How Pope Francis Became the World’s BFF

The first Jesuit pope has endeared himself to people not so much through his religion but through his humane politics, which were forged in repressive Argentina.

12.21.14 11:45 AM ET

In the 20 months since his bow from the balcony above St. Peter’s Square after the conclave, introducing himself as the bishop of Rome, Pope Francis has registered in poll after poll as the most popular person in the world.

“Barack Obama gets an average of 1,300 retweets on his account; Pope Francis gets twenty thousand,” wrote Alma Guillermoprieto in a June 23 profile of the pope for Matter, signaling another sign of this pope’s status.

Popes, presidents, the Dalai Lama, certain first ladies, and movie stars typically lead such surveys; but after decades of scandals over sexually abusive priests and financial corruption reaching into the Vatican Bank, the church’s reversal under Francis is a striking media narrative. For much of the popular tide behind him reflects another reality: his politics have an appeal that reaches far beyond the declining number of church-going Catholics. Not since 1989, when John Paul II bestrode the global stage as a catalyst in the collapse of the Soviet Empire, has a pope stirred such feelings of hope. John Paul was youthful in his sixties with a radiant charisma. Francis is well into his seventies, looks it, has a mild demeanor and soft speaking style; but his rhetoric is electrifying.

He has become the most radical pope in modern memory for his economic populism. Scoring unregulated capitalism as a “globalization of indifference” and “anesthesia of the heart,” the pope is making the case for the necessity of work as a fundamental human right, something no president or prime minister would touch, given the way international banking pays for campaigns and rewards the privileged at the expense of the many. The pope’s language has struck a nerve not just with the very poor but millions of educated young adults in Western countries, living at home, unable to find good jobs.

For his agenda of “radical mercy,” the photograph of the pope washing the feet of a Muslim girl in a youth prison in Rome was worth a million words. His comment to reporters when asked about gay priests (“Who am I to judge?”) advanced another shift in the media narrative. Politics-of-the-body theology as stressed by Benedict and John Paul, to the cheers of conservatives, has given way to a more forgiving, and oddly more righteous story: a church of love is preaching to the church of laws.

Any number of old-guard church princes probably wish he had flown back to Buenos Aires as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio after the 2013 conclave to pass his sunset years off the media grid, ministering to the slums.

That in fact happened in 2005. The cardinal arrived in Rome for John Paul’s funeral and the conclave as papabile, a potential pope in media speculation. He was a Jesuit, and no Jesuit had ever been pope; his religious order known for papal loyalty had moved sharply to the left since the reform-minded Second Vatican Council (1962-65). He held intrigue for journalists converging for the transition of papal power.

Three days before the 2005 conclave, a human rights lawyer in Buenos Aires filed a complaint accusing Bergoglio of complicity in the kidnapping and torture of two Jesuits in the ’70s, when he was the provincial, or regional superior, of the Society of Jesus in Argentina. The lawsuit went nowhere, but had its other uses.

“The lawsuit was based on the claims in El Silencio, a book published in February that year by Horacio Verbitsky, the former montonero [the member of a left-wing guerilla group],” writes Austen Ivereigh in The Great Reformer.

A British writer on Catholic issues, Ivereigh did his doctoral dissertation at Oxford on religion and politics in Argentina; his depth shows in this highly readable book on the social and religious forces that shaped the personality and religious worldview of the pope.

Bergoglio met with Verbitsky, denying charges that he had sold out his colleagues; Ivereigh reports that he had ordered two priests to withdraw from the slum where they were working, for fear that their lives were at risk. “Verbitsky’s smoking gun turned out to be a 1979 memorandum written by an immigration officer who had spoken to Bergoglio in connection with a passport application” for one of the priests, who had been arrested on suspicion of guerilla tactics, according to said official.

“The Verbitsky claims were summarized in anonymous envelopes delivered to Spanish-speaking cardinals in Rome in the days before the [2005] conclave,” Ivereigh continues. He quotes an unnamed cardinal saying that the conclave voters knew the charges were false. And yet, a dossier of allegations involving human rights could not help any cardinal at a moment like that. Bergoglio ran second to Joseph Ratzinger, who became Benedict XVI.

In 2013, when a frail, demoralized Benedict resigned in a swamp of scandals, Bergoglio flew back to Rome for a conclave at which he was no longer papabile in the eyes of a wildly speculative media but at just the moment the voting cardinals were taking a deep second look.

Verbitsky’s charges trailed Bergoglio after his election, particularly in a New York Times report that left open the possibility of his collusion. The sister of one priest, who had died, criticized him; the other priest, Franz Jalics, came to his defense and celebrated Mass with him.

If Ivereigh’s book and Elisabetta Piqué’s Pope Francis: Life and Revolution did nothing else, they provide the most detailed rebuttal in English to Verbitsky’s charges.

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Piqué, born in Italy and raised in Argentina, is a veteran correspondent based in Rome for La Nación, Argentina’s major daily. Her narrative is quite personal, salted with reminders that the future pope baptized her two children; but her access to sources on Bergoglio’s past provides revealing cameos on his life, particularly his demotion within his own religious community, “a sort of counterreformation” in which he lost his chair in theology at the Jesuit college and was sent packing to a regional school in 1990.

Jesuits are educators known as the intellectuals of the church; they also have a long missionary tradition. Bergoglio was more focused on pastoral work with the poor, understanding the lives of the masses without an overt political objective, which ran afoul the activist stance of Liberation Theology proponents in his community. Ironically, as pope, his championing of the poor has given Liberation Theology a new lease on life.

His big break came in 1992 when an aging cardinal plucked him from his outback and persuaded the Vatican to make him a bishop.

Both books portray Francis as a man with the rooted values of an Italian emigré family, who as a young Jesuit navigated a nightmare in “the dirty war” of the mid-’70s; he acquitted himself with dignity, only to take a huge ego-hit when the Jesuits sacked him as provincial in 1979. After a demoralizing exile, he remade himself as a bishop with sharp political skills in a country where the church is a major institution; he did so not by hobnobbing with politicians and generals, but delivering social and religious services for a vast underclass, many in drug-scourged slums, amid the country’s schizophrenic politics.

Argentina’s psychological wounds inflicted by fascist generals in the dirty war (1976-83) are far from healed, despite prosecutions that have put military leaders and a few priests in prison. Verbitsky’s antipathy toward Bergoglio reflects a dogmatic leftist view of the church as so complicit in crimes of the regime as to stain even Bergoglio.

That is not the view of the investigative journalist Olga Wornant, whose 2002 book Nuestra Santa Madre is a devastating indictment of Argentina’s Roman Catholic hierarchy in the war years when only a few notable bishops resisted a regime that tortured and “disappeared” its enemies. One bishop paid with his life when his car was run off the road. Wornant’s book, which forced the Vatican to remove a bishop who sexually abused seminarians, is remarkably favorable to Bergoglio who became a bishop in 1992, nearly a decade after the war.

Ivereigh and Piqué treat the convulsions within the Society of Jesus that led to Bergoglio’s demotion as a struggle in which Bergoglio’s personality, and a fundamental approach on the austere practices of St. Ignatius, the founder, made him a divisive lightning rod. The Jesuits were also split over how far the priests should go in openly confronting the regime as Argentina reeled from kidnappings, torture chambers, and pregnant women who were murdered after giving birth to infants immediately adopted by members or friends of the regime. Jesuit advocates of Liberation Theology (a movement Ratzinger attacked for veering too close to Marxism) saw Bergoglio as too soft against the generals.

“Bergoglio had two objectives during the dirty war,” writes Ivereigh, “both of which were set by the [Jesuit] general in Rome. The first was to protect the Jesuits. The second was to assist the victims of the repression. The two objectives were, obviously, in tension with each other: if it had been known that their provincial was abetting subversives sought by the state, all Jesuits would have been suspect. It was a high-wire act, but Bergoglio pulled it off. Not one Argentine Jesuit lost his life during the dirty war, and he managed to save dozens of people. What he did not do was speak out publicly against the regime, but he could hardly have done so without sacrificing his objectives, for no obvious gain.”

As provincial, Bergoglio organized a working farm as part of the pastoral experience for the novices, or seminarians, the farm providing food for poor people in the parish staffed by Jesuits.

Elisabetta Piqué, who knew Bergoglio well as a cardinal, writes in the present tense as if to convey real time passing. The book is a blend of journalistic memoir and biographical profile; she provides granular details of interest, but the time-unfolding technique is often distracting.

“’I joined the Society to study, not to look after pig!’ the seminarian Ernesto Giobando, protests one day to Jorge Bergoglio, then rector of the [Jesuit] Colegio Máximo. ‘First go and feed the pigs, that’s what the Society is asking of you now, then go and study,’ the future pope, then forty-two, wisely replies.”

Each book has gripping scenes on the fear that permeated Argentina in those years. “Bergoglio picked up many of the refugees himself, installed them sometimes for weeks or months in the [Jesuit seminary], arranged false identity papers, drove them to the airport, and saw them safely onto planes,” writes Ivereigh.

Piqué writes:

“He tries to help the former head of his chemical laboratory [where Bergoglio worked before becoming a Jesuit], Esther Ballestrino de Careaga, after the disappearance of her daughter Ana María and her son-in-law. He does not hesitate to hide some Marxist books from her library because she fears that the military could use them against her. In her struggle to find her daughter, Esther becomes one of the founders of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo. She is one of the twelve people seized in the church of Santa Cruz ... together with other mothers and relatives of desaparecidos (the disappeared) and the French nuns Léonie and Alice Domon. They all disappeared on December 8, 1977, in an ESMA raid led by the former navy captain Alfredo Astíz.”

Astiz had infiltrated the group by pretending to have a kidnapped brother. “It was one of four army stings between December 8 and 10, 1977, which included the abduction of the two other Madres founders, Azucena Villaflor and María Ponce,” writes Ivereigh.

Bergoglio’s years of being muzzled, as he helped friends and colleagues avert the lethal dragnet or grieve for loved ones disappeared, probably explains Francis’s free-wheeling style with the Vatican press corps on airplane rides during his foreign trips. No other pope has been so accessible to the media. As a man who helped people become fugitives to save their skins, his focus on immigration is rooted in a personal life experience.

On Nov. 6, Francis had a private Vatican meeting with one of his former critics, the Argentine human rights activist and leader of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, Estela Barnes de Carlotto—and her grandson, Ignacio Guido Montoya, with whom she was reunited 36 years after his mother was murdered. A family with ties to the military raised him.

“Anyone who still accuses Bergoglio of being an accomplice of the military dictatorship is lying because the truth is already known,” Barnes de Carlotto stated at a press conference the next day. She announced, too, that Francis had authorized opening the Vatican archives on the Argentine regime in an effort to reunite more families.

Francis’s critique of international banking and trickle-down economics seems to have sprung from Argentina’s depression of 2004, a depression so severe that nearly half the working population was unemployed.

“In a country that once fed the world, children were dying of malnourishment,” writes Ivereigh. “Hundreds of thousands of young people queued for passports outside the Spanish and Italian consulates, hoping to reverse their grandparents’ journeys.” Bergoglio mobilized an infrastructure of 186 parishes for relief work that resembled “a battlefield hospital” with churches sheltering the rising number of homeless. “Ovens using gas cylinders were set up to make bread under bridges, and nursing stations appeared, offering medicines,” he writes.

The Great Reformer makes a strong case for Bergoglio as an agile leader whose idea of society as a moral organism was forged in response to the convulsions in Argentina in his lifetime—an attitude of it happened there, it could happen anywhere, a stance borne out by the massive unemployment in Greece and Spain during the European Union’s currency crisis.

Bergoglio stopped voting after he became a Jesuit in 1958, reports Ivereigh, who says he had the sympathies of a pro-labor Peronista. “From the 1950s to the 1970s Argentina was held back by a political paradox that is hard for foreigners to grasp,” writes Ivereigh. “The antiliberals (the nationalists, the Peronists) were popular and came to power by winning elections, while the liberals—the democrats, the pluralists—used dictatorships to keep the Peronists out of power.”

Ivereigh’s treatment of Bergoglio’s political adversaries does not mask his contempt for the recent presidents, the late Néstor Kirchner, who was succeeded by his wife, President Cristina Kirchner Fernández. The author may be correct in blaming the Kirchners for many of Argentina’s present ills; but a more dispassionate tone would have strengthened the political analysis.

Neither book gives any coverage to Bergoglio’s handling of clergy sex abuse cases as a bishop and cardinal. The website BishopAccountability.org has posted an extensive file of media reports and documents on scandals in Argentina to suggest that Bergoglio was not a healing pastor to abuse victims. And while as pope he has removed several bishops for child abuse, several prominent cardinals in the Vatican who were grossly negligent in concealing pedophiles, notably the former Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano, have suffered no loss of status. Conversely, Francis has stiffened internal Vatican laws governing child abuse accusations; he has appointed an advisory committee that includes a prominent Irish abuse survivor to develop a policy. The central issue is de facto immunity traditionally given to bishops and cardinals.

Ivereigh occasionally veers toward hagiography, as when the young Jesuit, while studying in Germany, happens into a church and is struck by a painting of the Virgin Mary depicted as “untier of knots,” handing an angel a disentangled thread. In “the bare stone church,” writes the biographer, his subject “passed in prayer his knot to the angel, who passed it to the Virgin, who gently untied it and passed it to the other angel, who took it to Buenos Aires, where Bergoglio followed.”

No angels appear in the footnotes.

Jason Berry is author of Render unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church, which received Investigative Reporters and Editors’ Best Book Award.