By Austen Ivereigh
It is a provocative title — too provocative, in fact, for the Italian publishers, who have opted in their translated edition for the gentler and safer Tempo di Misericordia (“A Time of Mercy”). “Reformer”, after all, has an ambiguous resonance in church history. Once upon a time epoch-changing popes and humble saints were called reformers — Gregory the Great, St Francis of Assisi — but the word has become linked in the modern age to a different kind of change-maker: thus the Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain’s famous 1925 text, Three Reformers, which charted the breakdown of the medieval synthesis under the fragmenting influences of Luther, Descartes and Rousseau.
Because of the word’s association with the Reformation, the Second Vatican Council spoke of purification and renewal (renovatio). All true reform, in fact, is a return to the Church’s own sources — the Gospel and the Holy Spirit — by shedding attachments to power, prestige, and money. It is a process of permanent conversion. Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium quotes the Vatican Council document Unitatis redintegratio: “Every renewal of the Church essentially consists in an increase of fidelity to her own calling.”
This is what Francis is doing. And he has spent a lifetime preparing for it through two previous reforming leaderships, as the dominant figure of the Jesuit province in Argentina from the early 1970s to the late 1980s, and as head of the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires from 1998 to 2012, during much of which he was also the dominant Latin-American church leader. Reform runs in his veins. It is his life’s work, both in theory and practice.
Austen Ivereigh’s The Great Reformer: Francis and the making of a radical pope is published in Australia & New Zealand by Allen & Unwin.