Following is my February column that appears in this week’s print edition of The Catholic Post.
No doubt, nearly every one reading this has had a “wow” moment in reading something Pope Francis has said in his nearly two years as Holy Father. You know, that moment of “did he really just say that?” Much has been written about his candor, his impromptu and unscripted interviews and statements.
The latest, and definitive, biography of Pope Francis, Austen Ivereigh’s The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope, helps explain Pope Francis’s style in a sweeping, absorbing, and ultimately inspiring book.
First, Pope Francis is more interested in reaching out to people individually than being quoted exactly or precisely. He has a “missionary, pastoral approach, whose object is to speak to the heart of the other.”
Second, from the moment he was elected, Pope Francis said he felt “a great sense of inner peace and freedom come over me, which has never left me…I believe the Holy Spirit has changed me.”
But it wasn’t just the Holy Spirit’s inspiration to reach out to the fallen away or non-religious in so many varied ways. The Great Reformer covers the influences and biographical details that make Pope Francis such a captivating leader.
It’s an understatement to say that Ivereigh is qualified to write a biography of Pope Francis. Ivereigh (pronounced “ivory”), a British Catholic writer and advisor, has lived in and written about South America since he spent the early 1990s in Argentina, when he worked on his doctoral thesis on the Church and politics in Argentina.
As he writes in the prologue, “As a foreigner who had long grappled with Argentina’s complexities, and knew the Jesuits, perhaps I was well placed to help outsiders understand the Francis enigma.” He has absolutely succeeded in this, having written a fascinating, sweeping, and highly readable biography and history book.
Some highlights of what makes The Great Reformer such a major work:
*Argentina. the book is a primer in Argentina’s political and church history, how they interact, in South and America and the wider world.
*his family life & upbringing. Jorge Bergoglio’s extended family and life as immigrants, as well as the ups and downs of life, considerably influences his life, and this book explains how.
*Jesuit life. Ivereigh explains the importance of the Jesuit’s discernment of spirits, and how this has been a major theme in the life and spiritual path of Pope Francis. From the time he first felt the call to religious life in his teens, to his decision to take the name “Francis” when elected pope, to his decisions during his life as a priest and his first two years of being pope, Jesuit philosophy has been at the forefront.
*politics. The Great Reformer covers how much of how Pope Francis has been for decades an adroit politician, both through years of experience in church and politics, as well as his sincere interest in people and their needs. He’s a “chess player,” he “understands power and how to use it,” but importantly, he uses those skills to serve the greater good of those most vulnerable.
*love for the poor. Much of this has been covered elsewhere, but Pope Francis’ simplicity of life and care for the downtrodden, often personally, throughout his priesthood, stands out.
*prayer. I found this the most inspiring theme of “The Great Reformer.” Pope Francis, for decades, has had a deep and constant prayer life, and it informs all his decisions. In recent years, he has “risen at 4 a.m. to pray, and, as Ivereigh writes, “this was the time, his mind alert and heart open—when he made the most important decisions.”
“He genuinely governed, say those who worked with him, by seeing everything in the light of God’s will. His dawn discernments made him decisive, yet experiences in prayer also led him to reconsider. He was instinctively hostile to the idea of deacons, for example, seeing them as clericalized laity, but told three of them who had trained for the role: ‘I really don’t like deacons. But the Virgin came to me last night and asked for three deacons for Buenos Aires.’”
The Great Reformer reminds me very much of Witness to Hope, George Weigel’s biography of Pope John Paul II. “Witness to Hope” was written in 1999, and updated in 2009, that is the authoritative biography of Pope John Paul II, at almost 900 pages.
Even more so, The Great Reformer (at a more manageable under-400 pages) will be considered the definitive biography of Pope Francis years from now. Ivereigh’s scope of knowledge about Argentina and the Church, his range of sources, and his sharp and comprehensive writing, make this a highly recommended book for anyone who wishes to understand Pope Francis better. I found this book not just highly readable and informative, but very inspiring.
The Great Reformer is a great gift to the Church, as well any reader who wants to know more about one of the most fascinating and holy leaders of our time.