Recently I was talking with someone who was brought up a Catholic but it now an atheist. Although he has rejected the church of his upbringing, he was fascinated and excited by the approach of Pope Francis.
It was just one example of the impact that Jorge Bergoglio has had since becoming Pope in March 2013. His generosity, simplicity and passion for social justice has captured the imagination of those both inside and outside the Church.
Conservative and dictatorial
But, as this biography shows, Bergoglio journey to becoming Pope is not a straightforward one. Back in the 1970s and 80s, when he headed up the Jesuits in Argentina, he was seen as dictatorial, conservative and divisive figure who tried to quash the influence of the Liberation Theology movement. He was even implicated in the military’s kidnapping and torture of radical priests who worked in the slums.
Vallely explores these accusations extensively and does not shy away from mistakes that Bergoglio made during this period. The question that lies at the heart of the book is how did Jorge Bergoglio transform from such a conservative and divisive figure to someone who is proving to be such a radical and popular Pope?
Deep spiritual experience
The answer is what makes this biography so fascinating and helpful. Because Vallely argues that Bergoglio’s transformation came not through shrewd careerism or a shift in political outlook, but a deep spiritual experience. He came to terms with his mistakes and failures through prayer and repentance.
The knots are a metaphor for the difficulties we face and as Vallely puts it ‘There were knots aplenty for the Virgin Mary to untie for Bergoglio”. He spent many hours praying and meditating in front of the picture.
‘Bishop of the slums’
As Vallely writes ‘An extraordinary journey had begun’ which would lead Bergoglio back to Argentina and eventually to become Archbishop of Buenos Aires. In this role he spurned the luxurious trappings of high office and insisted on using public transport.
He became known as ‘the bishop of the Slums’ because of how he increased the numbers of priests working in the poorest areas. In addition, he became an outspoken critic of economic injustice which maintained poverty:
‘We are tired of systems that produce poor people so that then the Church can support them’
Breaking the mould
Right from the off, it was clear that he was going to be a different kind of Pope. When approached to be offered the role, the candidate would traditionally say one word: “Accepto“. When Jorge Bergoglio was asked, he replied:
“I am a great sinner, trusting in the mercy and patience of God in suffering, I accept.”
Bergoglio’s appointment broke the mould: he became the first Jesuit Pope, the first to come from the southern hemisphere and the first ever to take the name Francis. And since taking on the role he has been determined to embody a simpler and less formal type of papacy.
‘I don’t need all this space’
When he was shown the Apostolic Palace where generations of Popes have lived he said ‘There’s room for 300 people here. I don’t need all this space’ and decided to live in a simple guesthouse. The next day he preached at Mass:
“If we walk without the cross…then we are not our Lord’s disciples. We are worldly people. We may be bishops, priests, cardinals, popes. But we are not disciples of the Lord”
As Vallely notes ‘Cardinals were not used to anyone suggesting, particularly not the Pope, that they were not proper disciples of Christ’.
‘Our true power must be in service’
This biography is inspiring because it shows how personal spirituality can equip a leader with the resources to be brave and radical in the public sphere. His lifestyle and integrity drives the clarity of his vision:
‘The poor are the treasure of the Church. If we lose this vision of things, we will have a lukewarm, weak and mediocre Church. Our true power must be service. We cannot adore God if our spirit does not include the needy.’
I have never read a book about a Pope before, but this biography excited and inspired me. Jorge Bergoglio is a flawed human being, a sinner, whose experience of God’s grace has led him on an incredible adventure in radical humility. Who knows what God may achieve through him?