By Renée K. Gadoua | Contributing writer

Austen Ivereigh’s 2014 book “The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope,” suggests that Pope Francis was anointed to reform the church. But with the benefit of six years of research and watching the pope, the British writer shares a more nuanced story about what shaped the leadership style of Jorge Mario Bergoglio.

Pope Francis is like “a spiritual director leading the Church in an Ignatian retreat,” Ivereigh said during a Nov. 6 talk at Le Moyne College’s Panasci Family Chapel. A spiritual director “facilitates, he guides, he points out the obstacles, he warns you against the temptations,” he said. “The spiritual director does not change you. It’s God.”

Ivereigh is fellow in Contemporary Church History at Campion Hall, University of Oxford, where he wrote his doctoral dissertation on the church in Argentina. His work has appeared in publications including Commonweal, America magazine, The Tablet, and Crux. He previously served as public affairs director for the former Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor.    

“Pope Francis: Discerning Leader in Times of Tribulation” was sponsored by Le Moyne’s Sanzone Center for Catholic Studies and Theological Reflection and Office of Mission Integration. Ivereigh’s talk at Le Moyne came a day after the publication of “Wounded Shepherd: Pope Francis and His Struggle to Convert the Catholic Church” (Henry Holt.)   

Ivereigh described a 45-minute meeting in June 2018 during which the pope repeated a story he had told others: He arrived in Rome in March 2013 with just a suitcase and no plan. “He was trying to say, ‘Don’t put me on a pedestal as a great man who rises in a time of tribulation,’” Ivereigh said. “He said, ‘I’m putting Jesus as the center and the reforms follow from that.’”

Clues to the pope’s leadership style lie in his writings from the 1980s and 1990s, Ivereigh said. Bergoglio had been named provincial of the Jesuits in Argentina in 1973, at age 36. By 1986, though, he was at odds with his superiors and, according to Ivereigh, fell into depression.

“That searing experience of desolation teaches him to trust in a power not his own,” Ivereigh said. “You see in his writing that he considers leadership conducting a process rather than trying to impose an order.”

The pope favors strength, not force, Ivereigh said. “Good leadership means not demanding either more or less than is necessary,” he added. “One of his core concepts is reality is superior to the idea. … He says sometimes leadership is about not acting.”    

The pope found the central question at difficult moments is not to feel sorry for yourself or blame others, Ivereigh said, but to discern “What is the Holy Spirit calling me to do?”

Amid increasing secularization and damaged credibility from the clergy sex abuse crisis, “the answer is changing the mindset of the church,” Ivereigh said. “We can no longer rely on institutions to transmit faith. What the church has to do now is offer the direct, personal encounter of Jesus Christ.”

The pope was also influenced during this period by “A Theology of Failure” (1974) by Jesuit Father John J. Navone (1930-2016), Ivereigh said. The book helped him see “the faithful willingness to live in hope,” he said, “to allow God to work, in effect, to allow failure.”

The title of Ivereigh’s new book comes from the pope’s 2018 comments insisting the church must face the wounds of the clergy sex abuse victims. On that issue, too, Ivereigh said, the church must ask, “What is the Holy Spirit calling us to do?”

Renée K. Gadoua is a freelance writer and editor. Follow her on Twitter @ReneeKGadoua.

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