So you know that things are different and have reached a “new normal” when news outlets and periodicals more accustomed to covering the latest presidential candidate’s awkward adventure at the Iowa State Fair invite a notable papal biographer to write a lengthy feature piece on the humility of Pope Francis. This is precisely what The Atlantic did when it published an essay by Paul Vallely, author of Pope Francis: Untying the Knots (2013) and Pope Francis: The Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism (2015), titled: “Where Pope Francis Learned Humility.”
I, like so many other observers, have been fascinated by the world’s nearly uniform interest in this Argentinian Jesuit who was elected Bishop of Rome less than three years ago. Pope Francis, from the moment of the announcement of his name and his now-famous appearance on the balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square, has sent a clear message of humility in both word and deed. Though there is something deeply habitual about his preferences, Vallely has signaled that the new status quo of papal presence is as much a deliberate and calculated decision as it is an inherent reflex. In his Atlantic essay, Vallely writes:
It’s a new normal: Francis has presented himself to the world as an icon of simplicity and humility, eschewing papal limousines and the grand Apostolic Palace, and instead being driven in a Ford Focus and living in the Vatican guesthouse. But being simple can be a complex business if you are the leader of one of the world’s largest religious denominations and also a head of state. And Francis’s life story shows that humility is not an innate quality of his, but a calculated religious, and sometimes political, choice.
One should not read this opening qualification, the hinge-teaser following the lede, as a criticism. On the contrary, what follows demonstrates the importance of approaching the Pope’s actions with an attentiveness and seriousness that hitherto has been water downed or dismissed by those who would prefer the more decadent pontificates of ages (or decades) past.
Vallely traces Pope Francis’s recognizable humility and decision-making as far back as his youthful ambition and rapid ascendency in the Society of Jesus’s leadership. His time as Provincial was not without problems and, though I disagree with Vallely’s choice of the word “exile,” the younger Father Bergoglio was something of a controversial figure among his Jesuit brothers after his tenure in leadership.
What accounts for this dissatisfaction? Well, as Vallely tells it, the would-be pontiff was stubborn and somewhat self-righteous as a younger man.
Bergoglio had strong support within the Jesuits when he became provincial superior in 1973. But by the time he ended his leadership role as rector of Buenos Aires’s Jesuit seminary in 1986, those who loathed him had begun to outnumber those who loved him. By 1990, his support within the order had been eroded by his authoritarian style and his incorrigible inability, in the words of the Jesuit, Father Frank Brennan, “to let go the reins of office once a [Jesuit] provincial of a different hue was in the saddle.” Another senior Jesuit told me: “He drove people really crazy with his insistence that only he knew the right way to do things. Finally the other Jesuits said: ‘Enough.’”
It seems that there was quite a reaction from Bergoglio’s superiors in Rome. Vallely explains:
In response to these cleavages within the Argentine Jesuit community, Jesuit leaders in Rome eventually decided to strip Bergoglio, then 50, of all responsibility. In 1990, he was sent to Cordoba to live in the Jesuit residence, pray, and work on his doctoral thesis. But he was not permitted to say Mass in public in the Jesuit church. He could only go there to hear confessions. He was not allowed to make phone calls without permission. His letters were controlled. His supporters were told not to contact him. The ostracism from his peers was to be complete.
Pope Francis has, since his election as Bishop of Rome, remarked on this period of time, noting that it was a period of “great interior crisis.” Through his limited ministry in the confessional and time to reflect and pray, it appears that he was humbled and embraced a spirit of real humility.
As a result, it appears that his younger predilection for conservative views and anti-comunism were left behind for a pragmatic awareness of the poor and marginalized in the world around him. As a bishop, his interest was more closely identified with the scriptural tenets of liberation theology than with strict hierarchical leadership and obsession with perfect liturgy.
Simplicity and humility didn’t come easily or quickly for the pope, just as true, ongoing Christian conversion doesn’t happen overnight, but is the cumulative result of a daily practice of prayer, reflection, and charitable practice.
Vallely ends his essay (which I encourage you to read in its entirety) with this statement: “As became clear a few months ago, when the pope published his major encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, he is not just addressing Catholics or Christians but, in the words of that document, ‘all people of good will.’ Having changed himself, it appears he wants all the world to undergo a similar conversion.”
It seems to me that this is precisely what Jesus also had in mind when the Gospels recount that he came to “set the world on fire” (Luke 12:49). May we be ignited by the passion of a similar conversion — oh, what a world that would be!