A book that sheds new light on the great mysteries of Pope Francis studies

The Great Reformer
by Austen Ivereigh
Allen & Unwin, £20
Buy here

Throughout his life Pope Francis has attracted the most piquant nicknames. That’s a mark, no doubt, of his outsized personality. Argentine Jesuits called him “Mona Lisa” because of his inscrutable behaviour during his difficult term as their leader. He was also once known as “Long Face”, on account of his sad and weary-looking features. Austen Ivereigh has discovered perhaps the most remarkable moniker of them all. In The Great Reformer, he says that Jorge Mario Bergoglio was known as “Irma la Douce” when teaching in his late 20s. Why did pupils associate the saintly priest with the golden-hearted French prostitute, played by Shirley MacLaine, in the classic 1963 film? Apparently, because he “handed out punishments with an angelic face”.

There are magnificent details like this throughout the book. The author’s deep familiarity with Argentine language, culture and history sets this work apart from other English-language papal biographies. Ivereigh lived in Buenos Aires in the early 1990s while writing a thesis on the Church and Argentine politics. He not only has a good ear for the earthy dialect of the porteños (residents of the Argentine capital), but is also a confident translator of Francis’s quirky Spanish. Early on, he points out that the Pope has always loved to bend words to express new meanings, like an avant-garde poet. Ivereigh writes: “Bergoglio liked the way Latin had ‘mercy’ as a verb, miserando, and so created the Spanish misericordiando – an activity of the divine, something God does to you. ‘Dejáte misericordiar,’ he would tell the guilt-ridden and scrupulous, ‘let yourself be mercy’d’.” Friends dubbed these neologisms bergoglismos and collected them avidly.

Ivereigh shows that an in-depth knowledge of Argentina is essential to understanding Francis. The media (and I include myself) have often mistaken the Pope’s meaning because they assume he’s essentially the same as a typical European or North American Catholic. He is not.

The author draws an interesting parallel between Francis and Juan Péron, Argentina’s two most famous sons (excluding Maradona and Messi). Both the Pope and the three-time Argentine president are stupendously charismatic figures who appeal deeply to the masses, while inspiring fierce opposition from elites. Both are simultaneously unifiers and dividers, forcing everyone around them to stand either with or against them. For outsiders, it is just as hard to grasp the nuances of Peronism as it is to understand the Argentine variant of liberation theology that shaped Francis. The teología del pueblo, or theology of the people, presents the people not as a class in opposition to others, but as a grouping that includes everyone working for liberation from injustice. Bergoglio was repelled by Marxist-influenced liberation theologians who spoke of the people but never lived among them, an attitude he captured in the slogan: “All for the people but nothing with the people.” Bergoglio, in contrast, totally abandoned himself to those he called the santo pueblo fiel de Dios, God’s faithful holy people. “He did not believe that the clergy, or the bishops, or Rome were in possession of the truth that they distributed downward,” writes Ivereigh, “but that the Holy Spirit was revealed through a dialogue between the pueblo fiel and the universal Church.”

The Great Reformer offers plenty of evidence that Francis was committed to the poor as a young priest, implicitly challenging the thesis of Paul Vallely’s excellent papal biography, which argued that a spiritual crisis turned Bergoglio from an aloof conservative into a taboo-breaking servant of the poor.

They say it’s hard to write about good people, because bad people’s lives are more dramatic. But Francis’s life is full of incident and Ivereigh does an excellent job of charting the future Pope’s steady growth in holiness. He also sheds new light on the great mysteries of Francis studies: why Bergoglio was elected Jesuit provincial at an absurdly young age, why he abandoned his doctorate in Germany and what happened during his painful exile in the Argentine city of Córdoba.

The book’s title suggests the author is an uncritical admirer of Francis, but Ivereigh is not blind to Francis’s contradictions. “The Pope of collegiality,” he writes, “exercises his sovereign authority in ways that can seem high-handed.”

The most difficult challenge for Francis’s biographers is the fast-moving nature of this papacy. Their work begins to date as soon as they hand in their manuscript. But Ivereigh is careful not to offer too many hostages to fortune. He does venture that Francis has “the greatest chance in a generation to heal divisions between liberals and conservatives”. Presumably that was written before the recent family synod, which turned up the tensions, rather than resolving them. But Ivereigh’s thesis that Francis’s life is marked more by continuity than rupture is convincing. As an English-language account of the Pope’s Argentine heritage, this book will be hard to beat.

This article first appeared in The Catholic Herald magazine (5/12/14)