Book explores Pope Francis' Argentine origins

People celebrate the election of Pope Francis outside the Metropolitan Cathedral in Buenos Aires, Argentina, March 13, 2013. (CNS/Reuters/Enrique Marcarian)

People celebrate the election of Pope Francis outside the Metropolitan Cathedral in Buenos Aires, Argentina, March 13, 2013. (CNS/Reuters/Enrique Marcarian)

by Arthur Liebscher

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By Austen Ivereigh
Published by Henry Holt and Co., $30

Austen Ivereigh, a British scholar of the Latin American church, has brought together extensive research to produce a thorough, acute and engaging analysis of the phenomenon that is Pope Francis.

The book, essentially a biography, situates Francis within the social, political and theological context of his homeland. The greater part deals with Jorge Mario Bergoglio's life before the papacy -- a Jesuit and later bishop whose leadership both inspired and divided his fellow Argentines. Ivereigh explores Bergoglio's origins, development and influence, and he airs criticism directed at him in both religious and political circles.

The first chapter, like those that follow, employs an episode from Francis' first year as pope -- here, the visit to refugees on the Italian island of Lampedusa -- to open doors to Bergoglio's past. It evokes the situation of a lower-middle-class Italian immigrant family as Argentina's tired export system slid into military authoritarianism that would yield the enduring populism of Juan Perón. We meet Jorge as an intense, active, sometimes sickly young man much influenced by teachers and mentors. Among them figured several women, including a Marxist, his supervisor when he worked as a chemical technician.

Ivereigh teases out Bergoglio's converging ideas about leadership, church and theology in the 1970s, as he studied theology, served as novice master, and then, not yet 37, became Jesuit provincial.

Argentine Jesuits, like much of the Western church, had been both inspired and disrupted by the Second Vatican Council, as well as by the turmoil of the country's politics. While still a student Jesuit, Bergoglio advised university age peronistas from a faction representing mainline populism. Reform that was, by Argentine standards, moderate, emphasizing religious tradition and apostolic rigor, came to characterize Bergoglio's outlook and activity.

Rejecting both rightist and leftist ideologies, Bergoglio's vision took shape around a view sometimes called la teología del pueblo. Emerging about the same time as both liberation theology and the Argentine Third World Priest's Movement, this "theology of the people" emphasized the faith experience of ordinary folk while trying to avoid the class conflict, social theorizing or political activism implied in other movements. Ivereigh calls this view "the hermeneutic … that would allow him to reform and unite the [Jesuit] province, beyond ideology, by focusing directly on the poor."

Interviews with Jesuit collaborators and students let Ivereigh paint a picture of the future pope as a charismatic, beloved and humble superior and role model. Bergoglio taught a Jesuit life of simplicity, piety and study, and he wanted his students to know the life and labor of the poor. Alongside his students, he cooked, cleaned, prayed and laughed.

Intense loyalty and admiration drew Bergoglio's disciples to him. Modeling themselves after their teacher and leader, his inclinations became theirs, and their numbers grew to form a plurality among the Argentine Jesuits -- younger, fervent, focused on the poor, traditional in their religious practice, and not a little critical of those with different inclinations and interests. Divisions began to take root among the Jesuits.

The papal election brought up old accusations about Bergoglio's complicity during the repression that followed the 1976 military coup. The esteemed human rights activist Emilio Mignone first published the accusation that Bergoglio, as provincial, had exposed Jesuits Franz Jalics and Orlando Yorio to arrest and torture. The charge has been vigorously pursued by Horacio Verbitsky, a former leftist guerrilla and now newspaper publisher and writer. Sympathetic to Francis, Ivereigh nevertheless weighs the evidence objectively as he describes Bergoglio's efforts to protect the two men.

Ivereigh also addresses the idea that Bergoglio sinned, not by direct collaboration, but abetting oppression through silence. It is easier to charge culpable omission than disprove it, but the book tries to place Bergoglio within a church moving from conflicted confusion toward appalled realization. The author argues that whatever Bergoglio knew or suspected, any public declaration would have irresponsibly endangered Jesuits working throughout the country.

By the mid-1980s, Bergoglio had served as novice master, provincial, and rector of the Colegio Máximo, based in San Miguel, part of metropolitan Buenos Aires. His charisma had forged a formidable cadre of followers, perhaps 40 percent of Argentine Jesuits. Pious, populist and critical of traditional apostolates, Bergoglio's men unwittingly drove a wedge among the Jesuits as factions glared at their perceived opponents.

Ivereigh understands the split as a division created by opposition from old-line progressives rejecting Bergoglio's school of profound inculturation. He also notes that the dispute revolved around Bergoglio the man as much as his way of thinking.

In 1985, the Jesuit general directed a new provincial, Victor Zorzín, to wrench the province from the grip of Bergoglio's San Miguel faction. Zorzín moved the provincial offices from San Miguel to Buenos Aires and sent the 50-year-old Bergoglio off to study in Germany. Bergoglio quickly saw that the arrangement was a terrible fit. He returned home to find himself assigned to pastoral duties in Córdoba, more than 400 miles from Buenos Aires.

Ivereigh wants to answer Bergoglio's critics, and the book presents the Jesuit as a misunderstood, exiled prophet. It may miss some of the conflict's significance for both sides. Zorzín needed to be decisive, but he scarcely merited the book's casual comparison to the generals who followed Perón.

Neither is it fair to repeat allegations that the next provincial, Ignacio García-Mata, asked Bergoglio to move out of Jesuit community because he felt threatened by the new bishop's popularity with younger religious. This version ignores both García-Mata's anguish and Bergoglio's misapprehension of his impact on common life.

At the same time, the book could pay more attention to Bergoglio's interior crisis -- so evident that it caused concern among Argentine Jesuits of all persuasions. The late '80s were a rough time, but the crisis was critical in forging the man we see today.

Bergoglio's appointment as a bishop moved him away from the in-house conflict onto a bigger stage. The book's later chapters provide a wealth of information about his rising stature in both the Argentine and worldwide episcopacy. They offer a fascinating glimpse into his bonds with charismatic Catholics as well as evangelical Christians, Muslims and, as is now famous, Argentina's Jewish community. The recurring conflicts between Bergoglio and the resentful, jealous government of President Cristina Kirchner merit a separate study altogether.

Ivereigh supports the idea that the church's future lies in the vigor of Latin America and the rest of the Southern Hemisphere, not in the exhausted disputations of the North Atlantic world. Renewal emanating from the global South, especially from Latin America, will bring more than a theological stance rooted in the experience of the marginalized. For all its challenges, the South American church has confidence in its identity among the people; its Catholic experience traces to ancient times. Latin American culture focuses on relationship more than individualism, and it basks in relative tolerance, inclined to embrace rather than condemn.

The little things count, too. Francis's legendary simplicity derives from the notable thriftiness of his social class, and his affectionate manner marks both Latins in general and Argentines in particular. Even his folksiness reflects the style expected of leaders in post-Perón Argentina.

In print just 20 months after Francis' election, The Great Reformer gathers a vast amount of oral and written testimony to explain his origins and career and to suggest where he might be headed. Inevitably, small errors appear, but none is serious. Ivereigh deepens our understanding a man whose personality and prophecy may change the Catholic church forever.

[Jesuit Fr. Arthur Liebscher is associate professor and chair of the history department at Santa Clara University in California.]

A version of this story appeared in the Jan 16-29, 2015 print issue under the headline: Book explores Francis' Argentine origins.

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