At last a book has put both Jorge Mario Bergoglio, S.J., and Pope Francis in context, and explained the mystery of this man who seems to have come from nowhere to lead the Catholic Church at a critical time. I say “from nowhere” because few Americans know our neighbors well. The reported dark years during Argentina’s Dirty War, when the local Catholic hierarchy declined to publicly oppose a brutal military leadership, have raised questions about our new pope who, according to reports, alienated many members of the Society of Jesus when he served as novice master and provincial.
Paul Vallely, a respected writer on religious, ethical and social issues for both The Independent and The Tablet, traveled to Argentina and Rome to research Pope Francis: Untying the Knots (Bloomsbury) and offer an honest portrait. We meet a man who did, yes, make decisions of which he is today ashamed, and who has emerged from his own dark period a new person.
Jorge Bergoglio joined the Jesuits in 1958, was ordained in 1969, named novice master in 1971 and provincial for 1973 to 1979. During that time Argentina was ruled mainly by the military, a dictator, Juan Peron, and the military junta again from 1976 to 1983. In the period known as the Dirty War (1976-1981), tens of thousands of citizens, including 150 Catholic priests, were killed simply for being suspected of Marxist leanings. They were “disappeared,” often flown over the Atlantic and dumped from the plane into the ocean. Over 500 pregnant women were held prisoners until their babies were born. The state gave the babies to “good” (pro-junta) Catholic families and killed the mothers.
As provincial, says the author, Bergoglio did not support changes made by Vatican II, banned books by Jesuits sympathetic to liberation theology, replaced new songs with old Latin hymns at Mass and opposed Decree Four on social justice at the 32nd General Congregation of the Society of Jesus. The most controversial incident concerns two older Jesuit priests, Orlando Yorio and Franz Jalics, who had been Bergoglio’s theology and philosophy professors during his Jesuit training, and later insisted on living with the poor in a small community. Bergoglio ordered them to leave the shanty town and, when they refused, expelled them from the Jesuits. The government kidnapped and tortured them for five months, then dumped them naked on the road. Bergoglio made several efforts to have them released, but one of the priests remained convinced for years that the provincial had turned them in.
Vallely concludes that Bergoglio secretly did much to protect victims from the junta, but he felt he could not speak out because he had seen priests and bishops killed for doing so. His job, he felt, was to protect his Jesuits, and he took comfort in the fact that all of them made it through the period alive. Unfortunately the majority of the Argentinian hierarchy seemed comfortable with the junta. Vallely meticulously assesses his subject fairly, and concludes that Bergoglio, in his 30s, was too young for that level of responsibility and lacked the experience to deal with the two zealous older men. In fact, Bergoglio himself came to agree with this, writes Vallely.
There does not seem to have been a “Damascus moment,” like St. Paul’s conversion, to explain Bergoglio’s change of heart. Having lost the confidence of his fellow Jesuits who complained about him to Jesuit headquarters in Rome, and after some years as a college rector and teacher, Bergoglio in 1990 was sent away to Cordoba, Argentina, for two years to work on a doctoral dissertation. We learn little of those years, but Bergoglio indicates in a later interview how he spent them when he says, “I had to learn from my errors along the way…I had made hundreds of errors. Errors and sins.” He became convinced he needed forgiveness, and doubtless he turned to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius to turn his life around.
In 1992 Bergoglio was named auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires and then archbishop in 1998. He soon demonstrated a genius for administration marked by humility and concern for the poor. He walked the streets of the slums, which he ordered Jalics and Yorio to abandon in 1976, as if this was his home. His commitment to the poor was not simple charity. When in 2001 Argentina’s economic crisis struck and austerity fell most heavily on the poorest people, Bergoglio called upon liberation theology’s critique of “unbridled capitalism” which fragments social and economic life. An unjust distribution of goods, he said, creates a “social sin.” When a well-dressed stranger threatened a zealous young priest, “Padre Pepe,” to tone down his anti-drug rhetoric or be killed, Bergoglio told the priest that if anyone should be killed it should be himself. The bishop spent the next day in the slum listening to, chatting and drinking tea with the people. The third day he held an outdoor Mass in the Plaza de Mayo and tipped off the media he had something to say: a bold denunciation of the drug sellers and their death threats.
With no secretary he took all phone calls himself. The man who had been so certain of self and domineering with Jesuits learned to listen, and consultation became the backbone of his administrative style. All this of course made two new groups of enemies for Bergoglio: the government whose economic policies were hurting the people and the bishops allied with Opus Dei and most closely associated with the military during the Dirty War. This group spread slanderous gossip to undermine his candidacy during the papal conclave in 2005. During the election in 2013 it was Bergoglio’s three and a half minute speech (he was allowed five minutes) in which he warned his brother cardinals that the church was suffering from “theological narcissism,” which Henri de Lubac, S.J., called “spiritual worldliness,” that convinced the delegates that this was the man to lead them.
The title “untying the knots” refers to a painting in Augsburg which Bergoglio admired. It shows the Virgin Mary untangling a ribbon with the help of angels. This is just the beginning of the story of this man’s second life. Perhaps he saw this ribbon as his life. The first life will never disappear. He was reconciled with Father Jalics some years ago: they threw themselves weeping into one another’s arms. Now in every Jesuit residence hangs a photo of Pope Francis and Adolfo Nicolas, S.J., the head Jesuit in Rome, joyfully embracing one another. But in the evening in Rome he sits alone, makes and takes phone calls, listens to classical music and prays. Chapters of a life never close; they are absorbed into life as it progresses, feeding one’s humility and courage.
Raymond A. Schroth, S.J., is literary editor of America.
(Photo credit: Catholic News Service/courtesy of Maria Elena Bergoglio via Reuters)