Click here if you don’t see subscription options
Pope Francis is pictured cooking in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in an undated file photo. (CNS photo/courtesy of Maria Elena Bergoglio via Reuters)

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)

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Bill Mazzella
10 years 9 months ago
How many of us have gone through similar conversions. Our cowardice finally got to us and, through the grace of God, we changed. “theological narcissism” What an apt phrase. A strong case can be made that Augustine of Hippo started this. The problem with this is too many still follow him. Entranced with his great rhetoric, they forget his substantial anti-Christian actions. We need less reveling into mysticism and more adherence to the Anointing of Jesus.
Laicus Romanus
10 years 8 months ago
Beth Cioffoletti
10 years 9 months ago
I like the title of the book - "Untying the Knots" - and I love this photo of Bergogio. But I'm hesitant to buy the book because it is so soon after Bergoglio's becoming Pope Francis and I wonder if it would give much more insight into the man than this very good review. I'd be interested in others' takes on the book.
David Wray
10 years 9 months ago
Argentina, like the US has plentiful natural resources, an educated population, and is mainly made up of immigrants and their decendants. Unlike the US beginning with Peron the country has been run by authoritarian governments on both the left and right. It is unfortunate that many who have no experience in living in such a situation have taken on themselves to judge the actions of the new Pope during what were extremely difficult and complicated times.
Carlos Leon
10 years 8 months ago
What as great line "the first life will never disappear", as our lives continue from young to old or foolish to wise. The world doesn't like that women and men make better choices as life continues, Jesus demands it. The spirit of God is open to all and for pope it is no different, it's just that the stage is bigger. God bless Francis and us while, we have him among us. The dirty war is not on him or the people of Argentina, only the military who carried it out and those who have no remorse in their actions.
Nicolas Leupold
10 years 8 months ago
Complex politicial reality of the Argentine Dirty War Dear Sir, I find that in your article the complex political environment during the 1970´s Argentine Dirty War is poorly reflected, little researched and oversimplified, if not biased. Terror began in Argentina (as well as the rest of Latin America) in the 60´s and escalated with the assasination of a union leader, Vandor, in 1969. A year later, former president Aramburu, which had ousted Peron in 1955 and executed Valle in 1956, was killed by Montoneros, a terrorist leftist group. Early in 1973 Peron himself fired Montoneros from Plaza de Mayo. Later that same year Fr. Carlos Mugica was killed right after mass. He worked extensively in shanty towns and with high-school and university students. Rucci, a union leader, was shot too later on. Violence escalated every week. By 1976 Argentina was amid deep political and economic turmoil which clearly did not began with the coup. Paradoxically, the right-wing Junta made business with the Soviet Union to avoid the US commercial boicot. They organized a FIFA world championship (soccer) that Argentina won for the first time ever among 23 visiting countries. Extremely complex times. Do you really believe that Fr. Bergoglio argued with later-kidnapped jesuits just because they lived in a shanty town? I understand the reality is way oversimplified here. Could have been the Liberation theology a more realistic discussion issue? Jalics has declared extensively to the press that he was convinced both himself and Yorio were not handed in by Fr. Bergoglio, as many people had said. The most likely reason was their close working relation with a religion teacher abducted three days before their own detention. This is a critical issue you fail to comment (cf. ref.1). Most importantly, Fr. Bergoglio, as the local jesuit leader, met twice with Adm. Massera, the Junta´s fiercest member who ran the Navy and controlled the worst concentrarion camp (ESMA), requesting the immediate release of Jalics and Yorio and succeeded in doing so. As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he sat for testimony to the Argentine justice in 2010 declaring these facts. You do not comment on this either (cf.ref.2). Wether the Catholic hierarchy should have or could have done more to deter the Junta is quite a difficult question to answer. Public and private, independent and institutional efforts were made although they clearly were not enough. There are well documented testimonies and actions (cf.ref.3). We have now an historical perspective and information those chaotic times did not provide. Argentina lies to the Atlantic, not the Pacific, yet the deadly flights were over the River Plate, a huge delta sorrounding Buenos Aires metropolitan area. I am not affiliated to any group within the Catholic Church. Sincerely, Nicolas Leupold / Buenos Aires. References (in Spanish) (1) http://www.elobservador.com.uy/noticia/246375/jalics-bergoglio-no-denuncio-a-orlando-yorio-ni-a-mi/ (2) http://www.lanacion.com.ar/1565204-mire-massera-yo-quiero-que-aparezcan (3) http://www.lanacion.com.ar/1563057-perez-esquivel-hubo-obispos-que-fueron-complices-de-la-dictadura-pero-bergoglio-no
Laicus Romanus
10 years 8 months ago
Are there lessons to be drawn from the Argentinian experience with a military dictatorship that could be useful for Coptic Christians in Egypt ?
Bruce Snowden
10 years 8 months ago
I read, "Readings: The Real Bergoglio" by Paul Valley as reviewed by America Literary Editor Raymond Schroth S.J., and the aura surrounding Pope Francis blacked out! I read the posting by Nicolas Leupold and the light returned! I choose to believe Leupold as most reliable and despite the "sins and errors" admitted to by the young Bergoglio in Valley's account, I find Leupold's non-sensational presentation closer to the "real thing" the truth and nothing but the truth. At least so it seems to me
michael baland
10 years 8 months ago
Prehaps before coming to any conclusions , we should actually read Vallely's book and not just the review.

The latest from america

At center: Republican U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson sits beside Democratic President Joe Biden during the annual National Prayer Breakfast at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Feb. 1, 2024. (OSV News photo/Evelyn Hockstein, Reuters)
Your enemies are children of God—and that includes the presidential candidate you can’t stand and his supporters.
“Brothers and sisters, humility is everything. It is what saves us from the Evil One,” Pope Francis said at today’s general audience, concluding his cycle of catechesis on virtue.
Pope FrancisMay 22, 2024
“Authentic palliative care is radically different from euthanasia, which is never a source of hope or genuine concern for the sick and dying,” the pope said in a message to the first International Interfaith Symposium on Palliative Care in Toronto.
Pope Francis greets Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator, S.J., and Julie Sullivan, the president of Santa Clara University, on March 18, 2024. 
Father Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator is the first dean of the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley born outside of the United States.