The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope


as they lived it, not stories from books, but their

Bavarian city of Augsburg where, in the Jesuit church of Sankt Peter am Perlach, he contemplated a Baroque-era painting from the early 1700s known as Maria Knotenlöserin, “Mary, Untier of Knots,

Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet

Bergoglio has always been convinced of the vital importance of grandparents—and especially the grandmother—as guardians of a precious reserve parents often ignore or reject. “I was lucky to know my four grandparents,” he recalled in 2011. “The wisdom of the elderly has helped me greatly; that is why I venerate them.” In 2012 he told Father Isasmendi on the community radio of the Villa 21 shantytown: The grandmother is in the hearth, the grandfather, too, but above all the grandmother; she’s like the reserve. She’s the moral, religious, and cultural reserve. She’s the one who passes on the whole story. Mom and Dad are over there, working, engaged in this and that, they’ve got a thousand things to do. The grandmother is in the house more; the grandfather, too. They tell you things from before. My grandfather used to tell me stories about the 1914 war, stories they lived through. They tell you about life as they lived it, not stories from books, but their own stories, of their own lives. That’s what I’d like to say to the grandparents listening. Tell them things about life, so the kids know what life is.

Bergoglio’s new juniorate was a chance to root students in Jesuit and Argentine traditions, rather than foreign models. The studies included not just the European classics but also courses in Argentine literature—from El Gaucho Martín Fierro to Borges. History was revisionist, restoring the Catholic, Hispanic, and early-Jesuit elements in Argentina’s past that were ignored or scorned in liberal history. Bergoglio wanted the Jesuits to value popular religious traditions alongside high culture, to know about gauchos and caudillos as well as railways and telegraphs.

Bergoglio’s talks show him developing two major vaccinations against the lure of ideology. The first was the God’s-holy-faithful-people idea: following Congar, God’s power was to be discerned not in elite schemes but in the ordinary believing poor. The second was a series of governing “Christian principles,” a kind of sapiential wisdom captured in a series of criteria for discernment. In 1974, when he addressed the provincial congregation, there were three: unity comes before conflict, the whole comes before the part, time comes before space. By 1980, he had added a fourth, anti-ideological principle: reality comes before the idea. They were principles deduced from various of his heroes—the early companions of Saint Ignatius, the Paraguay missionaries, even the nineteenth-century caudillo Rosas—and one major source: what he called “the special wisdom of the people whom we call faithful, the people which is the people of God.”13 Those four principles, said Bergoglio, “are the axis around which reconciliation can revolve.” They would constantly appear from now on in his writing and speeches—and were shared with the world in Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), Pope Francis’s first authored document, released in November 2013.

Bergoglio was a once in a generation combination of two qualities seldom found together. He had the political genius of a charismatic leader and the prophetic holiness of a desert saint.

His grandmother also taught him to love Italian literature, reading

In this, Bergoglio was following the wisdom of Yves Congar’s 1950 text True and False Reform in the Church. True reform came about through the periphery being allowed to shape the center; “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,” the French Dominican had written. What upset reform, leading to division and schism, was ideology—a partial interpretation in which some values are extolled and others demonized.

Like Bergoglio, Pironio was no revolutionary, but something deeper: a Gospel radical with a pastoral strategy that prioritized the poor.

Like Bergoglio, Pironio was no revolutionary, but something deeper: a Gospel radical with a pastoral strategy that prioritized the poor. As rector of the Máximo after 1980 and later as bishop and archbishop, Bergoglio would take that strategy—Pironio’s vision, and that of Evangelii Nuntiandi—onto the street.

Not for the first time, the Argentine would appear to come out of nowhere, like a gaucho galloping in from the pampero at the first light.

On the eve of ordination he had the three things a person most needed to thrive: the knowledge he was loved, activity that was meaningful, and a future in which to hope.

The great Catholics of that time were not bishops but missionaries like the man known as the “gaucho priest,” Father José Gabriel Brochero (1840–1914), whom Francis, shortly after his election, placed on the road to sainthood. Father Brochero rode a mule, wore a poncho, smoked cheroots, drank mate tea from a gourd, and went about building churches, chapels, and schools, opening up paths and passages in the sierras of Córdoba, tending to the poorest in a model life of heroic self-abnegation.

This believing people neither separates its religious faith from its historical aspirations nor does it confuse the two in a revolutionary messianism. This people believes in the resurrection and the life: salvation, work, bread, everyday understanding in their families. For their country, what they believe in is peace. There are some who think that this is not revolutionary. But the people themselves, who are asking for peace, know full well that this peace is the fruit of justice.19