How a “far-away” people’s theology groomed a pope for the Church of the Third Millennium

Book Review by Hector Welgampola

Francis: Life and Revolution by Elisabetta Pique

In 2013, Pope Francis issued his first apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), detailing the church's primary mission of evangelization in the modern world. / NJ Viehland Photos      [ View video on the exhortation by Rome Reports]

Pope Francis’ video message to the Philippine Conference on New Evangelization, 2013 / NJ Viehland Photos

“Francis: Life and Revolution” is more than a papal biography. Based on Jorge Bergoglio’s 76-year life and witness in his native Argentina, the book unravels the genesis of the Bergoglio papacy’s style and nuance.

With native Argentine wisdom and perspicacity of an investigative journalist, Elisabetta Pique helps readers understand the mindset of her compatriot who catapulted to the papacy as Pope Francis. Her familiarity with Argentine lore, long personal acquaintance with Padre Jorge and experience as a Vatican-based journalist have enhanced the well-documented biography with unique insights.

All the way from “Liber Pontificalis”, the papal book attributed to Saint Jerome, more often than not, papal biographies have been, a rather didactic genre of Church literature. Pique’s book, however, follows the lucid and investigative style of more recent papal biographies such as “Paul VI” authored by Peter Hebblethwaite, and “His Holiness” authored by Carl Bernstein and Marco Politi. The narrative style of this much-resourced book makes it addictively readable.

The book’s early chapters give a snapshot of the how and why of the 2013 conclave and the Argentine cardinal’s election to the papacy. Its mid-chapters are a flashback to the cleansing crucible of preceding years very appropriately designated by the author as Bergoglio’s “exile” in and outside Argentina. With uncanny candor, the book reveals the complicity or connivance of various levels of ecclesiastical leadership to thwart the Spirit’s role in grooming a future pope. Noteworthy is the harsh impact of the Sodano-Bernadini curial axis, which scarred the life of several other Third World Churches, as well.

Later on, the book evidences how the blend of a pragmatic Argentine version of people’s theology, Ignatian spirituality and intense Marian devotion sustained Bergoglio through such upheavals and local political unrest. It is reflective, if not predictive, of that blend’s potential for worldwide Church renewal under the leadership of the first pope from Latin America. The book reveals the rationale of the Holy Father’s open-minded approach to renew the Church for the still unfolding mission in the Third Millennium.

And up until now, Pope Francis has done well through the witness to Jesus-like personal austerity and evangelical simplicity he lived as archbishop of Buenos Aires. In recalling the extent of his practical commitment to ecumenism and interreligious dialogue, the book cites how his home for elderly priests cared even for Protestant pastors. “If we have to sell chalices, we’ll sell them,” the future pope is reported to have said while providing for a priest with multiple sclerosis.

No wonder the book describes Pope Francis as a tsunami. Even if curialists may not fear for the treasures of the Vatican, the book indicates that some of them worry about his keenness for curial reform. And so, perceptive Catholics worldwide eagerly watch his Francis-like zeal for ecclesia semper reformanda. As the cliche goes, even if the grinding be slow, it will grind exceedingly small, they hope.

However, as realized by some of his predecessors, ridding a two-millennia-old institution of layers of corrosive accretions is not easy. Hebblethwaite’s earlier cited biography of Blessed Paul VI has a prophetic line: “Montini, the first modern pope, tried to be the first Christian pope after (now Saint) Pope John. It broke him.” Like Bergoglio, Montini too had weathered his own “exile” after being packed off to Milan by curial intervention. But the papacy broke him. He ceased writing encyclicals after Humanae Vitae.

As embers of the Humanae Vitae debate emerge in-between the Rome synods on family, some sniping too has become evident. For example, a comment on a recent issue of the Catholic World Report made insinuative remarks about Pope Francis’ origin from “a destitute part of the world” where people are “poorly educated,” it alleged. Nonetheless, Elisabetta Pique’s book offers hope that such Third World origin itself has steeled the Holy Father with Francis-like faith and grit to “rebuild” the Church for the Third Millennium.

The book ends with two somber questions: One: will Pope Francis follow the trend set by Pope Benedict XVI and retire after a limited term of office? The other and more ominous question: will he be assassinated? Both are not unfounded questions, and are backed with quotes from concerned persons. And as the Holy Father prepares to travel longer distances and to trouble spots like Sri Lanka, greater would be people’s concern for his safety. The prayer call the sports-loving pope made six months ago to some athletes in Rome could be heeded by us too: “Pray for me that I may be able to play this game till the day that the Lord calls me to himself.” 

Perhaps, now is the time to revive the old papal anthem and sing with fervor: “God bless our pope, the great, the good!”

Hector Welgampola

Veteran Asian Church journalist Hector Welgampola from Sri Lanka has retired as Executive Editor of the former Union of Catholic Asian News (UCAN) based in Hong Kong, then Bangkok. Before UCAN, Hector headed editorial teams of newspapers in Sri Lanka. Since retiring Hector has lived in Australia with his wife, Rita. He authored the resource book Asian Church Glossary and Stylebook.


Interview: Missionary nuns help shorthanded diocese minister to poor Filipino families

Sr. Bernadette de Silva Wijeyeratne, Holy Family of Bordeaux (HFB) directs fishermen's recollection, Bulan, Sorsogon, Philippines. / photo courtesy of HFB

Sr. Bernadette de Silva Wijeyeratne, Holy Family of Bordeaux (HFB) directs fishermen’s recollection, Bulan, Sorsogon, Philippines. / photo courtesy of HFB

Manila – Sr. Bernadette de Silva Wijeyeratne came to the Philippines 23 years ago through the mission program of the Sri Lanka province of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Bordeaux. Sr. De Silva, as neighbors and friends now call her, knew bitter civil war and deep poverty in Sri Lanka. Still, living among poor families in Sorsogon province is full of demands.

She spoke with Global Sisters’ Report in Manila about her experiences among the country’s poorest families in Sorsogon diocese some 186 miles southeast of Manila, and her international institute founded in the early 1800s.

French Fr. Pierre Bienvenu Noailles organized women and men volunteers of all conditions and vocations to proclaim the “good news” by imitating the Holy Family of Nazareth.

Read the full interview with Sr. de Silva

Interview : Fr. Andrew Recepcion on “Revolution” for Mission

By N.J. Viehland

“… mission is beyond geography. Every person that God places beside me in this present moment of my life is my mission space, and I have to be there for that person. That’s the revolution that should be understood at this time.” –  Father Andrew Recepcion, Filipino Missiologist


MARIKINA CITY, Philippines – Father Andrew Recepcion president of the Board of Directors of the International Association of Catholic Missiologists and director of Caceres Mission Office in the Archdiocese of Caceres in Camarines Sur province notes much has to be done for Filipinos to effectively serve the mission of evangelization in Asia. He spoke about this with Catholic in Asia in the sidelines of the Grand Mission Festival  at Marikina Sports Complex last April 18-20, while assessing the impact of the activity co-organized by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) commission on Mission , the Pontifical Mission Societies (PMS) and other groups. Recepcion, author of the book God’s Global Household: A Theology of Mission in the Context of Globalization holds a doctorate in Missiology from Gregorian University in Rome. While teaching in various schools of theology in the Philippines, he researches on globalization and mission, local rituals and mission history. Following are excerpts of our chat at the festival:

N.J. Viehland: What is the basic definition of mission?

Fr. Andrew Recepcion: Mission is both a journey of faith and a sharing of faith. Journey of faith because it involves a personal encounter with the Lord and you cannot give what you do not have. Sharing of faith because we cannot keep that Spirit of God to ourselves. We have to share it with others.

What are particular challenges to the Church in the Philippines?

The constant challenge to the Philippines Church is that it is always an island of faith. For many many years, we have been “the only Catholic country in Asia,” though now there is East Timor, but there’s still much for us to do.

It’s very important that Catholic Christians in the Philippines will go beyond the comfort zones of family tradition and commit deeply to proclaiming Jesus Christ in different situations.

We also have to balance mission “ad gentes” (to the nations) or mission “going to places that need explicit proclamation of Jesus Christ,” with mission as a way of life. And only when mission becomes a way of life among Filipinos can they make a difference in evangelization in Asia today.

Talks and sessions of the Grand Mission Festival sought to inculcate that awareness that mission is a way of life, and that every Christian wherever we are, can do evangelization and the Church’s missionary work. We don’t have to go right away to places outside the Philippines to do mission, but we start with our families, with our work environment, schools and so on, and then we begin to create a mission culture, so to speak, and that could facilitate mission ad gentes.

So many times, we have the impression that those who volunteer or do full-time mission work are extraordinary. In reality, it should be ordinary for us Christians to do mission because as John Paull II reiterated in Redemptoris Missio,  mission is an instrument of faith and we will lose that faith if we don’t share it. But, it should not be understood as sharing it only to those outside our territory. There’s a tendency even among priests to reduce mission to going to other nations.

The need for that should not be denied, but mission is beyond geography. Every person that God places beside me in this present moment of my life is my mission space and you have to be there for that person. That’s the revolution that should be understood at this time.

Archbishop Jose Palma of Cebu, Catholic Bishops Conference president at the time, put on mission cross necklaces on volunteers during the mission sending ceremony at the end of the April 2012 Grand Mission Festival held at Marikina City Sports Complex. - NJ Viehland photos

Archbishop Jose Palma of Cebu, Catholic Bishops Conference president at the time, put on mission cross necklaces on volunteers during the mission sending ceremony at the end of the April 2012 Grand Mission Festival held at Marikina City Sports Complex. – NJ Viehland photos

What are the implications for orientation and training for mission?

Preparation for mission is “here” in the manner that we live out our faith, in the manner we share it with our family, with people who are close to us. Only when we are able to mature in this kind of missioning that we can eventually be committed to mission ad gentes.

From experience I see it has to be understood by priests that mission is not added work. For many priests, their concept of mission is that it is an activity that has to be done, when in fact mission should be the soul of pastoral work. Without the orientation to mission, pastoral work is reduced to empty administration work and other activities. If we do not do mission, we are not missionaries of Christ carrying out our pastoral work, but end up instead as social workers, organizers, event managers, CEO.

Mission Directors in the Philippimes Grand Mission Festival for CBCP Year of the Missions Marikina Sports Center, April 20-23, 2012 N.J. Viehland Photos

Mission Directors in the Philippimes
Grand Mission Festival for CBCP Year of the Missions
Marikina Sports Center, April 20-23, 2012
N.J. Viehland Photos

How important is it to include formation for mission in the seminary program?

Mission formation must be allowed to mature in one’s life. It’s important for seminarians to understand that they are becoming priests not just to do pastoral work, but to participate in the mission of the Church. Your pastoral and other work is part of the whole mission enterprise of the Church. For this mission, seminarians must nurture an attitude of availability for mission and joy of service. Their formation is programmed so that mission is intuitive. They are given exposure to mission situations in the diocese to understand that being in the parish is not merely celebrating the rituals and performing sacraments, but that all these and other activities are a constant life-giving witness to the faith.

What about overseas missions?

Aside from seminarians’ mission formation program, we also have had the Caceres Mission Aid Program since 1997. We have 16 priests right now who serve 3-year contracts with mission dioceses. Almost 50 of our 280 priests have gone to serve overseas.

What did the Grand Mission Festival achieve?

Mission is not result-oriented because the proclamation of the Gospel  is  always open-ended. The fruits are given not by any human effort but by the Holy Spirit. I think the fruit of the Grand Mission Festival, from the human point of view, was its succes with the organization, participation, also with the good general program.

From the point of view of God’s work, the fruits will have to be reaped in the future through the success of lay missionaries that were sent off to their missions. We hope that they will be able to inspire others and witness to Jesus, and that more missionaries will be sent from the Philippines.

Was there enough discussion of the role of dialogue in the mission of the Church?

Grand Mission Festival focused on PMS and that covers mission more as the work of the Church. Maybe at another time it would be opportune to talk about dialogue. But in the Philippines dialogue is always part of our understanding of mission because of growing religious and cultural pluralism in the country.

How do you respond to claims that some bishops, priests and Religious are not open to dialogue?

Even today, there are priests and bishops who do not want to talk about dialogue because of our training to fight for our faith as much as possible and as far as we can prevent it,  our faith should not be contaminated by other religions.  We cannot proselytize and aggressively convert Muslims. In a pluralistic situation, the challenge to Filipino Christians is to know more our faith and identity because if not we could be converted.

How do you see the conversion of Catholics to Born Again and other groups?

As far as I know, Born Again groups are very active, even in remote areas. For many people who have been in the margins of Church life – who we call the “un-churched” – they feel liberated by the manner in which Born Again Christians create a Pentecostal atmosphere in presenting the faith. For many it’s like liberation from a very traditional way of living faith and of liturgy. For example, they could spontaneously praise God. It’s very important that Catholic Christians are also able to live their faith without having to join Born Again Christians. If they only knew that there’s so much of the movement of the Spirit in our lives. If we only put the Gospel into practice, our faith can be as alive. Catechesis and basic education are important and it’s very important the very basics of our faith are clearly and deeply understood, including the basic question: Why do we believe in God?