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Book Talk: "Great Reformer" biography links Pope Francis to Argentine roots

PARIS (Reuters) - Who is Pope Francis? Where is he taking the Roman Catholic Church? What made him into the man we see today?
/ Source: Reuters

PARIS (Reuters) - Who is Pope Francis? Where is he taking the Roman Catholic Church? What made him into the man we see today?

Questions like this have swirled around the Vatican since the little-known Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was elected pope in March of last year, and many Catholics are still not sure how to describe him.

In "The Great Reformer", British Catholic writer Austen Ivereigh connects the pope to his Argentine roots, showing how his country, its culture and its politics helped shape him. Ivereigh, former deputy editor of the London Catholic weekly The Tablet and former spokesman for Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, spoke to Reuters about the book.

Q: There were lots of books about Pope Francis after his election. Why another one?

A: Those books focus mostly on his period as cardinal-archbishop of Buenos Aires. My interest has been in what you might call the deep past of Argentine history and the Church in Argentina. Twenty years ago, I did my doctorate on the subject.

Q: What is most Argentine about him?

A: Culturally, he is very "porteno" - of Buenos Aires - in his accent, his way of speaking and sense of humor. It’s very much like a pope speaking in a New Jersey accent. What makes him Argentine in a much deeper way is the experience of coming out of a Catholic, nationalist and populist political culture. And what makes him distinct in Argentina is that he's lower-middle class.

Q: Initial reports after his election said Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was a conservative Jesuit who later became a liberal bishop. You don't agree with that view.

A: The misreading of Peronism and nationalism as a form of fascism is what really underlies this. Much of the controversy over Bergoglio after his election, such as his position under the dictatorship during the Dirty War, stems from that misreading. Both the guerrillas and the dictatorship were factions in a dispute between two elite ideologies, neither of which spoke to the interests of ordinary people. Bergoglio always rooted himself in the ordinary, simple, faithful and uneducated people. In that sense, he is a populist. He was never a conservative, never a right-winger, and he never became a liberal.

Q: Did he speak as freely and vividly years ago as he does now?

A: Some of his early writings are very restrained, almost ascetic. But from the beginning, there are really startling phrases. Many he's made famous as pope, such as wanting pastors who "smell of their sheep", he first used in the early 1980s.

Q: He had a reputation as a humorless man, but he seems so jolly.

A: In Argentina, they say he never smiled. Actually, there are many people who saw the joyful side of him, especially the charismatic Catholics and evangelical pastors with whom he used to pray and the poor people in the shantytowns.

Q: What changes will he make in the world Church?

A: First, he is introducing a far more collaborative and collegial form of governance. The second area is in putting the Church on a more missionary footing. Third, in Buenos Aires he brought about a model of Christian unity based on deep friendship, praying together and working together, rather than theological and institutional dialogue. Now as pope he's doing the same, especially with evangelical and Pentecostal Christians.

Q: The book is called "The Great Reformer". Why?

A: I'm convinced his will be seen as one of the great reforming papacies, even if he himself may not last long as pope ... Even though there is considerable opposition to him, I think the reforms he's introducing are irreversible.

(Reporting by Tom Heneghan; Editing by Michael Roddy and Susan Fenton)