How Pope Francis’ upbringing shaped his role as reformer

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Untitled-1From his simple lifestyle to his active engagement in diplomacy, Pope Francis has distinguished himself as the leader of the Catholic Church. Jeffrey Brown talks to Austen Ivereigh, author of a new biography, “The Great Reformer,” about the ways the pope’s upbringing in Argentina informed his papal priorities, and his efforts to clean up the Vatican.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Now: change at the Vatican.
Pope Francis is ushering in a new era in Rome.
Jeffrey Brown has that.
JEFFREY BROWN: This is the second time Pope Francis has delivered a Christmas message to the world’s Catholics. Almost two years ago, in March of 2013, Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio became the first pope from the Americas, the first non-European pope since the year 741.

He was a surprise choice and he has captured the world’s attention ever since. Francis has chosen a simpler lifestyle at the Vatican, residing in a guest house, instead of the Apostolic Palace, forgoing the chauffeured Mercedes in favor a plain black sedan.

He has begun to travel and take a more active role in diplomacy. Last month, he visited Turkey, where thousands of Iraqi and Syrian Christians have fled the forces of the Islamic State. While there, he reaffirmed the use of military force against I.S.

And now we have learned of his key part in shepherding negotiations that led to an opening between the U.S. and Cuba. In September of next year, Francis will travel to Philadelphia for an international meeting on the family. He is also expected to stop in New York City.

A new biography begins to fill in more of the story of the man, “The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope.” Its author is Austen Ivereigh, a British journalist, former adviser to a top English cardinal, and co-founder of Catholic Voices, a lay group that works to improve the church’s representation in the media.

And welcome to you.

AUSTEN IVEREIGH, Author, “The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope”: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: When you go back to his childhood, Pope Francis’, his roots in Argentina, what do you see? What picture emerges of the future pope?

AUSTEN IVEREIGH: I see a man of lower-middle class, Italian immigrant, who understands the pain and the suffering of the poor and of people who move country to the new world, a man who’s profoundly religious actually from an early age, but not in a particularly kind of pious way.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, not expected that he would have gone on to the priesthood?

AUSTEN IVEREIGH: His piety, his religiosity was noticed by his colleagues at school at an early age, also his intelligence. He was a standout smart guy who loved to solve people’s problems.

And I think, there, you see a little bit of the future pastoral pope that we have now.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the understanding of the poverty and the poor comes from?

AUSTEN IVEREIGH: Well, from his family.

He grew up actually reasonably comfortably, but there wasn’t a lot of money around. They didn’t take vacations. They recycled clothes. But I think it was more from him. I understand from his friends, childhood friends, that he was always doing things for others and helping people and concerned.

And when he spoke about his future, he said, I don’t want to be stuck in a cathedral. I want to be out there with the people on the frontier, where the poor are.

JEFFREY BROWN: Those years where he was the head of the Jesuit order in Argentina order were — were horrible years in Argentina.

And there has hung over him the what happened or what didn’t happen, did he do enough to stop the killings, the disappearances that were going on in the so-called dirty war?

AUSTEN IVEREIGH: It was an extremely tough time where there was a polarization in Argentina, as well as within the Jesuits.

You have one of the Western Hemisphere’s largest guerrilla forces, the Montoneros and the ERP, which genuinely threatened the state. And you have then a ferocious dictatorship, which then kills thousands of them in order to exterminate them.

So, he takes over the Jesuit order at a time of internal crisis in the order and refocuses the Jesuits on their mission, on the poor. And he tries to, as it were, detach them from ideology. So, that was really his role during that time.

He steered a delicate line, trying to achieve two things, on the one hand, protecting his Jesuits from the regime, from the dictatorship, on the other hand, protecting those whom the dictatorship was after.

Now, these two things were in contradiction. If it had been known he was doing the second, the Jesuits would have been in danger.

JEFFREY BROWN: But do you know how he looks back at those years now and at that time? Does he feel that he did enough then or…



AUSTEN IVEREIGH: And he’s said so publicly.

He’s tortured by the fact that there were people who came to him for help whom he couldn’t help. But he did help a lot of people. He actually sheltered dozens of people. He got dozens of people out of the country.

I don’t think anybody who lived through that time afterwards, realizing what happened — and they really only realized later — ever really thinks they did enough.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, moving up to today, the book is called “The Great Reformer.”

What does that mean? A reformer in what sense?

AUSTEN IVEREIGH: One of the reason I wanted to call the book “The Great Reformer” is that it’s quite a provocative title for people in the church, because reform in the church history has gone wrong. It’s ended up in division and in schism.


AUSTEN IVEREIGH: But there’s another kind of reform, which actually goes all the back, Saint Francis of Assisi, some of the great medieval popes, who were all about recalling the church to its fundamental mission, to reducing its dependence on poverty, status, wealth and power, depending on Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, focusing on the poor.

I see him as in that tradition. And that’s why I say he’s a great reformer. And, as I show in the book, in every position he’s been in, in the church in Argentina and now, he’s actually done that. He’s reformed.

JEFFREY BROWN: It doesn’t mean, though, overhauling church teachings. There was — does it? There was much attention when he spoke out about, for example, saying the church seems to put too much emphasis on homosexuality or abortion.

AUSTEN IVEREIGH: It was understood at the time as meaning — by some people — as meaning in some way — weakening or diluting church doctrine. He wasn’t saying that at all.

What he’s saying is that there is another part of church teaching which we need to understand, which is God loves you, God wants to heal you, save you, the church is a mother, as well as a teacher. Now, that bit, he thinks, has got lost in perhaps the effort of the church over the last few years to have a kind of clarity of doctrine.

So, what he’s doing is not changing church teaching. He’s thinning it out and showing it in its fullness.

JEFFREY BROWN: Some of what he has done has stirred some opposition or controversy within the church. Right?

AUSTEN IVEREIGH: Well, the opposition to Francis is real, and it came to the fore in October, when he called together the world’s bishops to consider very difficult questions.

Now, some of them disliked even that and disliked particularly the way the media was interpreting it. I reckon it’s probably maybe 20 or 30 out of 190 that were there. We’re not talking, in other words, about any majority, but nonetheless a group of people who I think are uncomfortable, who yearn for a certain kind of clarity which they think Francis is threatening.

I think he exposes people’s attachment to ideology, rather than the Gospel.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you finally, where do you think his biggest impact will be?

AUSTEN IVEREIGH: I think there’s going to be massive two achievements in this papacy.

The first is the reform for which he was elected, reform of church governance, clean up of the Curia, clean up of the Vatican, finances, that kind of thing. I don’t think he thinks that is the most important thing he will do, but I think actually it is a very important thing.

And in the book, I kind of break the story of the remarkable breakthrough that is now happening between Catholics and evangelicals, and this is particularly important of course here in the U.S. Most Protestant Christians are now evangelicals. The Catholic Church hasn’t had much of a relationship with them.

He is very much of that ilk. He’s a charismatic Catholic who knows evangelicals very well. As I believe there will be an important declaration in the coming years between Catholics and evangelicals which will do a lot to end the rivalry between them.

I think there will be other things, breakthroughs. But I think those are the two big ones.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. The book is “The Great Reformer.”

Austen Ivereigh, thank you so much.