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Book Pick: The Great Reformer

The Great Reformer
Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope

By Austen Ivereigh
Henry Holt, 2014
445 pages, $30
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For many, our Holy Father, Pope Francis, is still a puzzlement, to use the words of the song from that great musical The King and I. If you are among them, this is the book you have been waiting for to really understand where he is coming from.

Well-known British Catholic journalist Austen Ivereigh has researched his subject and conducted dozens of interviews with no axe to grind to present our current pope. The author does a fine job of helping the reader understand the complicated history and contentious politics of Argentina, a very Latin-American country, so foreign to the American or English mind. He correctly paints Pope Francis as a man on a mission to reform the Curia; however, Francis also wants to make the Curia more efficient to better serve a growing global Church in this still-new millennium, one that may (perhaps sooner than we might think) see the reunion of Christianity into one flock shepherded by the successor of Peter.

In this book, you will learn much about Catholicism in South America, past and present. Because Pope Francis is the first Jesuit pope in history, you will also learn much about his joys and sorrows in the Society of Jesus. St. Ignatius of Loyola’s order has done so much good in the Church and the world, but some believe it, too, is in need of reform, and who better to tackle that job than a fellow Jesuit?

Ivereigh covers Jorge Bergoglio’s life from birth to his election as pope. It has been a life full of challenges, sufferings and serious persecution from the Argentine government and even his brother Jesuits. All the while, Bergoglio was growing in holiness — and having mystical insights that helped him direct his life to work with the poor, even as cardinal and archbishop of Buenos Aires.

Ivereigh traces the current pope’s worldview to his willingness to go back to the essentials of the Gospel. “Despite his powerful intellect, his political mind and his theological sophistication,” writes the British journalist, “his belief is primitive, undiluted: God is sovereign, the devil is active, and the power of prayer can act as a vehicle of God’s grace.”

The writer concludes by quoting Pope Francis: “‘Listen up,’ Francis told thousands of people in St. Peter’s Square on Pentecost. ‘Listen up: If the Church is alive, it must always surprise. … A church that does not have the capacity to surprise is a weak and sickened and dying Church. It should be taken to the recovery room at once!’”

Father C. John McCloskey is a Church historian

and research fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington.