When Francis Was Still Jorge

Cardinal Bergoglio’s road to the Vatican

Books The Catholic Church
Adept at keeping out of trouble: Pope Francis at his inauguration (photo: Austrian Foreign Ministry CC BY-SA 2.0)

The objection to Cardinal Bergoglio’s election as pope in 2013 was, and is, not to his person but to his nationality. Anyone who comes from Argentina is bound to bring with him liabilities and dangers. The original settlers from Spain “solved” the indigenous Indian problem by exterminating them. The country then became a virtual British colony, capital and expertise from the UK financing its superb cattle-breeding estancias, building its excellent railway system and making it, thanks to the invention of refrigerated ships built in Britain, the largest meat-exporter globally in history. In the 1930s it was the ninth richest country in the world, and as large a focus of immigration (chiefly from Italy) as the United States.

Then came Perón. He never forgave the Jockey Club for turning him down: he, his appalling wife, and their insensate followers comprehensively wrecked the Argentine economy and all its constitutional institutions — a good example of the destructive power of anti-snobbery. The country has never recovered, oscillating between democracy and military rule, mired in bottomless corruption, and with a credit rating poisoned by endemic inflation. It is a tragedy without a mitigating feature, for the land is rich and the people, on the whole, intelligent and well-educated. Buenos Aires has the world’s biggest annual book fair, which attracts three million people, and its bohemian elegance is without rival in the southern hemisphere. But nearly all the Argentines also have a streak of noisy bellicosity which leads them to quarrel with their neighbours (and creditors), usually about trivial matters like the Falklands.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio, whose parents were part of the inter-war immigration from Italy and who was born in 1936, decided to become a Jesuit in 1958. He went through their arduous 15-year training programme, becoming a priest in 1969 and making his final vows in 1973. He took degrees in Chile, Spain and Buenos Aires, and must have been an outstanding student, for he progressed rapidly from novice-master to professor, rector of the chief Jesuit college, and, in 1973, only three months after he took his final vows, was made Provincial, or head, of the Argentine Jesuits, a post he held for six years.

As Provincial he gained a reputation for ruthlessness in cracking down on the tendency of the young Jesuits to follow too literally the “option for the poor” which the Society adopted as its contribution to the spirit of the Second Vatican Council. In 1976 there was a military coup, and the junta arrested, tortured, and in some cases killed priests who had moved too far to the Left. Bergoglio was much criticised for not always doing his utmost to protect Jesuits who had fallen foul of the junta, two in particular being often cited. Both were eventually released after pressure from the Vatican itself. One left the priesthood and never forgave Bergoglio; the other was reconciled after many years. After he ceased to be Provincial, Bergoglio’s career stalled during the 1980s, by no means unusual for a high-flying Jesuit, the Society having a practice of “cutting down to size” the climbers. He was eventually rescued by the hierarchy of the Church, being made an auxiliary bishop in 1992, and thereafter progressing to full bishop, archbishop and cardinal. He was fancied as papabile during the conclave that elected the German Benedict XVI, and finally got the tiara in 2013 when pressure to elect a Third World pope became irrestistible.

Whether Bergoglio consciously wished to become pope, and deliberately sought the office, is not clear. He certainly played his cards carefully, and kept out of trouble, no easy matter in Argentina. A moderate Peronist, he avoided identification with the movement without antagonising it, a tactic he followed again with the junta, and with their various successors, including the Kirchners, husband and wife, who in turn have presided over Argentina’s rickety fortunes in recent years. Evading Madame Kirchner’s embrace is no easy matter, but he has so far — just — managed it, both before and since he became pope. The Kirchners’ family assets have increased from $2.3 million in 2003 to $18 million in 2010, the last year for which official figures are available. Since then, who knows?

As a member of the Argentine hierarchy, Pope Francis (as I shall now call him) had acquired considerable experience in sorting out financial fiddling on a large scale, and avoiding dodgy operators. He has put it to good use since he took supreme office, notably in getting (fairly) reliable people to reform the corrupt Vatican bank. He has found what looks like a trustworthy head of finance in the bluff Australian Cardinal Pell. So far, nothing too embarrassing has emerged from his own Argentine past.

Francis’s own policies, as pope, though openly and noisily on the side of the poor (whatever that may mean) do not amount to much beyond rhetoric and slogans. Trouble clearly lies ahead over marriage and morals, and my own guess is that he will not serve many years, Benedict now having made retirement an option. The truth, I suppose, is that the maintenance of the papacy as an autocratic institution, with no theoretical checks on the pope’s activity, sayings and decisions, is an anomaly which cannot last. But what will take its place? No one has any idea, and all those with power to influence change are old men.

Jimmy Burns has done a great deal of hard work and talked to many people in presenting this account of Francis and his background. He himself is Jesuit-educated and has a delightful opening chapter describing the school, Stonyhurst, which he attended. But his book has no consistent and clear chronological structure, and I found it confusing at times. The index is hopeless. Sometimes one must read between the lines to get his opinions. Still, he conveys a good deal of information and leaves the reader to make up his own mind about the Francis phenomenon.

My feeling is that one should not take  anything too seriously which comes from Argentina. I was giving a lecture to a gratifyingly packed audience in Buenos Aires, not long after the ignominious surrender of the Argentine garrison in the Falklands, and the collapse of the junta. I pointed out that had it not been for the courage and determination of Margaret Thatcher they would still be groaning under a military dictatorship. To my annoyance the audience began to titter, and was soon guffawing. I eventually realised that something comic was going on behind me. Turning, I saw that an enormous rat was making its leisurely progress across the platform. Reflecting on this afterwards, I decided that both rat and its reception were symbols of that time in Argentina.