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Columnists

The Pope, for his sins

Paul Vallely

A lot of people who ordinarily would not have time for a new Pope are quite impressed with this one, the interviewer on an evangelical Christian radio station said to me the other day, and he wondered why. Having spent the past four months working on a new biography of Pope Francis I think I know.

Some of it is obvious enough. In his days as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio consistently attempted to connect with evangelical and pentecostal Protestants, in contrast to many other Latin American bishops in the Catholic church who look with suspicion on those they see as rivals enticing the faithful away to more colourful and charismatic styles of worship. Bergoglio took the opposite view and went to pray with them - and with such enthusiasm that angry Catholic traditionalists at one point declared the archdiocese of Buenos Aires to be sede vacante - using the Latin phrase which normally indicates that a bishop has died or retired leaving the episcopal chair empty.

His crime was to have asked a stadium full of Protestant evangelists to pray for him - much as he asked the crowd in St Peter's Square to do on his first appearance as Pope. Worse still he had knelt down to receive the blessing. 'What's the problem?' Bergoglio shrugged afterwards. When he was elected the leaders of Argentina's Anglicans, Archbishop Gregory Venables, described him, in a back-handed compliment, as not so much a Catholic as 'more of a Christian, Christ-centered and spirit-filled'. Francis made clear to Venables that he had little time for the Anglican Ordinariate set up by Benedict XVI to poach disaffected members of the Church of England; the wider world needs the diversity of the Anglican witness, the new Pope believes.

Of course the answer to the heavy-booted cliché 'Is the Pope a Catholic?' remains unchanged. Francis may have no time for papal pomp but he is deeply catholic in the colour, richness and sacramentality of his faith. One of his favourite films is Babette's Feast, in which a severe Puritan community is confronted by a meal which is a metaphor for the staggering cornucopia of gifts God has provided for the world. Bergoglio intuitively comprehends that there are deep poetic qualities to religion and its ritual which go beyond belief. But over the years he had become a man intent on seeing the good in others, and their common ground, rather than defining himself by the singularity of his religious identity.

Yet there is something else. When I first met my wife we began to alternate our places of worship between my Catholic and her Methodist traditions. Among the theological misconceptions I most often encountered among Protestants was the idea that Catholics worked on the basis that they could commit what sins they wanted and then go to Confession to have them wiped away and then begin sinning again. At the heart of my book is the discovery that Bergoglio was once an authoritarian conservative who underwent a personal and political conversion to become a radical icon of humility and simplicity as Bishop of the Slums and champion of change for the poor. At the core of that conversion were the 'hundreds of errors' he admitted he made over 15 years as head of Argentina's Jesuits. One of those misjudgements resulted in the torture of two Jesuits by the right-wing military junta. They were not the crimes of betrayal of which his enemies have accused him; but they were sins of recklessness, obstinacy, self-righteousness and pride. He has been atoning for that, through his changed leadership style, ever since.

'I'm a sinner who God in his mercy has chosen to love in a privileged manner,' Bergoglio once said. He has never forgotten that. Even as he was elected to the highest office of his church he remembered it. When the elected cardinal is asked if he will take the job, the traditional response is 'I accept'. Jorge Mario Bergoglio replied: 'I am a great sinner, trusting in the mercy and patience of God in suffering, I accept.' Even at this moment, or perhaps especially then, the remorseful awareness of his past was in his consciousness.

It may be impossible to see into another's soul, but it seems clear that in his seven years of exile, after his time as Jesuit leader, Jorge Mario Bergoglio saw more deeply into his own. It is no coincidence that the dominant theme of Bergogolio's preaching, both before and after he became Pope, is our need constantly to ask for forgiveness and to accept God's mercy. 'There's no clean slate,' he has said. 'We have to bless the past with remorse, forgiveness, and atonement.' And that requires change. By changing his style of spiritual leadership so radically 20 years ago Bergoglio is saying to the world that he has made a change of heart and a change of behaviour is its fruit.

Just before he left for Rome - on the airline ticket whose return portion he would never use - he wrote what turned out to be his last Lenten message to the people of Buenos Aires. Morality, he said, is not 'never falling down' but 'always getting up again' in response to God's mercy. Mercy has been the greatest of his themes as Pope. In his homily on the Sunday after his election he said: 'Mercy is the Lord's most powerful message… The problem is not that God gets tired of forgiving us but rather that we get tired of asking for forgiveness. Let us never get tired. … It is not easy to trust oneself to the mercy of God, because it is an unfathomable abyss - but we must do it'.

All this, by my reading, is deeply autobiographical. Jorge Mario Bergoglio obtained the forgiveness he was seeking. Though it has never been enough. Remorse and repentance, Pope Francis teaches, are not facile gestures. They cost. And they can be a lifetime's work.

 

Pope Francis: Untying the knots by Paul Vallely is published by Bloomsbury.