Aguilar, Mario I. Pope Francis. His Life and Thought.
This book, by a Chilean theologian teaching at Aberdeen, is a biography of the Pope up to the point of his election to the papacy. It gives considerable background information on the state of the Catholic Church in Latin America and its development since the 1950’s. It deals with the question of whether, in his earlier days in the Jesuit Order, Fr. Bergoglio stood up sufficiently for those priests and lay activists suffering from oppression by the then Argentinian regime.
Aguilar shows clearly that the Pope was never on the Marxist, revolutionary side. He did not favour the Christian socialism of some Chilean Catholics. Nevertheless, his career in campaigning for social justice and a church ‘of the poor for the poor’ took off from the point at which, in 1992, he was elected an auxiliary bishop, a position he was not initially enthusiastic to accept, following the long term general Jesuit reluctance to be part of the hierarchy. John Paul II had to remind him of the Jesuit oath of obedience and service to the Pope and he was freed from his vow of poverty and his obedience to his Jesuit superiors. Henceforth, he would be under the authority solely of the Congregation of Bishops and the Pope himself.
From this stage onwards, he became well known for both the humble informality and the trenchant social teaching that have characterised his pontificate so far. He aimed to use public transport or his own two feet in all travel and visiting. He made a point of meeting as many people as possible. He showed great respect for his shanty town priests and other Christian servants of the poor. ‘The testimony of many men and women who follow Jesus Christ very closely edifies the Church, makes her grow. Precisely because the Church grows by attraction rather than by proselytism’.
Over the next twenty years, Bishop Bergoglio developed a feisty critique of contemporary Argentinian society that he has since applied more widely as Pope, particularly in his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel).He spoke out against political corruption, exhibitionism and misleading statements. He warned his fellow citizens against political apathy, lack of interest in the common good, consumerism and fragmentation within society. He began to take his views to a wider audience through his work at the 2001 Synod of Bishops, where he expounded several favourite themes, the need for bishops to adhere to personal poverty, the need for them to be credible witnesses and the need for their being close to the most marginalised in society. In the meantime, he became first Archbishop and then a Cardinal. He played a key role in the Latin American Conference of Bishops.
Aguilar sums up his concerns at the beginning of this millennium as concern for the nation, concern for the poor within it and concern for all non-Catholics, both members of other churches and of other religions. He stresses the many contacts established with those of other churches and faiths, all of which he valued highly.
This is a sound book which helps to put Francis’ present papal practice in clear preceding context. It is perhaps a pity that he does not say a bit more about his extremely close friendship with the Jewish Rabbi Skorza and with muslims since it seems clear from his choice of company for his recent visit to the Holy land that this is, alongside his campaigning for a servant Church of and for the poor, going to be a key aspect of his pontificate. It is devoutly to be hoped that he will succeed in doing for social justice and good inter-faith relations what his predecessor, John XXIII, did for ecumenism.