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This paradoxical Pope

02 August 2013

In this extract from his new biography of Pope Francis, Paul Vallely explores the dark events that led to Jorge Mario Bergoglio's transformation into a man of mercy

FOR someone so celebrated for his simplicity, Jorge Mario Bergoglio turns out to be a man of considerable complexity. The story of the Swiss Guard offers a revealing paradigm. One night, not long after his election as the Roman Catholic Church's 266th pontiff, Pope Francis came out of his bedroom in the hostel of Casa Santa Marta. It was just before dawn, and a young Swiss Guard was on duty by the door.

Discovering that he had been standing there all night, the Pope went back into his rooms and brought out a chair. He told the young soldier to sit down. The guard said he could not. The rules did not allow it. Whose rules, the Pope asked. My captain's orders, the soldier replied. Well, he is just a captain, and I am the Pope, and my orders are that you sit down. The soldier sat down.

The story has a coda. A few minutes later, Francis reappeared with a slice of bread and jam - panino con marmellata, to add a little Italian verisimilitude - which the leader of the world's billion Catholics gave to the soldier with the words: "Buon appetito, brother."

The tale went viral in the Catholic blogosphere, despite the fact that there appeared to be no serious news source from which it could be verified. To the retellers of the story, that did not matter. It worked as parable, or poetic truth, to illustrate the authenticity of the humble Pope, a man whose greatness lay in his mastery of the smallest things.


AND yet, even as a myth, it contains some of the ambiguity that surrounds the real man, as was pointed out to me by one of his close aides, Guillermo Marcó, who was for eight years the public spokesman for Bergoglio as Archbishop of Buenos Aires.

"The story demonstrates a man with the common touch, true," Marcó said. "But it also reveals him as a man with a strong sense of power. It shows him saying: 'I am the Pope. I will decide. You do what I tell you.'"

The journey from Argentina to Rome, from Bergoglio to Francis, has uncovered a pope of paradox - a man who is a radical, but not a liberal, an enabler with an authoritarian streak, a self-confident man in constant need of forgiveness, and a churchman who combines religious humility and political wiles.

It is also the story of a man who has undergone, if not a religious conversion, then at any rate a deep inner transformation that has wrought a profound and long-lasting change in both his personal and political vision.

The pope who has shaken up the complacencies and self-certainties of the Vatican, deconstructing the monarchical model of papacy, stripping away its rococo affectations and accretions, and declaring his desire for "a poor Church for poor people" - began as a religious and political conservative.

In his 15 years in key leadership positions among the Jesuits of Argentina, from 1971 to 1986, he initially resisted the radical changes with which the revolutionary Second Vatican Council sought to revitalise an introspective Catholic Church. And, although he always had a deep love for the popular piety of the poor, until he was in his mid-40s he studiously avoided addressing the economic circumstances that made, and kept, people poor. Rather, he was the hammer of Liberation Theology, that movement which sought to combine the spiritual and material improvement of the poorest.

He was a charismatic leader, but one who was unyielding and domineering with the Jesuits in his charge. His clarity of purpose and autocratic demeanour - combined with his associations with the right-wing Peronist Iron Guard - divided the Jesuits in Argentina into two camps: those who loved, and those who loathed, Bergoglio. So bitter was his legacy that finally Bergoglio was sent by his superiors into exile, 400 miles away in Córdoba, and Rome eventually had to send in an outsider, from Colombia, as Provincial, to heal the wounds.


THE most livid of those wounds concerned the two Jesuit priests, Fr Orlando Yorio and Fr Franz Jalics, who were kidnapped and tortured - and held, hooded and shackled, for five months - by one of the military death squads during Argentina's so-called Dirty War. Many unproven allegations have been made about Bergoglio's involvement in their disappearance. Most of them seem untrue. But Bergoglio was guilty in one key respect.

Bergoglio was just 36 when he took over as Provincial. He was determined to curtail, or expunge from the order, those Jesuits who had embraced Liberation Theology. The problem was that the two most prominent Jesuit practitioners of Liberation Theology, Yorio and Jalics, had once been his teachers, and were both older than him.

The young new Provincial locked antlers with the older men. They refused to obey his order to leave the slum. Bergoglio was outraged. One of the key vows a Jesuit swears is obedience. Yorio and Jalics were in flagrant violation of that. Bergoglio declared that they had expelled themselves from the order, and informed Archbishop Aramburu of Buenos Aires, who withdrew the licences of the two men to say mass.

This withdrawal was a sufficient signal to the military dictatorship that the Church had removed its protection from them. Bergoglio, who was politically astute, should have seen the danger in which he was placing his two priests. He behaved recklessly, and has been trying to atone for his behaviour ever since.


ALL the other evidence suggests that Bergoglio behaved with considerable courage over the six years that followed, as the Dirty War grew ever dirtier. He set up a clandestine network to smuggle out of the country fugitives from the military's reign of terror. He was, said one of those he helped to freedom, both "personally and institutionally brave".

But Bergoglio had done enough to trouble his conscience. When his term of office came to an end, his Jesuit superiors in Rome decided that he had to be removed. He was eventually sent to Córdoba - a place for Bergoglio "of humility and humiliation", Marcó said. It was in that wilderness that Bergoglio looked deep into his own heart, and made a radical change.

Bergoglio had long years to reflect on his divisive leadership of the Jesuits in Argentina - and on what he had done wrong, or inadequately, during the Dirty War. He had to confront the fact that, in his inexperience as a young leader, he had allowed the breakdown of the pastoral relationship between himself and priests in his care.

Years later, after Yorio was dead, Bergoglio and Jalics met in Germany. In 2013, after Francis became Pope, Jalics issued a statement to say that the two men had been reconciled, and had concelebrated mass, ending with what Jalics called "a solemn embrace". What actually happened, an eye witness said, was that the two men fell into each other's arms and wept.


TO UNDERSTAND how deep the examination of his conscience went, it is necessary only to look at his preaching. The need for forgiveness, and for God's mercy, have been his dominant theological refrains, both before and after he became pope.

 "Guilt, without atonement, does not allow us to grow," he has said. "There's no clean slate. We have to bless the past with remorse, forgiveness, and atonement." The final Lenten letter he left for the people of Buenos Aires, before he left for Rome, said: "Morality is not 'never falling down' but 'always getting up again'. And that is a response to God's mercy."

In his first Sunday homily after his election as Pope he said: "Mercy is the Lord's most powerful message." From Jesus, he said, we will "not hear words of contempt, we do not hear words of condemnation, but only words of love, of mercy, that invite us to conversion: Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more!"

Inside the Sistine Chapel, when a cardinal is elected pope, he is asked: "Acceptasne electionem de te canonice factam in Summum Pontificem?" - "Do you accept your canonical election as supreme Pontiff?" The normal response is: "Accepto" - "I accept."

But Bergoglio replied: "I am a great sinner; trusting in the mercy and patience of God in suffering, I accept." Even at that special moment - or perhaps because of it - contrition for his past filled his mind. As the world has learned, he never fails to miss an opportunity to ask those around him to pray for him.

Bergoglio's exile ended when he was made one of six assistant bishops in Buenos Aires. But he arrived in the city of his birth a different man. He returned to the capital with a new perspective. In his years of retrospection, in those long hours of prayer, he had discerned a new model of leadership - one that involved consultation and participation, collegiality and listening. There was, it turned out after all, a clean slate.

FROM the outset, he focused his attention on the slums. There, the process of change within him was deepened by his contact with the poorest of the poor. As the years passed, he began to create a new generation of priests dedicated to working in the slums. The numbers of these curas villeros - slum priests - quadrupled under his watch.

He began to encourage the foundation of co-operatives and unions and other mechanisms by which the poor could empower themselves, besides challenging the dominance of the drug-dealers who ran the slums. Working in shanty towns where large parts of the church congregations were single mothers, or divorced, altered his attitude to church rules such as forbidding the remarried to take communion. He did not veer from orthodox church teaching, but did not allow it to overrule the priority of caring for individuals.

"He was never rigid about the small and stupid stuff," Fr Juan Isasmendi, the parish priest in the Villa 21 slum, said, "because he was interested in something deeper." But the poor reshaped his politics, too. He repeatedly denounced the political and economic system, warning that oppressing the poor and defrauding workers of their wages were two sins "that cry out to God for vengeance".

Extreme poverty and unjust economic structures were "violations of human rights" that called for solutions of justice, not just phil-anthropy.

The irony was that, 40 years on, he had arrived at a similar understanding of social justice to that of Yorio and Jalics, the two Jesuits he had cut off because of their work in the slums. The Cold War was over, and with it the need to see Liberation Theology as some kind of stalking horse for anti-Church communism, supplanting Catholicism along with capitalism in Latin America.

Liberation Theology had been more right than wrong, he began to conclude. Bergoglio started to honour the martyrs of Liberation Theology. As Pope, he has unblocked the process to make a saint of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador. And, under Francis, the head of the Vatican's doctrinal watchdog, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller, declared that the war between the Liberation Theology movement and Rome was over. Liberation Theology should now be recognised, he pronounced, as "among the most important currents in 20th-century Catholic theology".

Pope Francis: Untying the knots, by Paul Vallely, is published by Bloomsbury at £12.99 (Church Times Bookshop special offer price £10.99).

Paul Vallely will be talking about Pope Francis, and discussing contemporary Roman Catholicism, at the Greenbelt Festival, which takes place on 23-26 August at Cheltenham Race Course.


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