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Readings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz


Gerald Schmitz

Veteran journalist brings deeper understanding of Pope Francis


Jimmy Burns, Francis, Pope of Good Promise
(New York, St. Martin’s Press, 2015, 432 pages)

Veteran British Catholic journalist Jimmy Burns, who was a Financial Times correspondent in Buenos Aires in the 1980s, has produced the most insightful examination yet of the life and early papacy of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who brought a refreshing atmosphere to the Vatican from the moment of his election on March 13, 2013. Burns is convinced of Bergoglio’s “inner goodness” but, in light of the troubled record of the Argentine church, this is no hagiography of a “picture-book saint.” Burns delves into the details of Bergoglio’s religious formation and at times difficult clerical evolution to become a strong advocate of social justice. That background informs how Bergoglio, the only Jesuit cardinal, became Francis, the first Jesuit pope, and what to make of the transformative expectations that have accompanied the first non-European to occupy the chair of St. Peter.

The resignation of Pope Benedict opened the way for someone who would have a strong hand in reforming Vatican affairs and for someone from the Global South where the majority of the world’s Catholics live. Neither a radical nor a rigid conservative, Cardinal Bergoglio also brought a pastoral approach to the position based on a non-dogmatic “theology of the people” that, in exercising a “preferential option for the poor,” was critical of all forms of socio-economic exploitation and exclusion.

Burns provides a useful account of Bergoglio’s youth, education and early years as a priest. He was born in 1936 to Italian immigrant parents who had fled fascist Italy in 1929. He grew up with an awareness of the inequities of Argentine society and was influenced by the populist Peronist movement. While studying chemistry at a technical college he felt the call of a religious vocation. After entering the Jesuit seminary in 1956 he suffered a near-death experience, losing part of a lung to pleurisy. He was no political activist, but had read left-wing authors and learned a dialect of the indigenous Guaraní language.

Ordained in 1969, Bergoglio had wanted to be a missionary in Japan. Instead he became a university rector teaching literature and psychology. He was still very young when appointed in 1973 to be Jesuit Provincial by the order’s progressive Superior General Pedro Arrupe, a position he held for six years. Bergoglio has acknowledged that he often acted in an authoritarian manner that created discontent.

The 1970s were also very challenging times for the church, especially after the 1976 military coup and “dirty war” against dissidents that included exponents of liberation theology. In contrast to the conservative church hierarchy’s support of the junta, Jesuits were targeted among the priests, religious and lay people working with the poor. Controversy has dogged Bergoglio alleging that, in pursuing quiet interventions with the regime to try to protect his flock, he did not do enough to protest against grave human rights abuses. In examining this period in depth, Burns observes that Bergoglio had “struggled over how best to put his faith into action,” but that after being named a bishop in 1998 he became both more humble and stronger in admitting mistakes and conquering fear. As Archbishop of Buenos Aires in 2000 he stated forthrightly that the church had “to put on garments of public penance for the sins committed during the years of the dictatorship.”

Father Bergoglio’s road to becoming a bishop had been rocky. In the mid-1980s he pursued but abandoned doctoral studies in Germany. In 1990 he was removed from his teaching post and later transferred from Buenos Aires to Córdoba. Yet as bishop, then archbishop, of Buenos Aires he really came into his own. He tackled a banking scandal linked to the church and battled government corruption. He stood up to the populist presidency of Nestor Kirchner, later succeeded by his ambitious wife Cristina. That included confrontations on traditional moral issues like opposition to same-sex marriage. But it was as an outspoken advocate on social justice issues that his reputation grew. He became famous for his personal simplicity and direct ministry into the “villas” (shanty towns) afflicted by poverty, drugs and crime. His example became associated with that of priests like Rev. Carlos Mugica who had been killed there and were revered as folk martyrs for their work with the poor. Made a cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 2001, he was also described by one of his priests as “the least easily manipulated person in the world.”

Bergoglio brought the experience of handling such challenges into the papacy, as explored in the book’s later chapters. Pope Francis certainly needed resolve to begin cleaning up the problems of the Vatican Bank and reforming the sclerotic Vatican bureaucracy and clerical careerism of the Roman Curia. As evidenced in his global outreach and the enthusiastic warmth of the reception he has received on foreign travels, it’s clear he is winning many hearts through an approach of bringing the church to the people. That said, he faces internal opposition from conservatives while liberal Catholics have been disappointed that he hasn’t done enough to deal with the sex abuse scandals or to elevate the position of women in the church.

Overall there’s no question that Francis has invigorated the presence of the church in the world. Burns calls him a “pope for all seasons” and a “pilgrim at large” with a truly global vision that embraces 21st-century concerns. His socio-economic and environmental critiques, his appeals for peace, justice and respect for human rights, have found a global audience. He has created an atmosphere of openness to discussion within the church (for example, bringing critical theologians like Hans Kung “in from the cold”).

By his simplicity and admission of flaws Francis exemplifies the role of a penitent servant church whose mission is to bring the “joy of the gospel” to all people. Readers of this book will hope his papacy continues to make good on that promise.