The great English orchestral conductor, Sir Colin Davis, who died earlier this year, was loved as well as revered by many artists who made music with him. They admired his gentleness and kindness. He didn’t carry a loaded gun in his pocket into rehearsals and concerts, as Artur Rodzinski is alleged to have done; he got his results by quite different methods. It wasn’t always so. I remember sitting in on a bad-tempered rehearsal with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the Royal Albert Hall way back in 1968. Apparently, upon the disintegration of his first marriage in 1964, he spoke to himself in the mirror and told himself that “it won’t do”. And so began a process of change, a happy second marriage, and a growth into greatness. Change takes time: my experience of a difficult rehearsal was four years after his moment of self-discovery. Christians call that moment and continuing process: repentance.
Something similar appears to have happened to Pope Francis, formerly Jorge Mario Bergoglio. I’ve just finished Paul Vallely’s Pope Francis: Untying the Knots (Bloomsbury Continuum, 2013), which is quite candid about his earlier life. His time as provincial of the Argentinian Jesuits split the order and, when he left that post, an outsider was called in to heal the wounds, and Bergoglio was sent into exile to Germany. His actions when Argentina was viciously ruled by a military junta have also come under scrutiny, particularly his treatment of two of his former teachers, whom some claim he informed on to the junta. They were tortured. One died in 2000, convinced that Bergoglio was his betrayer; the other has since been reconciled with him. There are still plenty of people in Argentina who have nothing good to say about him, and believe that all his popular actions as Archbishop and later Pope are self-serving and narcissistic.
Vallely tells us that somewhere along the arc of his ministry, Bergoglio changed. I’ll leave you to read about that for yourselves. It’s fascinating stuff. The conservative opponent of liberation theology became an ardent advocate of God’s preferential option for the poor. An authoritarian lover of the old pre-Vatican 2 traditions has become an advocate of collegiality and inclusiveness. Rather like the great Pope John XXIII, his essentially traditional beliefs seem now to be tempered and even transformed by a generosity of spirit.
As I prepare to retire from Methodist ministry at the end of this month, I’ve taken to reflecting on great Christian terms like “repentance”. When I was a pastor of churches, made up of people of all sorts and conditions, it was touching and humbling to see some difficult people change for the better. But I also saw people pretend to change. It wasn’t hard to separate the sheep from the goats. Those who faked transformation did so because they’d been found out, and wanted to wriggle off that hook without any consequences for themselves. So they’d use language about everybody needing to learn, when the truth was that others didn’t need to, and they wouldn’t and possibly even couldn’t. I was also inclined to look at what people did rather than what they said. It amazes me how many people let phonies get away with it. They shouldn’t: manipulative, self-involved people need to be called out on their actions for the sake of their souls, and for the common good.
I rather think that Pope Francis is a changed man. Let’s see what he does.