Over recent months the world has seen the humility and simplicity of the new pope – but what is the truth about his past in Argentina, and what does his election mean for the worldwide Church? Joanna Moorhead met his biographer Paul Vallely to find out.
Like most of the rest of us, Paul Vallely had never heard of Jorge Mario Borgoglio when his name was announced from the balcony above St Peter’s Square on a rainy night in March. He assumed, as many did in those initial minutes, that the new Pope was a hitherto-obscure Italian cardinal (he did, after all, have an Italian-sounding name).
But in the next few minutes, watching on the TV from his home in Manchester, Vallely realised the new leader of the Catholic Church was very different from his predecessors. ‘He seemed determined to be as simple as possible. I remembered Pope Benedict coming out onto the balcony and raising his arms in triumph. This man, in comparison, seemed deeply understated. He wasn’t wearing an ermine-trimmed cape…and instead of a jewelled crucifix, he had a plain pewter cross round his neck.’ And then, instead of saying something grand or profound, he said the simplest words imaginable: ‘Good Evening’. Vallely, a much-respected journalist and Catholic commentator, was smitten. Even more so when, over the next few minutes, he discovered that the ‘obscure Italian’ was in fact Argentinian, a Jesuit, and bold enough to have taken the name of the great saint of the poor, St Francis.
But then, over the following days, the doubts kicked in. Media stories began to emerge about Bergoglio’s questionable behaviour during Argentina’s so-called ‘dirty war’. He had failed to speak out, it was claimed, against the death squads. He had even betrayed fellow Jesuits. And while the world saw his humility and gestures of lowliness, the word from Argentiana was that he’d caused division and disharmony. What was going on?
Vallely decided to find out. Within weeks of Bergoglio’s inauguration in Rome, the writer was on a plane to Buenos Aires armed with a list of friends and confidantes of the new pope, determined to piece together the jigsaw of who this enigmatic new pontiff really was. And the story he discovered, he says, was a revelation. ‘I wasn’t sure what I was going to discover and the great thing was, what I found out was a real story,’ he says. ‘The new Pope Francis was clearly a fascinating figure, and he’d been through a genuine transformation.’
Bergoglio had been raised, Vallely discovered, in a deeply traditional church. Journalists who had made much of the fact that he was ordained after Vatican II were, he believes, missing the point: his formation as a priest was rooted in pre-conciliar theology. And in the early 1970s, as Latin America became the focus of liberation theology, with its emphasis on justice for the poor, he came to represent not the modernisers, who supported working amidst the slums with the poor, but the traditionalists, who preferred not to meddle in the reasons why poverty existed. So much so that, when the then leader of the Jesuits was deemed to have gone too far in backing liberation theology, the young Fr Bergoglio was brought in to replace him. And he set about returning the Argentinian Jesuits to their pre-Vatican II ways, and in doing so became a deeply decisive figure revered by the traditionalists, loathed by the modernisers.
The situation came to a dramatic climax in 1976 when two Jesuit priests, Orlando Yorio and Franz Jalics, were kidnapped by a military death squad. Bergoglio had tried to get the priests to leave the slum where they worked, and when they refused he had, so his critics claimed, withdrawn his support for their work, making them easy prey for the right-wing military.
Vallely argues that Bergoglio came to see the error of his conduct over Yorio and Jalics and intervened for them very unusually, in those days when arrest almost always led to ‘disappearance’, the two priests survived. But over the years following the incident, Argentina itself began to change. Democracy returned, the Catholic Church there began to feel the thaw of Vatican II, and Bergoglio’s star waned.
‘When his term of office as rector ended in 1986, the head of the Jesuits in Rome decided he had to be removed from Argentina,’ says Vallely. He was sent to Germany for a while but when he returned to Buenos Aires, he became a thorn in the side of his order. ‘He was always meddling, telling the people who were now his superiors that they were doing things the wrong way.’ And that led, eventually, to exile: Bergoglio was sent 400 miles away from Buenos Aires, to the city of Cordoba. And it was there that, according to Vallely, something amazing happened. ‘It’s impossible to say for sure what it was, because no-one can see into another person’s soul,’ he says. ‘But what we do know is how fundamental prayer has always been to Bergoglio’s life.He used to spend two hours in silent prayer before dawn each day when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires and we know that in Cordoba he had plenty of time for prayer.’
‘My thesis is that a combination of spiritual exercises and prayer led him to think very deeply about all he had been through and experienced, and that he realised God wanted him to be a different kind of leader.’
And in 1992, promoted to a new job as an assistant bishop in Buenos Aires, he emerged from his exile as a transformed character. From now on the very behaviour he had once shunned, living amongst and working with the slum-dwellers, became his raison d’etre. So much time did Bergoglio spend with the poor, talking to them and drinking tea with them, that he became known as the Bishop of the Slums. And, having taken the first step into the lives of the poor, mixing with them continued to change him, very profoundly. Pastoral issues became his first priorities, dogma second. As one priest in Argentina told Vallely: ‘He was never rigid about the small and stupid stuff because he was interested in something deeper.’
Over time, Bergoglio became more and more involved with life in the slums. He increased the number of priests who ministered there, he backed self-help groups, co-operatives and unions, and he tried to find ways to support the cartoneros, the poorest people in Buenos Aires who make a living recycling the city¹s rubbish. By the time he became Archbishop, in 1998, Bergoglio seems to have come full circle on his earlier stance to liberation theology. The following year after his installation saw the 25th anniversary of the murder of Fr Carlos Mugica, the first priest martyred in the slums during the ‘dirty war’, and he oversaw a plan to bring the remains of the priest back to the district where he had worked. Bergoglio himself celebrated the commemorative Mass, and he expressed contrition for the ‘complicit silence’ of the Church at the time.
Highly significant too, says Vallely, is that since becoming Pope the former Archbishop of Buenos Aires has been in contact with the world’s best-known liberation theologian, Leonardo Boff, a priest who was suspended from his duties in 1992 for criticising the Church’s leadership. Pope Francis asked Boff for some of his work on eco-theology in preparation for a major encyclical Francis is considering on environmental matters. Boff has since said in interviews that Francis will be the Pope to change the mould, to change the world.
Vallely seems to agree with him; although it’s entirely possible, he postulates, that the new Pope Francis might set wheels of change in motion at the Vatican that might not come to fruition until after he’s gone. ‘What he seems to be very much about is changing the culture; we’ve had plenty of signs and symbols on that front,’ he says.
‘But one thing that’s very clear about the Catholic Church is that it’s a huge tanker, and it doesn’t turn around or alter its route very quickly; it takes a long time for change. I think he is indicating that he’s interested in seeing change in the Curia, in the Vatican Bank, and for women in the Church.’
‘The story of Bergoglio, of Pope Francis, is the story of a man who sinned, but who changed profoundly, radically. Now he comes to a Church which has sinned. And I believe he will change that too.’