The Franciscan Age: A Biography of Jorge Mario Bergoglio

By Worthen, Molly | International New York Times, December 23, 2014 | Go to article overview

The Franciscan Age: A Biography of Jorge Mario Bergoglio


Worthen, Molly, International New York Times


A biography of Jorge Mario Bergoglio traces his Argentine origins and his path to the Vatican.

The Great Reformer. Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope. By Austen Ivereigh. Illustrated. 445 pages. Henry Holt & Company. $30.

An avalanche of insta-biographies follows every papal conclave. Roman Catholics and outsiders alike are eager to understand the man who is, in effect, the only monarch with meaningful power remaining in the Western world. But almost two years after Pope Francis' election, many are eager for deeper analysis of this "pope for the poor" known for holding freewheeling news conferences and driving his own 30-year-old Renault.

Austen Ivereigh's "The Great Reformer" is no insta-book, but a gracefully written and meticulously researched account of Francis' life. It aims to exonerate the pope once and for all from the charges of his critics, and to correct both liberals and conservatives who misunderstand his "radicalism." It succeeds almost entirely. His defense of Francis sometimes shades into hagiography, but it is the best English-language biography of the pope to date, and raises provocative questions about the future of the church and the relationship between religion and secular modernity.

Like most good biographies, "The Great Reformer" argues that context is everything. Any understanding of the pope must begin with a tour through Argentine history -- particularly the tumultuous politics of the 20th century and the church's minuet with the dictators and demagogues of Buenos Aires.

Jorge Bergoglio came of age during the regime of Col. Juan Domingo Peron, who seized power in 1943 and persuaded many citizens that he (and his charismatic wife, Evita) embodied the soul of the Argentine people. Initially Peron courted the church. But when the bishops refused to do his bidding, he reversed course, and many Catholic activists became enemies of the state.

The military junta that overthrew Peron in 1955 proved just as fond of authoritarianism. Jorge Bergoglio grew up in a church that alternately defied state power and struggled with the temptations of corruption, while elites who claimed to represent the will of the people manipulated (then murdered) them to consolidate authority. He avoided party politics and, after joining the Jesuits in 1958, never voted. But a priest in postwar Argentina could not help developing a political philosophy.

The roots of Jorge Bergoglio's politics stretch back to the Jesuits' crusading founder, Ignatius of Loyola, and to the first Jesuit missionaries to Latin America, who "stood for a radical immersion in the life of the people." Compared with other missionaries, the Jesuits tried to accommodate indigenous culture and protect native people from colonists' predations. But Mr. Ivereigh embroiders history when he writes that "the Jesuits acted, in this way, as 17th-century community organizers among the poor." His romantic account collapses the chasm between the missionaries' less coercive evangelism and the liberal activism of our own day. One can admire the early Jesuits without forgetting that their multiculturalism was a means to a very monocultural end.

Many secular liberals make the same mistake. They take Francis to be an exhilaratingly "modern" pope who seeks a truce in the culture wars. In fact, Francis' brand of pluralism is distinctly anti- modern, even premodern. In his view, the Enlightenment cast a dark shadow over the West, expanding the power of secular authorities (who began expelling the Jesuits from their lands in the 1750s) and dethroning theology in favor of secular reason. "The worst that can happen to a human being is to allow oneself to be swept along by the 'lights' of reason," he said in the 1970s.

But "the Enlightenment" in general is always shorthand for many different Enlightenments in particular. Jorge Bergoglio feared the specific mix of secular ideology and terror that racked his country while he led the Jesuits' Argentine province. …

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