by Elisabeth Hellenbroich

A challenge for the modernist conception of man: the spiritual and cultural sources of Pope Francis. Book review: “Pope Francis – texts which shaped his thinking”, by Professor Michael Sievernich SJ from the theological faculty St Georgen (Frankfurt am Main).

A new book “Pope Francis – texts which shaped his thinking” was published recently by the German publishing house Lambert Schneider which unlike previous biographies about Pope Francis offers the reader an interesting insight into the ideas which shaped the intellectual and emotional life of Pope Francis. The editor and commentator of the new book is Professor Michael Sievernich SJ from the theological faculty St Georgen (Frankfurt am Main), who belongs to one of the best informed people and interpreters of Pope Francis’ thinking.

As Sievernich writes in his introduction, the new book wants to give an insight into the virtual library, which shaped the biography of Jorge Mario Bergoglio and which is reflected in his Pontificate that began on March 13th 2013. Sievernich in the last two years – aside his own books concerning the epoch of evangelization in Latin America – has edited for the German publishing house Herder several books about Jorge Mario Bergoglio. This includes among others Bergoglios booklet “Corrupción y pecado” (corruption and sin), the booklet “Sobre acusación de si mismo” (On self accusation) as well as the book “Educar: Exigencia y Pasión. Desafios para educadores cristanos” (Education: Demand and passion.Challenges for Christian educators). For three decades he has been travelling throughout Latin America, teaching as guest professor at various universities. At the Colegio Maximo of San Miguel, close to Buenos Aires, he made the acquaintance of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, whom he met again in Frankfurt in the year 1986 at the High School Sankt Georgen, in order to discuss with him about a study which Bergoglio planned to do about the German catholic theologian and philosopher Romano Guardini.

Visit the virtual library – sources of artistic beauty and spiritual exercises

The Book looks at a period of several centuries. It contains a selection of texts written by theologians, mystics and poets. This includes works which were written by theologians from the ancient world, by mystics at the beginning of the early modern times as well as books by contemporary theologians from the 20th century as well as literary works written by Italian, French, German, English and Russian poets, including novels by some famous Argentine poets who wrote during from the 19th and 20th century.

In presenting the Popes “virtual library”, the editor calls the reader’s attention to the Popes passion for artistic beauty. As he reports, the Pope often refers to the spiritual music and opera, like for instance to the famous Missa in C- minor by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Johann Sebastian Bach’s St Mathew Passion, to Beethoven’s Leonore Ouverture Nr. 3 or to Richard Wagner’s Parsifal. In the world of cinema he refers to the neorealism of Federico Fellini (La Strada, Roma Città aperta ), he is familiar with the paintings of Caravaggio and as true Porteño (inhabitant of Buenos Aires) he is also familiar with the Tango.

Ignatius’ method of spiritual exercises

The first part of the book is dedicated to texts which include excerpts from the writings of the founder of the Jesuit order (1540) St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556). This includes “Voyage of a pilgrim” an autobiographical document, which describes the spiritual journey which St. Ignatius lived through before he founded his order; it includes his “Spiritual Exercises” – a methodological introduction into the spiritual exercises, including the important exercise of discernment, which each member of the Jesuit order regularly goes through, as a method of rigorous self- inspection and self-reflection. The book also makes reference to several documents which were discussed during the Jesuit “General congregations” – some of them having been attended by Bergoglio, who in the past functioned as an important instructor for the Jesuit order in Argentina. It also contains documents by the missionary Francesco Xavier, a close friend of Ignatius of Loyola, who was one of the first missionaries that were sent by the Pope in the early 16th century to Asia (Japan).

Franciscus Xavier, by Bartolomé Murillo – Wadsworth Athenaeum, Hartford (CT) Wikipedia

The second part of the book presents contemporary theological and spiritual texts, which were extracted from some Spanish, French and German theologians and mystics such as Peter Faber (1506-1546), the Carmelite monk Juan de la Cruz (1542-1591) and Therése de Lisieux (1873-1897). But it also introduces us into the thinking of contemporary catholic theologians such as the French Henri de Lubac (1896- 1991) who according to Bergoglio correctly warned about the tendency within the Church that is too much oriented toward the mundane world. It includes a short overview about the Swiss Theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar (1904 -1984), who compared God’s creation with a polyphonic symphony of Mozart i.e. he looks at a pluralist world which expresses unity in its multiplicity. It includes as well the writings of the German theologian Romano Guardini (1885-1968), Hugo Rahner (1900-1968), and the ideas of Argentinian Theologian Lucio Gera, who is unfortunately not so much known in Europe.

Lucio Gera (da Wikipedia)
Lucio Gera
(da Wikipedia)

The third part of the books makes references to literary texts, including European authors from Italy (Alessandro Manzoni 1785-1873), from Germany (Friedrich Hölderlin 1770-1843), from Russia (Fjodor Dostojewski 1821-1881) as well from Argentinian poets, such as Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) and the author of the famous Argentine national epic “Martin Fierro” José Hernandez (1834-1886), Leopoldo Marechal (1900-1970) and Horacio Susena , the author of the Tango poem “El tren de las once”.



Romano Guardini nel 1920 (Wikipedia)
Romano Guardini in 1920 (da Wikipedia)

Modern day’s culture and the crisis in humanity

One of the great influences on Pope FranciModern day’s culture and the crisis in humanity’s thinking were the ideas of Romano Guardini who as theology and philosophy professor, teaching among other places in Berlin, Tübingen and Munich, wrote several essays about religious philosophy, art, culture and ethics. In his book “The end of modern times” Guardini tried to give the societies after the Second World War a spiritual orientation which is based on a Christian world view.
He points to culture as one of the main sources which contributed to the crisis in humanity. “Man has the power over nature but not the power over power”, he commented in his book. Man is free and can use his power as he wishes. But herein lies, as Guardini warned, the danger to make the wrong use of power, wrong in the sense of evil and destructiveness. What is lacking, according to Guardini is “Character formation” which paves the way for a probable correct use of power. “Contemporary man is not prepared for the right use of power. There is no well thought through ethics neither concerning the use of power, nor is there an adequate education for the elite and for society as a whole”.

Lucio Gera and Pope Francis – New challenges in the growing Urbanity

Another important source of thought for Bergoglio is Lucio Gera (1924-2012), who is not very much known in Europe. Like Jorge Mario Bergoglio he comes from an Italian migrant family and was raised in the Buenos Aires suburb, Villa Devoto. He studied theology, made his doctoral thesis in Bonn and was for years Professor for dogmatic Theology at the Pontifical University in Buenos Aires.

According to Sievernich Gera belongs to the first generation of Latin American Liberation theologians. He represents a specific current of Theology of Liberation that was developed in Argentina, which puts emphasis on the cultural analysis rather than on the social analysis (and its highly disputed methodology). This current conceives itself as the Argentinian Teologia del Pueblo. (Theology of the people).The term pueblo, according to Sievernich, implies a theological understanding of the Second Vatican Council that is based on the notion of a church as a People believing in God (lumen gentium 9-17). It includes the simple people’s wisdom and ethics which culturally find its expression in Latin America in the form of popular religiosity – religiosidad popular. A typical expression for this is the Argentine literary national Epic “Martin Fierro”.

Lucio Gera was shaped by the second Vatican Council and the various documents of Medellin, Puebla and Santo Domingo. What is important in those Latin American Bishop’s Synode documents was the focus on the primary option for the poor and on the evangelizaciòn y promociòn humana.( evangelization and human promotion), In his texts which are presented in the book, Gera comments at one point about the Bishops’ Synod of Medellin which according to him was a reaction formation to the underdevelopment of Latin America, discussing the urgent need to link Christianity to the Solidarity with the poor. But he also critically notes that after Medellin there were some who tried to dissolve faith into becoming an ideological and political instrument; hence the attempt by Pope Paul VI (Populorum progressio 1968e.h.) to identify evangelisaciòn as one of the most important tasks of the Church. According to Gera the concept of Medellin means that the core of Christianity is rooted in the trinitarian notion of the Credo which in turn must be realized in the form of promociòn humana.

Sivernich emphasizes in the introduction of the book that Pope Francis must be seen in the tradition of a Christianity which is close to the Latin American variant of the teologla del pueblo (theology of the people). This popular religiosity is reflected in documents which the Latin American Church discussed and passed during the Bishop synods of Medellin (1968), of Puebla (1979), of Santo Domingo (1992) and Aparecida (2007). These documents emphasized that there is a close connection between the idea of evangelization and liberation. “The Pope grew up in the big metropolis Buenos Aires,” the editor wrote. “He knows the urban world as well as its dark sides. From his own experience he knows about the social problems in the Metropolis and its villas misérias, but he is also familiar with its rich culture, which reaches from opera, literature to tango and football.” The editor sees the chance that under this Pope Christianity becomes well equipped for the new urban challenges which will confront us in the spiritual, social and human domain.

The influence of literature

Pope Francis who loves the German language is an admirer of the German poet Friedrich Holderlin (1770- 1843), but also of several British poets as well as of Alessandro Manzoni. whose famous novel I promessi Sposi had been transmitted to him by his beloved grandmother Rosa Vasallo. He also was impressed by the Russian writer Fjodor Dostojewki, his “The House of the Dead” and “Notes from the Underworld”, two impressive novels which report about the extraordinary situation that Dostojewksi himself as well as other human beings had to face in prisoner camps, such as the infamous Siberia prisoner camps under the Russian Tsars. Places where human beings were treated with utmost degradation and humiliation. Dostojewski uses these novels as a metaphor that shows human beings in extreme situations, where despite physical and spiritual suffering, there are moments of true humanity and mercy shining through.

Vasily Perov, Ritratto di Dostoevskji (1872) (Google Art Project)

The message of Dostojewski is echoed in Pope Francis’ Pontificate, which emphasizes the need to help those people that are excluded form substantial freedom, a decent human condition, health and education. The Pope is thus a defender of all those excluidos who suffer from prison, poverty, migration and he reminds the world community that it has a special responsibility towards them.

Argentinian literary influences

Attention is given in the book also to the influence of the Argentine literature, including poets such as José Hernandez (1884-1886) who wrote the famous “Gaucho Martìn Fierro.” There are two parts of the book: The first “El Gaucho Martìn Fierro” and the second “La vuelta de Martìn Fierro.” In the epic poem, the narrator presented as a people’s singer, tells us about the life of a Gaucho, who left for the countryside and committed a lot of injustices against the Indians, including one murder. He was an alcoholic, yet at the end of the poem we find the Gaucho, who after having returned home to his “estancia”, tells his sons what lessons he drew from his life and how wisely they should live. Martìn Fierro is a lover of nature and justice, fighting for the poor; a singer and a wise man, believing in the people’s faith that is transmitted in the culture of the “lengua gauchesca”. The book comments that Jorge Mario Bergoglio appreciates the novel as an important work of argentine literature. In his autobiography “My Life” he spoke about the novel as “a compendium of social ethics and that we can see in the advice that Martìn Fierro gives to his sons”, the wisdom of our people, a hierarchy of values, which includes “work, the service for the weakest and friendship”.

Of similar importance for Bergoglio was the Argentine poet Leopoldo Marechal (1900-1979) and his novel “Adàn Buenosayres”. Marechal was raised in the Buenos Aires suburb Villa Crespo – which he also choses as location for his novel. Marechal was teacher and joined the Argentine literary avant-garde of Martinfierrismo of the 20ies. His novel is telling us about the life in the big city and the suburb of Villa Crespo. The reader is confronted with the protagonist Adàn (a word play with the word Adam) who lives in the Calle Monte Egmont and who makes trips day and night; the novel is a metaphor about a human being that is making a “pilgrimage”: this includes expeditions with friends, the attendance at funerals, the visit of a bordello, the discussion with friends. It is a spiritual history about the life of a figure, who lives through a metaphysical awakening: One early morning Adàn is woken up by the Tango song “El Panuelito blanco”. The song is sung by a lady Irma who is sweeping the floor as well as chatting with the vegetable seller. The Tango wakes up Adàn in his early morning travel from sleep and dream into the vibrant life of the city with its aggressive lights and sounds. The book notes at one point that what was for Marechal the folksong is for Pope Francis, who was raised in a similar suburb like Marechal, the culture and religiosity of the people, the teologia del pueblo.

susenaThe Tango El tren de las once

Similar impact on Bergoglio has a tango poem written by the Argentine writer Horacio Susena “El tren de las once”, which does not exist in German language. The editor refers to an interview which was given once by Bergoglio in which he was asked about the tango and he answered that he very much likes the tango, since its music that comes from his inner soul. In order to understand the culture of the tango, the book notes, that the tango is a mixture of music, poetry, song and dance which began to develop in the context of the big migration wave into Argentina during the 19th century. It became influential in simple suburbs and it is noted in the book that Bergoglio up to this day knows the composers, musicians and singers as well as text writers of Tango, among them the orchestra of the Argentinian violinist and composer Juan d’Arienzo, the tango singer Carlos Gardel and the Uruguayan musician Julio Sosa.
Horacio Susenas “El tren de las once” is a short poem, a metaphor represented by the protagonist who feels inner pain and unrest, while waiting for the arrival of the eleven o’clock train. In the midst of pouring rain the man is waiting for a long time and his hope is almost vanishing when he hears and sees the train coming nearer. Terror is spread by the red rear- lights of the last train car, which are like his red eyes filled with pain. The protagonist reflects that a long time ago he lost his hope when in the midst of the insanities of the big city he lost his love. But maybe one day the train stops its course and “my Love returns”, he reasons. In the last strophe the singer sings that the eleven o’clock train finally arrives and it is she who comes. She looks for forgiveness. New expectations are growing and there is hope again, the poem tells us.

Lastly there is Jorge Luis Borges who wrote a prologue to Martin Fierro and for a collection of Cuentos originales, short stories, which were written by some literature students of Bergoglio when he taught as teacher of literature at the School La immaculata concepciòn in Santa Fe. Bergoglio at that time tried to raise enthusiasm for the writing of poetry among his students and awaken their artistic curiosity. Thus he invited several poets, among them the famous Luis Borges, who in1965 visited the students in order to explain them literature and how to write short novels.

It is recommendable to read the book, since it offers a rare insight into the intellectual and artistic personality of Pope Francis and introduces us into a new cultural world. What fascinates about the book -which is counter to what the average European expects-, is that it transmits a vital sense of the meaning of teologìa del Pueblo, it transmits the idea of an unblocked and vibrant popular religiosity which can find in the future a new fertile ground in the urban spaces of Latin America and in the rest of the world.

Elisabeth Hellenbroich

Wiesbaden, December 2015


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