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Book Reviews


Austen Ivereigh  The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope (Picador, USA/Pan Books, UK & Ireland/St Martin's Press, Philippines & Australia 2015)

Although this title has been on sale for some 18 months, actually, it has not been well marketed, and reached this reviewer by a recent chance visit to a bookstore in Davao City, Philippines. That said, the subject commands substantial interest, while the work is timeless in relevance, and carries a fair degree of scholarship in the making.

Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, who in March 2013 was elected Pope Francis - the first Jesuit ever to succeed to St Peter's chair in two millennia - has emerged both as a major figure on the world stage and something of a revolutionary reformer within the Roman Catholic Church.

Born in 1936 to Italian migrant parents in the Argentine, Bergoglio's early formation was nurtured by Salesian mentors. It was from those collaborators of St John Bosco that young Jorge first received a serious grounding in the disciplines of prayer and positive work among the poorer communities of Buenos Aires, something that so guided his later life as a priest and bishop, which the world has lately come to admire. Jorge's early adviser and spiritual director, Don Enrico SDB, exercised an immense influence on the emergent spiritual hound whose quest for piety did not prevent him sampling the adolescent world of football, drama, girfriends and the like. Yet it was the Society of Jesus who claimed Jorge Bergoglio. Why? That question is not squarely addressed by the author, probably because it is not clear to him or anyone else.

Unlike the man who was to be his papal predecessor, Benedict XVI, Bergoglio was no academic, but rather an energetic pastor who whether as a priest, bishop or cardinal, believed no task too mean or beyond his calling. Famously, albeit low key at the time, he was happy to go into the favellas (poor inner city districts) to minister to ordinary folk, especially if there was no regular priest in service. Moreover, he took his poverty vows seriously, and eschewed all attendant luxuries offered him ranging from the archbishop's palace in Buenos Aires, first class airline tickets, umpteen gifts and donations and all manner of junkets. Bergoglio was a priest whose primary lifestyle was guided by the gospels and example of Jesus Christ. He was embarrassed by the high living of many church prelates, and cared little for the wealthy Catholics in Europe and South America who tried to 'own' or 'buy' their favoured bishop or priest. Moreover, with Bergoglio having developed a penchant for an all-embracing church that reached out to the marginalised and excluded (eg. divorced, homosexuals, prisoners, poor etc), he struggled to control his contempt for the Church's judgemental 'respectables' who so reminded him of the Pharisees of Jesus's time. He aimed to encourage a wider and diverse church where there was a place for all, not a fellowship of exclusive brethren, far less the sanctimonious prigs whose influence was far too pronounced for the good of its own mission. Indeed Bergoglio's concerns about self righteous Catholic cliques bore a refreshing similarity to Robbie Burns's unflattering portrayal of his Ayrshire Presbyterian Kirk through his classic composition, 'Holy Willie's Prayer'.

Predictably, Bergoglio's stand generated enemies both within and well beyond his Jesuit fraternity. In those heady post-Vatican 2 times, Bergoglio was a dangerous radical, who, if not a Marxist liberationist, nevertheless was disturbing the established order of the South American church. To many conservatives he was a rebel who needed firm controlling, while to leftist guerillas Bergoglio lacked the ruthlessness of a true revolutionary. To the Kircheners, who each held the presidency of Argentina in the 1990s, Bergolio was something of a turbulent priest on whom they could not rely for support. He also had many enemies among conservative senators and governors, not to mention the Argentine military, from whom Bergoglio demanded answers to disappeared victims from the years of Junta rule, 1976-83. Such a profile appeared to block further elevation, and even risked relegation from leading positions within the Jesuits. His unexpected appointment as a bishop and, later Archbishop of Buenos Airies owed more to the favour with which he was increasingly viewed in the wider church. That period enabled Bergoglio to press an inclusive and anti-corruption agenda that defined his period as a senior prelate. It also aroused the interest of fellow cardinals especially as Vatican finances became an ever more troubled and embarrassing subject. Moreover, being a man devoid of ambition, this trait likely did much to enhance Bergoglio in the March 2013 Conclave that elected a successor to the ageing Benedict.

Now, as Pope Francis 1, this veteran Jesuit churchman has set out both a style and stall that chimes with the aspirations of contemporary Catholic laiety world-wide, if not all of the hierarchy. Francis has won so many hearts and minds by simple examples of taking seriously his poverty vows, something hopefully more indulgent prelates might well emulate. There is also Francis's insistence on the primacy of an inclusive church with the removal of barriers on celibate homosexuals, divorced and remarried, prisoners, unmarried mothers, Aids victims and the poor. Even the 2016 Year of Mercy - that offered complete remission of time in Purgatory due for all previous sins - represented a serious effort by Francis to rejuvenate the Church's principal mission, namely to win back souls for the Lord. What a fine man and a great shepherd of the worldwide Catholic flock! Then there is the Holy Father's plan to curb the entrenched layers of Vatican bankers, civil servants, media people and other flunkies, many of questionable worth and doubtful ethics. Such a task might prove formidable to the limits of Francis's skills, but he is determined to impose authority. on those shadowy elements. Liberalising doctrine might prove more challenging. Moving the church to a greater openess and revision of past practice - especially in areas like marriage annulment, birth control and the elevation of woment to clerical roles - has aroused entrenched opposition from Conservative figures in the Curia and elsewhere.

Austen Ivereigh is impeccably qualified to write on Francis, as this book shows. With an Oxford University Ph.D. in South American Studies, Dr Ivereigh is also a former Deputy Editor of The Tablet (British Catholic journal read across the world), and acted as a media adviser to retired Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy- O'Connor. In general, he is among the most respected of media commentators on British and international Catholicism. His book shows attention to detail and factual accuracy, and has been thoroughly researched. Perhaps it is a little top-heavy with reams of names of obscure church figures from the Latin American church, and in other places the welter of information might have been better augmented by clear analysis for a readership that is largely unschooled in South American church affairs.

Nevertheless, this is a text well worth the reading for all serious observers of the church of Francis and all that went before. It could usefully be incorporated onto the recommended reading lists of social science and arts university courses, as well as being, predictably, welcomed by conventional scholars of theology and church history.

Dr Vincent McKee