Shaping a Shepherd of Catholics, From Argentine Slums to the Vatican

Originally at:

by Rev. James Martin

The most controversial incident in Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s tenure as Jesuit provincial (that is, regional superior) of Argentina came in 1976. Father Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, was a prayerful man, a charismatic leader and a priest deeply committed to the poor. As Jesuit provincial, he was also charged with the care of Jesuit priests and brothers throughout Argentina. A few years after taking office at the alarmingly young age of 36, he was faced with the thorny problem of how best to support two priests, Orlando Yorio and Franz Jalics, who had moved into a slum in Buenos Aires and were advocates for the poor in the face of brutal government opposition during Argentina’s so-called Dirty War.

Father Bergoglio supported the work of those referred to as slum priests, but warned the two of the dangers inherent in their ministries. Around the same time, Father Yorio sought approval for his final vows as a Jesuit. Because of suspicions about his work, the evaluations Father Bergoglio received from other Jesuits were largely negative. Some Jesuits in Rome, according to Austen Ivereigh, author of “The Great Reformer,” a fine new biography of Pope Francis, also believed rumors that the two were linked with guerrillas, and so their community in the slums was ordered disbanded.

As a compromise, Father Bergoglio suggested they continue their work with the poor, but live in a nearby Jesuit community. Rather than abide by his request — which they were obliged to do under their vow of obedience — the two decided to leave the Jesuits. Shortly afterward, they were captured and tortured by military forces, who held them captive for several months. Father Bergoglio worked furiously behind the scenes, going to what Mr. Ivereigh calls “extraordinary lengths” to secure their release.

Nonetheless, rumors persisted that Father Bergoglio had betrayed them. Until his death in 2000, Mr. Yorio remained bitter toward his former superior. Father Jalics, however, chose to remain a Jesuit and, ultimately, had a tearful reconciliation with his former provincial, then the archbishop of Buenos Aires. By then, it had become clear that the two had been abducted because a lay teacher who had become a guerrilla had given up their names under torture.

Mr. Ivereigh also convincingly shows how Father Bergoglio quietly provided sanctuary for, and even smuggled out of the country, several people persecuted by the Argentine junta, a story told in another new book, Nello Scavo’s “Bergoglio’s List” (Saint Benedict Press).

The complicated story of the abducted priests is told well in Mr. Ivereigh’s comprehensive book, subtitled “Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope.” Mr. Ivereigh, a Roman Catholic journalist who was briefly a Jesuit novice in the late 1990s, shows how the qualities that have made Francis a beloved pope were long part of his life, first as a young Catholic, then as Jesuit novice director and provincial, and finally as bishop and archbishop. These attributes included a deep piety nourished by his family, the fierce intelligence recalled by former classmates and a lasting love for the poor. While a teenager, and earning his living as a doorman at a tango bar (yes, the pope likes to tango), he told a friend that he wanted to be a Jesuit so he could go out into the neighborhoods “to be with people.”

Because of his popularity as Jesuit provincial, particularly among younger Jesuits, Father Bergoglio was seen as a threat by some. During a period of volcanic change in the church, he tried to steer Argentine Jesuits away from what the French theologian Yves Congar called “false reform” and toward “true reform.” And it was Father Bergoglio who discerned between the two, rankling not a few Jesuits.

As a consequence of this, and of decisions that he later ruefully called authoritarian, the province grew increasingly divided. Some of those sentiments lingered until a few days after his election as pope, when he called the Jesuit superior general, leader of the order, in Rome to re-establish warm relations. When he identified himself, the astonished telephone operator at the Jesuit Curia said his first thought was, “Sure, and I’m Napoleon.”

While running the archdiocese of Buenos Aires, Archbishop Bergoglio showed the same impulse toward simplicity and love for the poor that have become the hallmarks of his papacy. He inveighed against priests who display “spiritual worldliness” and told Elisabetta Piqué, a journalist for La Nación in Argentina (and the author of another fine biography, “Francis: Life and Revolution,” Loyola Press): “In Gospel terms, every elevation implies a descent; you have to abase yourself in order to serve better.”

He was an innovative archbishop, reaching out to political leaders who opposed the church and establishing close friendships with Christian leaders, rabbis and imams. In 2004, he became the first bishop to visit the Islamic Center of the Argentine Republic. Mr. Ivereigh deftly shows that much as Pope Francis (and I) believe that the Holy Spirit, in the pope’s words, “changed” him after his election, the same radical openness that the world now sees in Vatican City characterized his life in Buenos Aires.

The most controversial part of Mr. Ivereigh’s book has proved to be a passage describing Cardinal Bergoglio’s election as pope. Mr. Ivereigh writes that Cardinal Bergoglio gave his assent to a group of four cardinals (including Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, the former archbishop of Westminster, for whom Mr. Ivereigh once worked) who were planning to gather support for his candidacy. (Such assent is verboten in conclaves.) All four cardinals have denied this, and the author has said he would amend the sentence in future editions. But the coalescing of groups behind prospective popes is part of the conclave process, and the Holy Spirit can work through that as well.

Mr. Ivereigh’s book is particularly good on Pope Francis’s Jesuit background and the effects of his provincialate on the Argentine Province. There are times when you wish for a firmer editor’s hand (for example, in the lengthy descriptions of Argentine politics) and greater sourcing. (We are told that his objectives in the Dirty War were set by the Jesuit Superior General, but with no footnote.) And there are a few inaccuracies. A few journalists mentioned Cardinal Bergoglio as a likely candidate to become pope, but Mr. Ivereigh says “none” of the Vaticanologists listed him. But over all, this book is fair, judicious and compelling.

Even though I’ve read several books on my brother Jesuit, many stories about the pope in “The Great Reformer” were new to me. The most revealing was a throwaway line about where the archbishop of Buenos Aires liked to spend his downtime. Mainly in the slums, one colleague said. “It nourished him, being with ordinary people.” I can think of no better background for being pope.


Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope

By Austen Ivereigh

Illustrated. 445 pages. Henry Holt and Company. $30.

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