Of superheros and synods

Reviewed By David Gibson
Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Pope Francis’ papacy was not yet a year old in January 2014 when the Roman street artist Maupal depicted the pontiff as a superhero in a graffito in the Borgo Pio neighborhood near the Vatican. The image was quickly scrubbed away by local authorities (if only they cleared the Eternal City’s trash as efficiently), but not before it went viral. It was the perfect illustration of that heady time of great expectations for the Catholic Church, fueled by Francis’ soaring popularity, which in turn stemmed from his accessible approach and easygoing, pastoral style.

Here was something truly new from the fusty old Roman Church. Yet Francis himself knew it would be illusory. “I often ask myself what my cross will be like,” he told an interviewer in 2015 when asked about his popularity. “Jesus also, for a certain time, was very popular, and look at how that turned out.”

No one is more aware of how the worm can turn than Francis’ earliest and best biographer, the English journalist Austen Ivereigh. Ivereigh’s first treatment of Pope Francis, “The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope,” came out in 2014 and provided context for the “origin story” of the super-pope myth. 

With his own academic research on the Argentine church and political history, combined with his work as a Catholic journalist, Ivereigh was perfectly positioned to produce a deep and readable account of how Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio came to be the Jesuit priest he was, and to prophesy a bit about what kind of pontiff Francis, the first pope from outside Europe, would become. 

Now we have Ivereigh’s latest volume, which is his update on what has transpired during the course of this remarkable pontificate. The book, “Wounded Shepherd: Pope Francis’ Struggle to Convert the Catholic Church,” is just as good as the first biography, but more valuable because it shows how time and tides have taught both writer and subject a crucial lesson. 

“I’ve read a number of things you’ve written about me, and I have just one criticism,” Francis tells Ivereigh in a private, 45-minute meeting in the pope’s three-room apartment in the Vatican guest residence. Ivereigh braced for what was to come next. “You’re too kind to me,” Francis told him. 

The tale opens “Wounded Shepherd,” setting the tone for the recalibration that follows in the next 340 pages. Events obviously necessitated the reassessment. Over the past two years, especially, Francis has taken heat as his efforts to reform the Roman Curia (the church’s central administrative offices) have uncovered as many problems as they solved, especially on finances and cronyism, and as the vampire scandal of clergy sex abuse came back to life with a series of shocking revelations in the United States and around the globe.

Francis’ own missteps exacerbated the crisis, as Ivereigh recounts, especially in the case of Chile. Yet it was also Francis’ extended written apology to Chilean Catholics that proved to be the most powerful step any pope has taken in the decades-old scandal. 

A pastor who admitted his errors rather than ignoring them or explaining them away was someone with the courage and credibility to lead the church where she needs to. A “wounded shepherd” is in fact more appealing to a skeptical flock than an icon of implausible infallibility, and the authenticity of a human pope is more convincing than formulaic assertions of authority.

But authenticity is no magic bullet. And Francis is by no means his own worst enemy. For that, alas, we can look to his Catholic critics, many of whom have used every opportunity to try to undermine this pontificate. The campaigns of these saboteurs, as Ivereigh rightly calls such activists, are analyzed in some of Ivereigh’s most trenchant chapters. 

It’s a story that must be confronted. It should also never bore, and that, ultimately, is the great virtue of Ivereigh’s book. Through personal reporting in Latin America and Rome and around the world, Ivereigh weaves in fascinating stories from Francis’ past, including his intellectual influences, as well as episodes from the current political dramas inside and outside the Catholic Church. They range from the bizarre power struggle inside the ancient order of the Knights of Malta, through the pope’s crusade against climate change and income inequality and his efforts on behalf of migrants and the poor. 

The result is a vivid portrait of a prophetic leader who can appear increasingly isolated on the world stage and inside his own house, but one who, because of that, finds himself more liberated, and perhaps more effective.  

The “Francis Effect,” as Ivereigh writes, “is as impossible to measure empirically as it is real.” The best example of this is the revival of the system of church-wide meetings, called synods, that Francis has convened throughout his papacy. These meetings are almost a slow-motion Third Vatican Council in that they provide space to air differences and promote dialogue and reform on even the most contested issues. At the same time, synods provide fuel for the anti-Francis’ arsonists. “The dogs are barking,” Ivereigh quotes Francis as saying. “That shows we are moving ahead.”

These synods may in fact prove to be Francis’ most important legacy, as they leave a template for the kind of open and outgoing church that Francis — and the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, and Jesus himself — calls for. Yes, it is a tough road, but for Francis it’s always an occasion to find joy in the journey. That’s key.

Comparing a pope to Jesus understandably leads to charges of hagiography, and if Ivereigh is more clear-eyed about Francis in this volume than he was in the first, he can still be quite harsh on Francis’ critics. Ivereigh defends himself, as he did when we hosted him last fall for a talk at Fordham University, as saying his role “is to explain how [Francis] thinks and what he is doing,” not to make excuses for the pope. That’s certainly a virtue: Whatever you think of Francis going into this book, you will understand him — and Catholicism today — much better coming out, whether Ivereigh changes your mind or not.

Will there be another installment to complete the Francis trilogy? Given that Francis just turned 83, it would more likely than not be a postmortem of this pope, or at least his papacy, if he retires quietly to Buenos Aires, as many believe he will. That’s not how superheroes normally wind up, but it would be a fitting coda to Francis’ ministry.

“[Francis] is like superman,” a flower seller in Thailand said when the pope visited last November. “Because he helps the people, and he teaches us to help people and choose to help people.” Now that’s a superpower you can believe in.