Austen Ivereigh, The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical PopeAllen and Unwin, London 2014

Deeply disturbing I found this book when I first read it last year and I remain disturbed. Yet everyone I have read so far has given it glowing reviews. I am confused. Most likely I am like the raw recruit whose mother, watching him on parade, asked: “Why is everyone but my boy out of step?”

Austen Ivereigh is known for his great services in presenting the Catholic Church to the media. Here he gives an attractive and convincing account of Pope Francis’ Argentine background, his development as a Jesuit, his sterling work as provincial giving new impetus to the Society in the 1970s. Ivereigh’s love and admiration for Pope Francis is palpable and, as a Catholic, I find it admirable.

But I have concerns with Ivereigh’s book. There are two I would like to bring out here. The first is that it leaves the reader with the clear – but unfair – impression that the two previous pontificates to that of Francis were less than satisfactory. A second concern is that it paints a confusing – and possibly inaccurate – picture of the Jesuits since the mid-1970s and how Francis fits into this picture.

The “monarchical” Vatican

Along with all the positive aspects of the book, we also find passages like those on the Latin American Episcopal Council (CELAM) and Pope John Paul II. Regarding the self-confidence of the Latin American episcopate as expressed in the CELAM conferences of 1968 and 1979, Ivereigh states: “That self-confidence, however, had since evaporated. Partly the decline was due to the demise of liberation theology in the 1980s, but in large part it was due to the centralist papacy of John Paul II.”

This view of Pope John Paul is repeated several times in the book. Giving a general overview of recent popes, Ivereigh tells us: “Paul VI had travelled, a little, mostly for bridge-building meetings with political and religious leaders. John Paul II, until his infirmity, travelled constantly, like a great emperor organising his populace, addressing great crowds in every place he visited. Benedict XVI, a regular but reluctant traveller, was shy and quiet-voiced, and liked to meet people in small groups. Francis was different again. He had neither the swagger of John Paul II nor the erudition of Benedict XVI. But what was fascinating was how, in meeting the crowds, he shifted the focus. With Paul VI, the attention was on the dignitaries he met; with John Paul II, it was inevitably on himself; with Benedict, it was on the text he read. But with Francis the attention went to those he called God’s holy faithful people. Here was a pope who, when he was among them, made ordinary people the protagonists”.

The inescapable impression is that during thirty and more years (the pontificates of Popes John Paul II and Benedict) the Church had suffered from a deadening centralism, a reverse of the open door approach of Pope Paul VI and Vatican II.

Ivereigh makes a plea that the Church (and in particular, the central organs of Church government in Rome) should listen to what vigorous local church communities in places like Latin America have to say. But what is this about a “Latin-American magisterium”, different from Rome and the Vatican, which instead is seen as exhausted and indeed “imploding”? Surely we have heard this before? From Arius, the Albigensians, Luther, Loisy?

How did Ivereigh come to these views, to the rejection of Popes John Paul and Benedict, to the defence of an ecclesiastical collegiality independent from the Pope?

Francis and the Jesuits

One of the strengths of Ivereigh’s book is the thoroughness of his interviews with Jesuits and former Jesuits in Argentina to obtain an adequate understanding of Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s upbringing. But when it comes to delving deeper into the worldwide Church I think this strength – and I say this very much open to correction – has become a weakness. There seems to be an excessive reliance on Jesuit sources, especially, though not exclusively, dissident ones. The result is a mixed, often confused, picture.

We are told that the Jesuits in 1965 were at their peak: “Worldwide, the 36,000 Jesuits in 1965 made up the largest, best-organised, and most expert body of priests in the Church”. Then, in 1974-75, a decision is taken by the Society to change track and devote itself to social justice and the poor. And what is the outcome? This is the question. Ivereigh seems to offer two answers.

One answer seems to be that nothing is wrong. The Jesuits were right in 1974 in their new commitment to social improvement. Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI did not understand them but the Jesuits kept true to their decision. Their vow of obedience to the Pope in such circumstances, when the Popes did not understand, was to disobey. Now that the papal situation has changed, with Pope Francis who “feels deeply Jesuit”, they can come out from the cold. Father Ellacuría and his companions who died in El Salvador can be recognised for the martyrs they were; and likewise the theology of Father Jon Sobrino and others.

But this answer is full of inconsistencies. If all was or is well with the 1974-75 redirection of Jesuit apostolic efforts, why have the numbers of Jesuits dropped so dramatically – from 36,000 in 1965, to 23,000 in 1995 and then again to 17,200 in 2013? Why have there been such deep divisions within the Society, so much so that Father Bergoglio, who in a short space of years had revitalised the Argentine province, found himself in quasi-exile and, after becoming a bishop, never once set foot in the Jesuit headquarters in the Borgo Santo Spirito in Rome? And large swathes of religious institutes, following the Jesuit example and seeking a “rediscovery” of their roles, have changed tracks, withered and not a few have died. And how can it be right that the Jesuit “vow of obedience to the Pope” should justify decades of resisting papal wishes for reform? Very odd.

The second answer, more familiar to Catholic ears, is still not without its confusing aspects. Here we have Bergoglio as the Jesuit who returns to the genuine sources of Jesuit spirituality (renewal through the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius) and in his short time as provincial brings about a remarkable improvement among his Jesuit brethren, notably in their zeal for evangelisation, where he finds inspiration in Pope Paul’s Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975) which “would be Bergoglio’s favourite church document, the one he would cite throughout his time as provincial, rector, and later bishop”.

Ivereigh allows two opposing answers to lie side by side. This approach may appear even handed. But I would say the two are contradictory and to let them stand without resolving the contradictions leads to relativism, to the view that there is no such thing as the truth.

As it stands his book is confusing. The impression is given that the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI were a disaster, which is now being healed by Pope Francis. Yet it was Francis who canonised John Paul II in 2014. If Ivereigh is right, those Jesuits who chose to devote themselves to politics after the Second Vatican Council and who now, after decades in “loyal opposition”, feel vindicated with the advent of Pope Francis, should find themselves in agreement with Pope Francis whom they rejected as conservative when, as provincial, he brought the Argentine Jesuit province back into fruitfulness and into line with its traditions in the 1970s. But there is no evidence of any change of heart on their part.

Some of Ivereigh’s fiercest criticism is directed towards the former Secretaries of State, Cardinals Sodano and Bertone, whom he compares unfavourably with the present Secretary of State, Cardinal Parolin: “Whereas Cardinals Sodano and Bertone were driven in limousines, Parolin prefers to walk alone, a humble and evangelically minded reformer in the mould of Francis”. The impression given is that Sodano and Bertone were products of the Secretariat of State machine. It could be argued that Parolin when he was appointed by Pope Francis was much more of an “insider” of the Secretariat of State than either Sodano or Bertone. It is worth remembering that Pope John Paul brought Sodano from outside Rome, from being nuncio in Chile; likewise Bertone came from outside the Secretariat of State, having worked for years, as the diocesan bishop of Vercelli, then with Ratzinger at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, before being Archbishop of Genoa (2002-2006).

Neither answer is really satisfactory. What is required is a more faith-filled view of the Church. And of the Pope. The reading that puts Pope John Paul II and Pope Paul VI in opposing camps, seeing the latter as the “light” of the pre-John Paul generation, begs the question: why did that generation reject Humanae Vitae? Their dissent did not start in 1978 with the election of Pope John Paul. And who was it that gave, from July to November 1984, an extensive range of general audience addresses explaining the meaning and beauty of the Humanae Vitae? Surely at this point, the difficulties highlighted by Ivereigh should have been balanced by a reminder that elsewhere life is flourishing and both difficulties and fruitfulness belong to the same Catholic Church which cannot fail?


There have been difficulties in the Catholic Church; there are still difficulties. At the time of writing we are looking forward to the meeting of the Synod of Bishops on the Family and before that we have been promised an encyclical on the environment. It is good to hope that Pope Francis will be successful in sorting out some and indeed many of those difficulties.

But the Church will continue to be made up, on earth, of a human race suffering from the consequences of original sin. One of the greatest needs is to recognise this: we need salvation, we cannot save ourselves. We need Christ, we need his mercy. If we get that right, and Pope Francis has asked us to have a jubilee celebrating God’s mercy, then we will be on the right track and the difficulties (which will continue to come, even after Pope Francis has sorted out the current ones) will not disturb us. We will not be confused.

Father Andrew Byrne is chaplain at Grandpont House, a residence for students at the University of Oxford, in England.

Father Andrew Byrne is chaplain at Grandpont House, a residence for students at the University of Oxford, in England.