture of Bergoglio’s life, it provides a glimpse into the many tender moments of his youth and clues into his own spiritual devotions like Our Lady Undoer of Knots and his ardent love of St. Therese of Lisieux. It also provides an opportunity to consider how the Holy Spirit is working in the Church and the world through such a pope. As Ivereigh says, Bergoglio is “a once-in-a-generation combination of two qualities seldom found together: he has a political genius of a charismatic leader and the prophetic holiness of a desert saint.” (357) We pray they bear much fruit.

The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope
by Austen Ivereigh
Henry Holt, 2014
Hardcover, 445 pages


If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.


About Carrie Gress, Ph.D. 49 Articles
Carrie Gress has a doctorate in philosophy from the Catholic University of America and was the Rome Bureau Chief of Zenit's English Edition. She is the author of Nudging Conversions, Ultimate Makeover, and The Marian Option, and co-author with George Weigel of City of Saints. A mother of four, she and her family live in Virginia. Visit her online at CarrieGress.com.