Francis: Pope of Good Promise has the contours of a picaresque tale mixed with a journalist’s quest. Jimmy Burns, the prize-winning author of books about the Falklands War and international soccer, goes in search of the Argentine Jesuit become pope. Burns establishes his bona fides: Born of an Anglo-Spanish family, with its consequent variations on Catholicism, he is educated at Stonyhurst College in England where he is introduced to Jesuits and Ignatian spirituality. In this, he recognizes an affinity between Jorge Bergoglio’s spiritual world and his own experience as a “Jesuit boy.” A pilgrimage to Ignatian sites and various shrines from France to Spain and eventually Rome brings Burns into conversation with Jesuits and others, who have various opinions about the new pope. Closing Chapter One, Burns spots another affinity with Bergoglio, love of soccer.
There is a brief stop-off in Chapter Two to reflect on the election of Benedict and his resignation. Finally, in Chapter Three, we have “Habemus Papam Francisco” with post-hoc observations about the inevitability of Bergoglio’s election. Not only picaresque but sprawling, Francis repeats much that we have heard before and probes events that raise doubts about Francis’ courage, if not integrity.
At some point, we will know all there is to know about Bergoglio: the Italian immigrant family, the happy childhood, the beloved grandmother, the soccer fan, the lung infection, seminary, ordination, Jesuit rector and provincial, auxiliary bishop and finally archbishop of Buenos Aires. Burns retells it all, and then some. Eventually this Argentine background will fade and the papacy of Francis will take front and center in assessing him. Until then, Burns reprises Bergoglio’s conflicted history with the Argentine Jesuits, his opaque relations with warring Peronist political factions and the oft-repeated charges that he grievously failed in his responsibilities during Argentina’s dirty war (1976-83).
None of this will be news to readers of Paul Vallely’s Pope Francis or Austen Ivereigh’s The Great Reformer. Burns’s multiple, and often anonymous, sources leave open rather than resolve the charges brought against Bergoglio after the dirty war ended, repeated again after he became archbishop of Buenos Aires and revived once more when he became pope. Who are the sources of these parting shots? Interlocutors whom Burns “met on this journey but asked not to be named.” If anonymous sources have plausible reason to mask their names, the reader has plausible reason to question the retelling of events long over while spinning them to cast doubts.
The account of the two Jesuits, Francisco Jalics and Orlando Yorio, imprisoned and tortured in 1976 by the military is repeated with emphasis on Yorio’s claim that Bergoglio betrayed them. Jalics has told another story (that it was a local catechist who gave their names while being tortured). Of this version we hear little. Emilio Mignone, who early on naïvely urged his daughter to cooperate with the military and never saw her again, later claimed that Bergoglio did nothing to save the Jesuits or others. In spite of witnesses to the contrary, Burns generalizes these charges to what he sees as Bergoglio’s failure to rescue the “disappeared.” In a peculiar aside, he argues that the Jesuit could have followed Oskar Schindler’s example in saving Jews during World War II by putting them to work in his factory. (As it happens Schindler moved to Argentina, where he died in 1974.) Bergoglio’s ultimate failure, in Burns’s judgment: He did not become a martyr in a long Jesuit tradition. (This gave me pause: What is Burns’s theology of martyrdom?) Is there a secret fifth vow for Jesuits?
An outsider to these events and their conflicting accounts can understand the stress and regrets of those terrible times (even Mignone’s harsh judgment), but still ask why Bergoglio’s account isn’t as credible as his accusers’: He asked the two to leave their mission; he warned them of trouble; when he found out where they were imprisoned, he, along with others, worked to have them freed. When they were freed, he got them out of Argentina.
The Kirchner presidencies (Nestor, 2003–7; Cristina, 2008–15) highlight the convoluted role of Argentine church-state relations, formal and informal. If Bergoglio, by then archbishop of Buenos Aires, held private meetings to reconcile warring Peronist factions, was that duplicitous or prudent? If his predecessor enjoyed warm relations with President Menem, is Bergoglio picking a fight with the Kirchners or asserting episcopal independence? Is there really a secret tunnel connecting the presidential palace and the chancery? Gossip about Argentina’s tortuous politics allows Burns to raise suspicions about Bergoglio’s political views and Peronist leanings, whether to clarify or cast aspersions is never clear. Thus ends part one.
In Part Two, assessing Francis’ first year in office, walking and talking, as he says “among the faithful,” Burns offers impressions of a shanty town, World Youth Day in Brazil, the Vatican banking scandal, Catholic women, the sex abuse scandal, etc. How is Francis doing? At the end of his quest from Jesuit prep school to pope-watching, Burns suggests, “promising” (signaled in the subtitle, “Pope of Good Promise”). Promising? Perhaps the same conclusion Stonyhurst Jesuits came to about young Jimmy Burns.
Do I sound underwhelmed? For all the facts, factoids, gossip and opinion gathered on this journey, the tale lacks coherence, chronology, footnotes and a credible bibliography. Even Bergoglio seems to fade in the hustle and bustle of the “Jesuit boy’s” quest. Perhaps the papal visit to the United States prompted a rush into print when greater discernment (another Jesuit practice) was in order.
In one more peculiar aside, Burns dismisses Austen Ivereigh (The Great Reformer) as “a Catholic author who holds his subject in unwavering reverence.” Yet Ivereigh delivers a clearly written and chronologically coherent story without Burns’s score-settling (and holds his subject in wavering reverence). If the title, The Great Reformer seems too enthusiastic before the event, then “Pope of Good Promise” seems a bit stingy after two years. Perhaps even now, there is another pilgrim writing yet another book, “Francis: A Breath of Fresh Air.”