Unraveling the ‘Francis Enigma’

A Register interview with veteran journalist and author Austen Ivereigh.

Austen Ivereigh
Austen Ivereigh (photo: catholicvoices.org.uk)

Austen Ivereigh is the author of The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope. Recently released to positive reviews in the United Kingdom and the United States, The Great Reformer drills into the Pope’s early history as a young Jesuit provincial who embraced a reformist agenda but would later be effectively ostracized by members of his order in Argentina.

A former spokesman for Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor in England, Ivereigh is also the author of How to Defend the Faith Without Raising Your Voice (Our Sunday Visitor, 2012) and the coordinator for Catholic Voices in the United Kingdom, an initiative that trains Catholics to present and defend Church teaching in the public square.

Ivereigh also lived in Buenos Aires for a period while researching a doctoral thesis on the Church and politics in Argentine history, an experience that helped equip him to delve into the events surrounding the Pope’s early years as a Jesuit leader. 

During an email exchange with Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond, the veteran English journalist explains what he terms the “Francis enigma,” as well as then-Father Jorge Bergoglio’s problems with Jesuits in his province and his lifelong effort to apply the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises and discern the influence of good and evil spirits.


You suggest that your own experience as a foreigner “who had long grappled with Argentina’s complexities” and one who knew the Jesuits made you “well placed to help outsiders understand the Francis enigma.” What is the “Francis enigma,” and what is the central insight of your book that connects his papacy to his legacy in Argentina?

Francis remains an enigma in the sense that many Catholics — including bishops and cardinals — find him hard to read. They don’t get how he thinks. I hope my book shows, first of all, that they’re not the first to scratch their heads: Jorge Mario Bergoglio has often perplexed people and been misread.

Second, by unveiling his past, and especially his early life as a Jesuit, I’ve shown that he is both intelligible and consistent — but that doesn’t mean predictable. He’s a Gospel radical who discerns God’s will and acts, in freedom, in obedience to that will and, in that sense, is beholden to no one.

Third, we often misread him because he doesn’t fit our lens. That’s partly because he’s an Argentine, whose thinking has developed in response to a particular set of challenges, which, in northern Europe and the U.S., we just haven’t faced.

I believed that in The Great Reformer I could explain Argentina to the Anglo-Saxon world, and I think I’ve done it. Those who read the book say that grasping the Argentine background has really helped them understand Francis.


Pope Francis radiates a sense of joy in the love and mercy of God. He has written, “That is the religious experience: the astonishment of meeting Someone who has been waiting for you all along.” What was the spiritual turning point for him?

He seems to have had faith from the start — his grandmother’s gift. He was active in Catholic Action and in his parish. Fellow students recall his religiousness as well as his intelligence and the way he sought to resolve people’s problems — he always had that caring, pastoral side. But the key moment in his vocation was as a teenager, in 1953, when he felt drawn to confess and was overwhelmed with an experience of God’s mercy that left him convinced he would be a priest. But he took a while to act on it.


You note that St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises formed Jorge Bergoglio’s thinking, spirituality and leadership. Would you offer an example?

The Exercises are one of the keys that unlock Francis. He absorbed at a very deep level St. Ignatius’ rules for distinguishing the action of the Holy Spirit from spiritual motions that come from the devil, which often come disguised in angelic form.

He discerned, in the move to create same-sex “marriage” in Argentina in 2010, precisely that kind of temptation: In the name of “good” things, such as dignity and equality, what the government was doing was destroying a child-centered institution based on an anthropological reality.

The Exercises are also key to understanding Francis’ reform of the Church.

St. Ignatius’ retreat is a four-week cycle. In Week I, you discover yourself to be a sinner, yet at the same time unconditionally loved and forgiven by God; in Week II, you choose to follow Christ, renouncing distractions and temptations, and commit to the truth taught by the Church. You’re able to get to Week II because of Week I; it’s the pattern of conversion. Yet, too often, we focus on the saving truth of the Church’s teaching while making it hard for people actually to experience that healing love.

What Francis is trying to do is get the Church to focus less on a Week II-type proclamation and more on Week I. It’s not an attempt to soften or dilute the Church’s teaching, but to fill it out — to show the part that too often gets skipped. Hence, his vision of the Church as a healer and a mother, not just a teacher. That’s the program of his pontificate.


After the Second Vatican Council, he was named the provincial of the Jesuits in Argentina at an early age. During this time, you write, he revealed a preference for reform rather than rupture. Would you explain?

In the turbulent post-Council era, the Jesuits, like other orders, were divided and internally conflicted. Vocations had dried up, and the province was hemorrhaging Jesuits. Bergoglio was suddenly and unexpectedly made provincial at a young age in order to deal with the crisis — which he did, very effectively: It was his first reform. He did so by persuading the Jesuits to identify with the values, traditions and concerns of the mass of ordinary believers, the poor majority, rather than with elite schemes and ideologies.

This reform was partly about putting the Gospel before political ideology. But it was also about connecting the Jesuits to their own past and traditions.

He was not, as some have accused him of being, a conservative who wanted to take them to the pre-conciliar era, but a renewalist, like Benedict XVI, who resisted attempts to conform the Church to the world in the name of modernity.

In many ways, Bergoglio’s renewal of the Jesuits was more radical — a recovery of what he saw as the “primitive,” missionary Society of Jesus before it became identified with the upper classes.


Many Jesuits came to dislike him, and he was ostracized by members of the order. What went wrong?

It’s not a simple story and has not been told before.

I take the whole of Chapter 5 to tell it. It is a far more dramatic and uncomfortable story than people had realized. What happened, in bare outline, was this: His success as a leader of the Jesuits turned around the province and brought in a whole new generation of Jesuits who found both him and his model of being a Jesuit deeply compelling. But it also threatened an older, more intellectual group of Jesuits who regarded the Bergoglio model as un-Jesuit and out of step with the Society of Jesus worldwide (which, in many ways, it was).

They persuaded the [superior] general in Rome to intervene and displace Bergoglio and the other leaders in the province. That, in turn, led to a number of years of tension and ferment in the province, culminating in Bergoglio’s internal exile and his closest followers being sent abroad. Then Bergoglio was made a bishop, and he cut his ties to the Jesuits for the next 20 years.


Now that he is the pope, what will be his impact on the Jesuits — or, for that matter, how will his ties to the order influence the direction of his papacy?

One of the first things he did as pope, as I record in the book, was to respond warmly to an overture from the Jesuit general, Father Adolfo Nicolás. The two got together and began a reconciliation, which has continued to this day.

When I was in Argentina last year, a number of Jesuits who had fallen out with him all those years before showed me letters from Pope Francis with tears in their eyes. Francis’ impact on the Jesuits has already been huge; they feel loved by a pope again, and his ties with them have grown ever closer these past two years. But no religious order or any group or movement within the Church will per se influence his papacy.


You write that Bergoglio “spoke not from the point of view of an alternative economic theory, but from that of the poor and their need.” What does that mean for U.S. Catholics who believe the Pope misunderstands market economies?

I am referring in that quote to his great teaching document, Evangelii Gaudium, issued in November last year, which some read as critiquing market economics and advocating a socialist-style redistributive state. But that’s a misreading.

What he critiques in EG is a free-market ideology that justifies doing nothing about poverty, on the grounds that the market will eventually bring prosperity to all — the so-called trickle-down theory. He knows that’s not true. And, right now, what the market is delivering for millions of young people is the prospect of lasting unemployment.

In other words, the market is not delivering, and saying we should just wait for it eventually to do so is not an answer. But he certainly does not advocate a socialist state and was critical, in Argentina, of welfare dependency and government usurping the functions of civil society.


After the Jesuits in Argentina ostracized Bergoglio, he drew the attention and support of Archbishop Antonio Quarracino of Buenos Aires and was made an auxiliary bishop in 1992. Later, he was appointed archbishop of Buenos Aires. What was his most important achievement as an Argentinian Church leader?

In many ways, his greatest achievement was in holding his nation together, following the collapse of the state and the economy in 2001-2002. What he put in place and enabled to happen was extraordinary.

He went on to build an amazing network of deep friendships of trust across the boundaries of faith and politics that he used to great effect, behind the scenes, to get things done. He made the Church the most popular and highly respected institution in the country, transforming its reputation after a period in which it was associated with the dictatorship of the 1970s.

But there were many other specific achievements: his focus on the shanty towns, his war on corruption inside and outside the Church, his holding governments accountable on behalf of the people, his organization of the garbage collectors and his protection of trafficked women, as well as the remarkable bonds he created with evangelicals.


During the period before the conclave that elected a successor to Pope Benedict XVI, your book describes a push by some cardinals to campaign for Cardinal Bergoglio’s election, and it suggests that he signaled his acceptance of this effort. Would you explain what happened?

I’ve apologized for a clumsy phrase, which has already been corrected in the e-book edition and will be in future reprints. That phrase was interpreted by some as meaning that Bergoglio in some way consented to a group of cardinals pushing for his election. That’s not what I meant, and a reading of the conclave chapter as a whole makes very clear that he didn’t.

What I meant was that they were sure that this time — unlike 2005 — he would not resist. It is perfectly legitimate, under the conclave rules, for cardinals, either singly or in a group, to urge each other to vote for particular cardinals; this is how popes get elected.

It happened in 2005, for example, when I describe how a group of cardinals urged Cardinal Ratzinger. It would be illegal for the cardinal concerned in any way to collaborate with that bid. But it helps if it is known that he would not resist.

That’s what the group I identify was saying to the other cardinals. But there was no “campaign,” if by that is meant some kind of collaboration between them and him.


Since his election as pope, has Pope Francis maintained the same style of leadership and applied the same principles of discernment as those which characterized his legacy in Buenos Aires? Or has he departed, at times, from that legacy?

To an extraordinary degree, he is the same man and the same Church leader. He makes his major decisions at dawn, in prayer, discerning spirits; and he operates now, as he did then, principally through relationships of trust rather than through structures. That can be frustrating as well as disconcerting.

Many cardinals tell me with a broad grin on their faces that Francis is “free,” which is a wonderful thing to say about any human being. He himself describes his election as a “change of diocese”: He is now bishop of Rome, not Buenos Aires; but he remains a pastor — only, now, he is the world’s parish priest as well as being Rome’s. And even though the scale and needs of the reform are different, he is doing now, as a pope aged 78, what he began in his 30s: reforming the Church, recalling it to its dependence on Christ, in service of the ordinary faithful, helping to break down the barriers that prevent people knowing God’s saving, healing love.

It is a demanding job, and he is a workhorse. Those close to him worry that he doesn’t get enough rest. But both times I’ve met him, I’ve encountered a man deeply at peace and happy.