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.

 

Catholic in Asia, don’t stop at baptism

Bishop Claver baptizes Aaron Viehland NJ Viehland

Bishop Francisco Clave baptizes Aaron / NJ Viehland Photos

Francisco F. Claver, S.J. (20 January 1926 – 1 July 2010) was a Filipino Jesuit priest, appointed and consecrated first bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Malaybalay in the Philippines.  He was the first member of the Igorot ethnic groups in the northern Philippines to be made a bishop. 

Claver completed a masters degree in Anthropology in the Ateneo de Manila and finished his doctorate in the University of Colorado. Ordained to the priesthood on 18 June 1961, he was appointed as the bishop of what is now the Malaybalay Diocese on 18 June 1969 and was consecrated on 22 August 1969. Claver resigned in 1984, but was appointed Apostolic Vicar of the Apostolic Vicariate of Bontac-Lagawe, Philippines. He retired on 15 April 2004.

Much talk about Church renewal and change today under Pope Francis’ reform movement echoes some of Bishop Claver’s ideas articulated decades ago. In particular, he has asserted that lay people need to reform also. It is not enough for Church members to be baptized and take part in Sacraments. Laity need also to participate in leadership roles for the change that needs to happen. They are not only subjects who will be affected by change, but also key players who will effect the change.

Bishop Claver “Ikoy” was born in the province of Bontoc, Mountain Province and was one of the most influential people of the Cordilleras and courageous leader against martial law. In his activities and writings, he has emphasized the importance of a participatory Church that is necessary in carrying out the aggiornamento called for by the Second Vatican Council. For him, the Basic Ecclesial Communities (BECs) or the Basic Christian Communities (BCCs) are the primary and particular embodiment and vehicles of participation and Church renewal. He died in Manila on July 1, 2010.