Pope Francis and His Struggle to Convert the Catholic Church
A Review by Dwight A. Moody
I read this book, cover to cover, all 342 pages, gripped more deeply with each turning page by the skill of the writer, by the charisma of the subject, and by the winsomeness of the religion both seek to embody. At the end, I am tempted to say: here is a version of Christianity that I can embrace, and embody, and announce. Not the Catholicism, but the Christianity, the humanity, the spirit of Jesus himself.
I was a 12-year-old when the 21st Ecumenical Council was convened by Pope John XXIII in Rome. It lasted four years and dramatically reformed many things about how Roman Catholics understand and practice their Christian faith. I didn’t know all that then but started to learn in the lectures of my seminary teacher Morgan Patterson, who was a Protestant observer of some of the Council gatherings. But here near the end of my life-long ministry as a gospel preacher, I am encountering, through this book and others, the Christian minister, the Catholic priest, the Pope who is the epitome of a Vatican II (as the Council is known) minister: learned, open, joyful, engaging, articulate, humble, influential, and hopeful for the Church, for the Christian Community, and for the human race.
Like the anonymous admirer quoted by Ivereigh, I want to say, “I’m not a Catholic, but I sure love this pope” (333).
Francis was 26-30 during the year of Vatican II, exactly the years of his priestly formation. He must have followed the proceedings with great curiosity. This book does not dwell on that; I suspect Ivereigh does in his first book about Francis, The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope (which I have not read). What this book does document is the impact of another Catholic meeting, the great gathering of Latin American bishops at Aparecida in 2007. That event, was led and influenced by Francis, then known as Jorge Mario Bergoglio, archbishop of Buenos Aires in Argentina. The spirit and substance of that event has shaped the pontificate of Pope Francis.
From his ministry in South America and through the ideas and practices formalized at Aparecida, Bergoglio embraced a way of being Catholic, Christian, and human that propelled him to popularity in South America, to election as a pope, and to his global ministry as a person of unparalleled influence. That congress emphasized the emerging role of the Church in identifying with those on the margins: the poor, the disenfranchised, the refugee, the sick, the dying. This attention grabbed the attention of the world when, on the day of his election as pope, Francis knelt and washed the feet of an imprisoned man. It was the first of many gestures; and epitomized the power of gestures as gospel witness.
Bergoglio backed out of the papal voting in 2005 when he told his supporters to change their votes to Joseph Ratzinger who then was elected pope, taking the name Benedict XVI. The Epilogue to this book describes the close friendship now enjoyed by Benedict and Francis; it also quotes the words of Francis: “I will do the same as he did” (that is, resign from office rather than remain in office until death).
When Benedict resigned, the cardinals elected the man we know as Francis. Or as Iveregh puts it: “It was Benedict who, in resigning, paved the way for what he assumed would be a Latin American pope to implement Aparecida’s Pentecostal vision” (332).
Francis, in turn, brought from Buenos Aires to Rome his determination to, as they say now, convert the Catholic Church: lead it away from clericalism toward a faith community that is, in the words of Francis, “close and concrete.” By “close,” he means physically and spiritually close to people—poor people, hurting people, marginalized people, fleeing people; by “concrete,” he means connected to them in the actual realities of their situations. These two commitments have pushed Pope Francis to give prime attention to the lived conditions of people’s lives rather than the doctrines and regulations of the Church. It is this focus on the way life is actually experienced that has empowered him to welcome those who have long been marginalized by the Church: the divorced, the gay, the skeptic, the Muslim.
One of the highlights of his pontificate came in February of 2019 when the leader of the Christian world met the leader of the Muslim world, in Abu Dhabi. Together they signed the “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace” outlining the rights and freedoms of all people, all religions and affirming that the diversity of the world (including religion!) was the will of God.
Not everybody likes Pope Francis. There is a significant but minority network in the Catholic Church that has not come under the spell of “the Francis Effect.” They think he disregards Church teaching, Church doctrine, Church rules. They think he is too casual about homosexuality in the world and in the Church. They think he is too easy on those who are haphazard with Christian ethics and such. But Ivereigh makes the case that this is, indeed, not the truth. In chapters on global warming, sexual abuse, migration, and dissent, Ivereigh describes the work of Francis to emphasize mercy, humility, and service as nearer to the heart of God than doctrine, truth, and regulation. It is this portrait of the pope that makes him so appealing to so many, including myself.
I once wrote Pope Francis. It was delivered to the Vatican by the Papal Nuncio in Washington, under the cover of a letter from Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, then of Louisville, now in retirement in Wilmington, NC. We also sent a video of our appeal, inviting Pope Francis to host the first ever International Festival of Young Preachers. That was back in my Academy of Preacher days, in 2016. Francis sent his greetings, conveyed in a letter from the Vatican Secretary of State. No festival came out of it, but I was glad to get even that close to a man I admire so much.
Francis is 85 years old now, but full of vigor and vision. I hope Ivereigh writes a third book; if he does, I will read it with anticipation and delight. He is a good writer, and Francis is a good subject, and I am trying to be a good imitator of these good men.