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Austen IvereighJuly 28, 2022
Photo by Ashwin Vaswani on Unsplash

Diego Fares, S.J., who died of cancer last week in Rome at age 66, was arguably the greatest interpreter of the thought and way of proceeding of Pope Francis. I was delighted to call him a friend. But the first time we met, a friendship seemed pretty unlikely.

It was November 2013 in Buenos Aires, where I was researching my biography of Pope Francis, The Great Reformer. My remaining time in the Argentine capital was fast running out, and I was anxious to speak to people who had known Jorge Mario Bergoglio at a deep level and understood what made him tick. The pope had a gift for friendship, and there were many bergoglianos among the Jesuits, but none better, I had been told, than Diego. Pope Francis himself had recommended “the books of Father Fares, an Argentine Jesuit who is doing good work in the social area in Buenos Aires” to a young journalist a few months earlier on the flight back from World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro.

Diego Fares, S.J., who died of cancer last week in Rome at age 66, was arguably the greatest interpreter of the thought and way of proceeding of Pope Francis.

That good work was as director of El Hogar de San José, a large Jesuit project in Buenos Aires serving the homeless. I emailed Diego various times to ask for a meeting but never received a reply. So I headed down to an annual meeting of business, political and labor leaders organized by the archdiocese where I had heard that he was giving two talks on the pope’s thinking. The talks, later published as Papa Francisco: La cultura del encuentro, were a full-body immersion into the Francis hermeneutic. Diego was familiar not just with Bergoglio’s key insights—about the faithful people, inculturation, culture of encounter, isolated conscience, spiritual worldliness, mediators vs. intermediaries—but had deeply studied the major thinkers who had shaped Bergoglio, among them Romano Guardini, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Hans Urs von Balthasar (Diego did his Ph.D. on Balthasar’s phenomenology of truth) and St. Paul VI.

Having found my guru, I fondly pictured myself, notebook in hand, in hours of deep discussion with him over steaming gourds of mate. It was not to be; at least, not then. Seeing him alone after the talks, I rushed over to introduce myself: from England; writing a book on Francis; had tried emailing; loved the talks. But Diego cut me off mid-flow. “I don’t talk to journalists,” he snapped and walked quickly away. I was crushed.

Father Diego Fares and Austen Ivereigh outside the Villa Malta
Father Diego Fares and Austen Ivereigh on the grounds of the Vatican (Provided by author)

I met him again three years later at the Villa Malta, the headquarters of the Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica in Rome, where I had come to see its editor, Antonio Spadaro, S.J. Since 2015, Diego had been one of the writers-in-residence, the journal’s in-house expert on the pope’s thinking. When I reminded him of what Argentines call our desencuentro—a failure to encounter each other—it was Diego’s turn to be crushed. “I’m so sorry,” he said. “It’s my weakness. I don’t know what to say to journalists. I always freeze.”

We had a good laugh about it; he congratulated me on The Great Reformer and invited me to visit when next in Rome. From then on, until I saw him for the last time in October last year, we met often, always in a parlor at the Villa Malta. Sometimes he invited me to join the community for lunch, but would never let me take him out. He was austere in the way that Francis is austere. And that was part of the secret of their 40-year friendship.

From the Barrio to Rome

Diego was from the Andean city of Mendoza, where he had worked with the Jesuits in a poor barrio. It was Bergoglio, then the Jesuit provincial, who interviewed him in 1975 for the novitiate. Diego’s first impression of the provincial’s office in Buenos Aires was of opulence, with its old furniture and a fine library. When Diego commented on this, Bergoglio asked him to come with him upstairs to show him where he lived: a tiny room, almost a broom cupboard, with an old door that barely kept out the damp cold on that winter day.

It was enough for Diego, as one imagines it was for those disciples in the first chapter of John’s Gospel whom Jesus invited to come see where he lived. Struck by the coherence between what Bergoglio said and his dwellings, Diego was won over. Bergoglio would be his rector and formator, and for 40 years his spiritual director, teaching him to give the Spiritual Exercises, especially to young people, and to love the company of the poor. The bond between them ran deep. When Francis came last week to pray at his funeral, he must have felt he had lost a dear son.

Diego was no mean intellectual: After the Ph.D. on von Balthasar, he taught metaphysics at the Jesuits’ Catholic University of Córdoba. He had a philosopher’s mind and a dry, concise style of writing. But it was his spiritual astuteness—that fecund place where deep learning meets discernment of spirits—that was so striking in Diego, as it is in Francis. His move to Rome in 2015—as it turned out, his final mission—was not easy for him. He missed the hustle and bustle of the work with the poor and life in Buenos Aires; and despite his fluency, writing in a formal style was not easy for him. But he was happy to be there for Francis. “I try not to ask anything from him,” he once told me, “but just to be there for when he needs me.”

Bergoglio would be his rector and formator, and for 40 years his spiritual director, teaching him to give the Spiritual Exercises, especially to young people, and to love the company of the poor.

His mission in Rome was not just to interpret the events and teachings of the pontificate but to revisit the largely unexplored treasure trove of Bergoglio’s Jesuit writings. Diego described this as “excavating in that goldmine that is Francis” in a WhatsApp voice message he left me last November in response to my congratulations for an extraordinary Civiltà article he had published. The essay, “Against Triumphalism and Spiritual Worldliness,” was a deep dive into Bergoglio’s powerful writings from his “exile” period in the early 1990s. I told him it was the best thing he had written.

Diego had been working on the article when I saw him in October last year in the Jesuit infirmary on the Borgo Santo Spirito and explained how it had come about. Diego was at peace but exhausted; the cancer had taken over. It felt like goodbye, and I struggled to contain my feelings. But I remember the smile on his face when he told me the pope had been to see him a few weeks before and, finding him too down to write, had suggested the topic to him. It had been a huge effort, he told me, but he was glad to have done it.

Diego had wrestled with it for weeks, finally coming up to the surface with 5,000 words of pure gold for the edition of November-December 2021. But for a short piece on Francis’ “unfinished thinking” in January this year, it would be his final contribution to the journal. There is no better, or deeper, insight than “Against triumphalism” into the constant temptation of the church and its leaders to abandon the cross of pastorality and the demands of discernment, taking refuge in power games, ideologies, moral abstractions and gleaming projects.

It was his spiritual astuteness—that fecund place where deep learning meets discernment of spirits—that was so striking in Diego, as it is in Francis.

The triumphalism essay was a natural sequel to the 2018 collection of Bergoglio writings that Diego had edited with Father Spadaro, later published in English by Orbis Books as The Tribulation Letters. Diego’s essay in that book, on the way Bergoglio unmasks yet is uncontaminated by the “spirit of ferocity,” defeating it without ever directly confronting it, is a tour de force.

A Discerning Leader

Looking back at those writings and the many “tutorials” I had with Diego in 2018 and 2019, I realize now how much Diego helped me understand concretely what many of us intuited: that Francis’ election was the grace-filled response of Providence to a world ever deeper in crisis. He was convinced that the pontificate was a kairos of graces and consolation, in the sense defined by St. Ignatius Loyola as an increase of hope, faith and charity marked by joy. The only question was whether the church would know how to receive that grace and transmit it to the world in works of justice and mercy.

One of those graces was to show how the Spirit allows us to let differences generate fruit rather than conflict. In 2019, I wrote with Diego an article for Civiltà—only Jesuits can contribute, but they are allowed to partner with non-Jesuits—called “How to Communicate in a Polarized Society,” using lessons we had drawn from Francis’ fruitful study of Guardini and his own behavior in response to attacks from critics. It was a good example of how the pope’s insights could liberate us from the descent into factionalism and post-truth politics caused by social media.

Diego helped me to understand, in a broader sense, what it means in the concrete practice of Francis’ governance to be a discerning leader, one who takes seriously the power of God at work in the world and who knows how to avoid being sucked in by the forces that seek to frustrate that power. In one of the Sunday Gospel contemplations he wrote weekly for his much-read blog, on the parable of the sower in Matthew 13, Diego explained how you can speak the truth (facts) but without the good spirit (love)—which is what devils do; and that in correcting falsehood there was always the temptation to do the same. The discernment question was: Could this (what I want to say) be used by the good spirit, or will it be taken advantage of by the bad?

In teaching us to follow Francis, Diego shared the lesson his teacher had taught him: how to put our intellect at the service of love.

Diego showed me that Francis’ discernment-based leadership is about aligning words and actions with the forward motion of the good spirit: hence the extraordinary dynamism of the Francis pontificate, yet also its gentleness. He allowed me to see why Francis’ trust in the Spirit means he is always deeply at peace, even as hell breaks loose around him; and how—by working with the kairos of time, rather than simply the chronos—he can bring about radical change patiently, without violence.

From Diego I also grasped how Francis can both think deeply and at the same time use Guardini’s pensamiento incompleto, “unfinished thinking,” which is always open to the Holy Spirit in reality and experience, avoiding both rigidity and relativism. Bergoglio himself explains this “hermeneutics of reality” in some old notes from 1987, which Diego published in Civiltà: that the task of categories of knowledge is to allow reality to manifest itself as it is, and that antimony or paradox is the best way of grasping the vitality of reality without containing it. Antinomy allows us to move beyond the bounds of ideas to receive the new thing that God is waiting to give us through “overflow.”

All of this shaped my deeper understanding of the pope’s leadership in my second book on Francis, Wounded Shepherd, that came out at the end of 2019. Diego’s tutorials also meant that when the Covid-19 crisis erupted a few months later, I was able to spot at once how Francis was seeing through it to the deeper movements underneath the crisis and why he was the “storm pilot” the world so badly needed. Without Diego’s insights I doubt I would have had the crazy courage to write to Francis to suggest the book of his spiritual guidance for a world reeling from Covid that became Let Us Dream. Diego was delighted with the project, and his help with its redaction—I cannot recall an instance where the pope did not accept his text amendments—was crucial.

In his homily at Diego’s funeral, Father Spadaro described Diego as a great “sower,” one who used his intellect not to gaze at life dispassionately from above—balconeando as Francis would say—but the opposite: to enter deeply into the life of others, to serve them. “To be an intellectual for Diego meant the warm intelligence of life itself,” said Father Spadaro. In teaching us to follow Francis, Diego shared the lesson his teacher had taught him: how to put our intellect at the service of love.

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