Advertisements ad ad ad ad ad ad ad ad

August 23 - September 5, 2015

Papal biographer talks to CNW about understanding Pope Francis Author will speak in Chicago Aug. 24 and 25

A woman dressed as a character from a Nativity scene puts a lamb around the neck of Pope Francis as he arrives to visit the Church of St. Alfonso Maria dei Liguori in Rome Jan. 6, 2014. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

When Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was elected Pope Francis on March 13, 2013, few in the English-speaking world knew who he was. Writers and editors scrambled to put together biographies of the first pope from Latin America but one title that stands out is “The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope,” by English journalist Austen Ivereigh. His book helps readers get past the news media’s idea of who Francis is to the true shepherd, what has formed him and what he is trying to do in his pontificate.

On Aug. 25 at 7 p.m., Ivereigh will speak about Pope Francis’ upcoming visit to the United States during a free lecture at St. Ignatius College Prep, 1076 W. Roosevelt Road. He recently spoke to editor Joyce Duriga.

Catholic New World: In your book you focus on three ways Pope Francis is a reformer.

Austen Ivereigh: What I say is that Francis is a reformer in the tradition of radical Catholic reform which was really well laid out by Yves Congar, one of his favorite theologians, in his book “True and False Reform in the Church” published in the 1950s. All true Catholic reform doesn’t question key Catholic teachings and doctrines and takes place within, in other words, the Catholic tradition.

But interestingly, true Catholic reform is always pastoral in its purpose. In other words, the objective of that reform is always to bring people back into relationship with God, into sacramental life and into parish life. Therefore any other object of reform is an indication that it’s not true reform.

The third characteristic is that all true reform begins on the periphery and moves toward the center. Real change happens in the church when the center opens itself to the periphery. This has a biblical basis because Jesus starts in Galilee with the fishermen and the shepherds and goes to Jerusalem later.

When people are constantly asking “What kind of a pope is Francis? What does he want to do?” I say he’s not a liberal. He’s not a conservative. He’s not a liberal in a sense because he’s not seeking to modernize or dilute or change church doctrines. He’s carrying out a radical pastoral revolution within the tradition of the Catholic Church stretching back centuries, in many ways exemplified by his hero St. Francis of Assisi.

CNW: Many people believe he’s changing or is going to change church doctrine and teachings. What do you mean by pastoral reforms?

Ivereigh: He isn’t changing church teaching. To people who say that I say “Just name one Catholic doctrine which he is challenging or changing.” In fact, this pope, and I share this in the book, is, as he describes himself, a loyal son of the church. I think he’s produced some of the most robust defenses of controversial Catholic teaching — for example, “Humanae Vitae” — of any pope of recent memory.

I think people are concerned that he may be liberalizing doctrine or hope that he will be because I think that we tend to view the pope through the prism of our own Catholic cultural differences. And, of course, the big cultural battle within the Catholic Church following the Vatican Council was between, as it was, liberals and conservatives.

But Francis comes out of a tradition — a Latin American tradition, and within that also specifically an Argentine tradition — in which the battles were not those.

So for him true reform is about returning the church to its missionary essence, its missionary purpose, which Jesus Christ entrusted to the first apostles. It is that task of evangelization and, above all, to bring about change from below through ordinary people coming into contact with God. That’s how real change happens.

A lot of things that Francis is changing are an attempt to purge the church of those things which distract it from the essence of that mission. I think he firmly believes and it’s been consistent throughout his life that the greatest problem for the church in evangelizing is what another of his favorite theologians Henri de Lubac calls spiritual worldliness, which is where the church relies on the power of this world — wealth, security, bureaucratic programs, ego and so on. Then the Gospel message gets contaminated and rejected.

A lot of his reforms — and he is a reformer and he is a radical — are about recovering the purity of the essence of the mission of the church, which is missionary. That feels to some people very threatening and it feels unsettling. Therefore, that leads to a certain kind of person to see in him something that they fear, which for many people is a liberal but I think that’s a projection.

CNW: There is a story you tell near the beginning of the book how when Bergoglio was in charge of some seminarians and needed to feed them he started a farm with livestock and produce. Then he sent the seminarians out to teach the children in the neighborhood only to find out the children didn’t have enough to eat. Then the farm expanded so they could feed the children. His actions seem reminiscent of the Jesuit’s founder St. Ignatius of Loyola.

Ivereigh: I think in the book I could have made more of the Jesuit Bergoglio because I think what he was seeking to do as a Jesuit provincial, and in many ways what he was doing as bishop and pope, is a kind of primitive Jesuit evangelization — which is to always be alongside people wherever they are in their need to meet those needs.

Mission is all about divesting yourself and accompanying others and listening to them and knowing what they need. Then attending to those needs because that’s what Christ does and that’s the primary evangelization.

Austen Ivereigh in Chicago

Ivereigh will speak about Pope Francis’ upcoming visit to the United States during two free lectures:

  • in Spanish, Aug. 24, 7 p.m., at Immaculate Conception Church, 2745 W. 44th St.
  • in English, Aug. 25, 7 p.m., at St. Ignatius College Prep, 1076 W. Roosevelt Road.

It’s not going in there with doctrines and with teachings nor is it to put your faith in political change. It is what Francis calls the “Samaritan church.” It’s a very physical and immediate thing. You go out and you meet people in their need and in doing so you show Christ to them and you offer them the experience of God’s love and mercy in very practical and very straightforward ways.

Francis is a great teacher but he’s also a great doer. Everybody who has always known him says “The one thing about him is you can always turn to him for help.” And I can tell you in writing this book and speaking to people who know him very well in Rome I’ve heard some extraordinary stories about the kinds of incredibly practical help he gives even now as pope. I can’t use these stories because they are very personal and told to me in confidence but they’re very moving stories and they just take your breath away.

He as pope gives this kind of time and very simple, practical help. He’s that involved in people’s lives even as pope. I think that’s key to understanding him and also what he’s trying to do with the church.

CNW: You noted that one way to understand Pope Francis better is to understand Jesuit theology. What do you mean?

Ivereigh: Well, what I say in the book, and I think this is particularly true of “The Joy of the Gospel,” his apostolic exhortation of November 2013, in which famously he talks about the church as a “battlefield hospital which must tend to people’s wounds,” I think what he’s saying there is that in Ignatian terms we need to give people an experience of the first week of the Spiritual Exercises (of St. Ignatius) rather than taking them immediately to the second week.

Anyone who has done the Spiritual Exercises knows that the first week is spent going back over your life and experiencing the mercy of God. In other words, experiencing the fact that nothing can separate you from the love of God, that he’s been unconditionally loving you all along and unconditionally forgiving you even when you’ve rejected him in behavior. The first week is designed to bring you to that knowledge. It is a very powerful and emotional and spiritual experience.

It opens the heart and mind then to the second week, which is when, in effect, you make your choice to follow Christ. I think in Francis’ reading the church has too often put the second week before the first week or ignored the first week completely. In other words, we believe somehow that the proclamation of truth, the demand of commitment and so on can happen without offering people that primary experience of God’s merciful love.

One way of reading what Pope Francis is trying to do is that he’s trying to restore what is known in theology as the primary proclamation, which involves God’s saving, merciful love. Because when people experience that it changes them. This is why mercy is such a keynote of his pontificate and why he’s declared next year to be the Jubilee Year of Mercy.

Just an anecdote, there was a retreat that he gave a few months before he became pope in Buenos Aires and he was meditating on the stoning of the woman caught in adultery in John Chapter 8. He says, “Did the woman sin again?”
And he says, “Well, of course the Gospels don’t tell us but you can be sure that she didn’t because nobody who has experienced that much mercy can depart from the law.”

It’s a really, really strong thing to say but I realized when I read that that he has such faith in the converting power of the experience of mercy that he always wants to make that the priority of our evangelization.

CNW: How would you define mercy?

Ivereigh: It’s a good question. We should be able to define mercy perhaps better than we do because it is so key. It is the experience of the unconditional love of God, first of all. It is the recognition also that all is gift, that actually we don’t earn our salvation but that everything is freely given by God who loves us into being.

The key thing is to know who God is and to know that God is mercy. Once you experience that then that changes  your life in a way that the abstract knowledge of a distant God can’t. Many things of course flow from that.

One of the interesting things about the Latin American church is that charity and evangelization are not two different things, whereas they are in your country and mine. We tend to separate these two different things. In the Latin American church they aren’t separate.

In offering charity to those who need it you are also very deliberately telling them where that comes from and who God is at the same time. I think that’s one of the reasons why we in the northern, wealthy countries are having problems adjusting to the Francis pontificate because the categories are new. They’re actually very familiar categories for those who know the Latin American church well.

I think we have disconnected the two. I think that is part of our problem. We do a lot for the needy and the poor but we tend to say we’re not proselytizing, we’re not bringing our faith into it directly. We just hope that somehow people will notice where it comes from or will ask. We’re insufficiently forward about what our motivation is. In fact our motivation for helping others is because we first received. And it’s out of gratitude that we then want to do the same for others. I think we need to be bolder about why we do that to connect these two things more clearly.