Last Friday morning, as I waited with my wife to greet Pope Francis after the 7 am Mass he says each day at the Santa Marta guesthouse, the strangeness of it all hit me. I was presenting a biography of the Pope to the Pope, and it had had the bold title of The Great Reformer. How would he react? What would he say?

It is a provocative title — too provocative, in fact, for the Italian publishers, who have opted in their translated edition for the gentler and safer Tempo di Misericordia (“A Time of Mercy”). “Reformer”, after all, has an ambiguous resonance in church history. Once upon a time epoch-changing popes and humble saints were called reformers — Gregory the Great, St Francis of Assisi — but the word has become linked in the modern age to a different kind of change-maker: thus the Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain’s famous 1925 text, Three Reformers, which charted the breakdown of the medieval synthesis under the fragmenting influences of Luther, Descartes and Rousseau.

Because of the word’s association with the Reformation, the Second Vatican Council spoke of purification and renewal (renovatio). All true reform, in fact, is a return to the Church’s own sources — the Gospel and the Holy Spirit — by shedding attachments to power, prestige, and money.  It is a process of permanent conversion. Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium quotes the Vatican Council document Unitatis redintegratio: “Every renewal of the Church essentially consists in an increase of fidelity to her own calling.”

This is what Francis is doing. And he has spent a lifetime preparing for it through two previous reforming leaderships, as the dominant figure of the Jesuit province in Argentina from the early 1970s to the late 1980s, and as head of the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires from 1998 to 2012, during much of which he was also the dominant Latin-American church leader. Reform runs in his veins. It is his life’s work, both in theory and practice.

In the midst of the excitement and confusion of the post-Conciliar renewal, the young Jorge Bergoglio absorbed the lessons of Yves Congar’s True and False Reform in the Church, the 1950 text which Saint Pope John XXIII had by his bed when he called the Second Vatican Council. It contained important criteria for a future church leader. True reform is an attempt to recover something lost, or to restore a balance, or to deal with a crisis or malfunction. It comes from the periphery — from outside the centre — through new religious orders or movements recalling the Church to itself or emboldening it with evangelizing zeal. It is driven, says Congar, by “the concrete need of souls, in a pastoral perspective, aiming at holiness”. That is why true reform is rooted in the traditions of the Church, respecting popular piety and traditional devotions; it will involve, and speak to, the ordinary faithful. Conversely, false reform — which usually ends in schism and division — is driven by ideology, and pushed by elites; it splits from tradition, and ends by destroying communion. It becomes “self-referential”.

Bergoglio became provincial at a time of major crisis in the Society, when an avant-garde, ideological version of the renewal was splitting Jesuits between left and right, progressive and conservative, causing vocations to dry up. Father Bergoglio’s reform involved persuading his confreres to abandon their attachment to ideology, and to root their attention in the pastoral needs of the poor. Combined with a compelling spirituality and a Jesuit identity that drew on the primitive, missionary Society of Jesus, inculturated in the lives of those around them, Bergoglio’s leadership quickly turned the province around: vocations not only returned to double figures each year, but they stayed.

After a decade leading a disputatious and divided Jesuit province in Argentina through a quicksand of ideological temptations — left-wing guerilla, right-wing dictatorship — Father Bergoglio spent years in deep study on how the Holy Spirit acts within the Christian body. In a doctorate he began on Romano Guardini but never finished, the future pope set out to understand how differing views in the church, freely expressed and properly channeled, opened spaces for the Holy Spirit to bring about new resolutions, just as it had in the councils of the early Church. Equally, he wanted to understand what destroys that path to convergence — the temptations that turn disagreements into contradictions — and how views fall out of the unity of the whole and develop in opposition to the body, at which point they turn into closed human constructs, or ideologies.

As bishop, he attacked other kinds of wordliness: the lure of wealthy dinner parties, and the executive life; the acceptance of state largesse in exchange for political acquiescence; and any of the endless number of ways in which the Church could be traded for temporal ends. As cardinal archbishop, Bergoglio deliberately spurned the cocktails of the wealthy north of Buenos Aires, the Barrio Norte, in order to attend the popular festivals of the shrines and the slums. What he had asked the Jesuits in the 1970s to do — to root themselves in the values of the ordinary faithful, serving the poor, being part of the pueblo — he now urged politicians and intellectuals to do, arguing that this was the “true revolution”.

Presenting the biography to Pope Francis   

Now, as pope, Francis is carrying out reforms to the universal Church according to the same criteria. Every week, at his general audience, he connects with the ones he calls “God’s Holy Faithful People”, and takes their side against the princes both of this world and of the Church. The important element of his reform, as he has himself made clear, is not the curial clean-up or even the far-reaching changes in governance, but detaching the Church from what Henri de Lubac calls “spiritual worldiness”.

Bergoglio has consistently used the phrase as Jesuit and archbishop, and he spelled it out in the speech to the cardinals on the eve of the conclave. An obsession with clarity of doctrine rather than healing the wounded, the scandals in the Vatican, the fear of secularism — all these he saw as symptomatic of a Church that tied Jesus up in the sacristy, and refused to let Him out. In the speech itself he posed the image of an evangelizing Church called out to “not just the geographical but also the existential peripheries: those of the mystery of sin, of suffering, of injustice, of ignorance and lack of religion, those of thought and those of every kind of misery.” When the Church failed to do this “it becomes self-referential and gets sick”.

The Church becomes self-referential, he told the cardinals, “when it comes to believe it has its own light” rather than reflecting the light of Christ. The choice was between an evangelizing Church which comes out from itself, devoutly listening to and faithfully proclaiming the Word of God, and “the worldly Church that lives in itself, of itself, for itself.” That choice, he said, “should give rise to the possible changes and reforms which have to be carried out for the salvation of souls.” (The phrase almost exactly mirrors that of Congar: “reforms that have succeeded within the Church are those which have been made with concern for the concrete need of souls, in a pastoral perspective, aiming at holiness”.)

His vision is of a Church “permanently in a state of mission”, as he puts it in Evangelii Gaudium, “so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelisation of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation.” That is the purpose of his pontificate; and why, even if he lasts only a short time as pope, he will be considered a Great Reformer.

Still, I knew he would be alarmed when I presented him with a copy of the book. I had written in it that I knew he hated the idea of books centred on him, preferring to deflect the attention where it belonged. Sure enough, he looked only briefly at the book, preferring to give me an encouraging pat on the shoulder. And then he asked my wife to pray for him.

Austen Ivereigh’s The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope is published in Australia & New Zealand by Allen & Unwin. 

Dr Austen Ivereigh, coordinator and co-founder of Catholic Voices, is an author, journalist and commentator, who is a well-known voice on TV and radio on church affairs. From 2000-2004 he was deputy editor...