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Cardinal’s sea-change

23 August 2013

John Wilkins looks at the life left behind by a penitent pope


Smiling: Pope Francis greets the faithful as he leaves the village of Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer residence, on Thursday of last week

Smiling: Pope Francis greets the faithful as he leaves the village of Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer residence, on Thursday of last week

Pope Francis: Untying the knots
Paul Vallely
Bloomsbury £12.99
Church Times Bookshop special offer price £10.99 (use code CT559 )

IN 2005, I learned that the Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a Jesuit, was emerg­ing as the chief contender with Joseph Ratzinger for the papacy after the death of John Paul II. I knew little of Bergoglio then; so I enquired from contacts I had in or close to the Jesuit order. I was disconcerted by some of the replies. As head of the Jesuit province of Argentina for six years from 1973, he had been authoritarian and divisive, I was told. He was a man who did not smile.

How can such judgements be reconciled with the Jorge Bergoglio now known to the world as Pope Francis, whose style in five months since his election has taken the world and the media by storm? Paul Vallely's answer, drawn from re-
search that included visits to Argen­tina and Rome, is that Bergoglio has been on a journey of change. This is his golden thread, and it puts this book in a different class from the other instant biographies.

The charismatic Jesuit General Pedro Arrupe appointed Bergoglio as Provincial in 1973, as soon as he had taken his final vows, at the age of only 36. He was already seen as a leader. But the order in Argentina was at sixes and sevens. Jesuits aim to be "contemplatives in action", but some wanted more contemplation, and some more action. Bergoglio sought to stabilise his men by taking them back behind the Vatican II reforms that his predecessor had been implementing. Vallely enumer­ates in disturbing detail the conservative measures that Bergoglio imposed. They loved or loathed him for it: the force of his personality was such that neutrality was not an option.

Politically, too, he was on the Right. As Vallely puts it, Bergoglio at this time believed that "some­thing in Peronism constituted Argentina's best hope." Peronists believed that uniquely in Argentina they were implementing Catholic social teach­ing in seeking to carve out a third way between capitalism and com­mun­ism. They envisaged a grand collective strategy that would bring Church, army, and trade unions together. Peronism had a left wing and a right wing. Many liked to think of themselves as socialist; but their model pointed towards fascism, and in the 1970s it came apart under the weight of its own contradictions.

Left-wing guerrillas and right-wing death squads took to the streets. Many Argentinians breathed a sigh of relief when the military took charge in 1976. An appalling "Dirty War" followed the coup, when anyone associating with the poor risked kidnapping, torture, and death as a communist subvers­ive.

Bergoglio brought his men through safely - a tribute to his political antennae - but only just. The case of Francisco Jalics and Orlando Yorio casts a shadow to this day. Vallely's account of the torture centre to which the two snatched Jesuits were taken is hor­ribly graphic. He does not absolve Bergoglio of all responsibility, though he gives him credit for his part in getting the two out, at per-sonal risk. Bergoglio was courageous also in setting up escape networks. But the Jesuits in Argentina did not combat the repression as their colleagues in social institutes else­where in Latin America did in similar circumstances.

The book does not dwell on Bergoglio's second important post, as Rector of the Colegio Máximo in Buenos Aires for six years after his term as Provincial ended in 1979. By the time Bergoglio had finished there, the Jesuits in Argentina had become more open to the teaching and practice he had opposed. They had moved on. Bergoglio was left somewhat stranded. Vallely thinks the order did not know what to do with him.

While spending several months in Germany, he came across an 18th-century painting,Mary, Untier of Knots, which gives Vallely his subtitle. It showed the Virgin straight­ening out a tangled ribbon. Bergoglio was struck to the heart by it, and a full-sized reproduction now stands in a church in Buenos Aires. Eventually he was sent to Córdoba - into exile, Vallely says, stretching a point; for Córdoba is Argentina's second city, containing important Jesuit institutions.

As a Jesuit, Bergoglio was schooled in self-examination and discernment. It is inconceivable that he was not now reflecting critically on his career so far. "From a young age", he told two journalist inter­viewers in 2010, "life pushed me into leadership roles. I had to learn from my errors along the way. . . Errors and sins. It would be wrong for me to say that these days I ask forgiveness for the sins and offences that I might have committed. Today I ask forgiveness for the sins and offences that I did indeed commit."

But he did not leave it there. "For me, feeling that you have sinned is one of the most beautiful things that can happen to a person. . . Sin properly assumed is the privileged place of personally finding Jesus Christ our Saviour. . . It is the pos­sibility to live the wonder of having been saved." The twin themes of mercy and joy have characterised his preaching.

In 1992, Cardinal Quarracino rescued him by appointing him one of his auxiliaries in Buenos Aires. It was "a relief for him and for the order", according to one Jesuit observer. But Bergoglio was now a changed man. The authoritarianism of the past had given way to humil­ity and simplicity. In 1998, he him­self became Archbishop. He did not move into the palace. He walked everywhere, or went by bus or Underground. He spent hours in the slums, talking to the people, drink­ing tea with them. These were signs that, though thought out, had become part of him. He denounced structures of sin and supported initiatives by the poor to raise them­selves up. In 2007, a US diplomat described him as the "leader of the opposition" to the government. Vallely emphasises that he was now taking precisely the positions that in his earlier life he had spurned.

Now he is Pope. The cardinals who elected him wanted radical institutional change. Will he be able to deliver? He is "easily tough enough", his sister says. We shall see. Meanwhile, we have this com­pelling account of his conversion. 

John Wilkins is a former editor of The Tablet.

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