Jorge Mario Bergoglio, today Pope Francis, saved the Jesuits from a 2007 Vatican intervention, according to a new book.

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Ramón Alfonso, director of Spanish publishing group Comunicación Loyola, made the revelation January 21 at the presentation of the Spanish edition of Italian historian Gianni La Bella’s new book Los jesuitas: del Vaticano II al papa Francisco (“The Jesuits: from Vatican II to Pope Francis”).

Drawing directly on La Bella’s insider sources in the Jesuits, Alfonso explained that in 2007, under Benedict XVI, then-Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, sought to repeat the 1981 takeover of the Society of Jesus after then-Superior General Pedro Arrupe suffered a debilitating stroke.

Bertone’s 2007 putsch was to be undertaken to coincide with the forthcoming resignation, in 2008, of Superior General Peter Hans Kolvenbach.

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Before Kolvenbach made his resignation effective, Bertone sounded him out about a possible intervention, suggesting as apostolic visitator Jorge Mario Bergoglio, then-Archbishop of Buenos Aires.

Benedict XVI “certainly would have had nothing to object to”, explains La Bella in his book.

Kolvenbach, “perplexed and bewildered”, contacted Bergoglio, who despite not agreeing with every facet and decision of Kolvenbach’s management, showed himself “decidedly contrary to the idea of a papal intervention, which would multiply the problems instead of solving them”.

Kolvenbach’s successor as Superior General, Adolfo Nicolás, told a 2013 closed-door meeting of Jesuits of Bergoglio’s opposition to Bertone’s plan.

But word got out to La Bella, who writes of Nicolás’ first encounter with the new Pope Bergoglio: “In his first meeting with Francis, he [Francis] told him [Nicolás] that he had strenously opposed Pope Benedict’s proposal for a new intervention of the Society, which some in Rome wanted to carry out at that time”.

“Aware of the ongoing schemes, Kolvenbach – acting against his usual discreet and serene style – asked Benedict XVI for an audience and, in a firm and determined manner, as perhaps never before in his life, asked him not to approve a decision of this kind, which the Society would not have tolerated this time”, concludes La Bella.

Bertone’s plan to take over the Jesuits never prospered, and in 2008 the Society picked Nicolás as new Superior General.

Why it matters

Why would Bertone have wanted a Vatican takeover of the Jesuits – again?

La Bella describes the Society of Jesus as the “lighthouse” of religious life, as one of the most successful and influential orders in history.

For the historian, the Jesuits are “a kaleidoscope in which you can look at the great themes of the life of the Church” like no other religious group of the same kind.

“No order has experienced such a metamorphosis. It becomes a cultural laboratory for the whole Church on how to dialogue with the modern world without fear”, La Bella explains.

It’s those lessons of dialogue at the geographical and existential frontiers of the Church’s mission, negotiating the less-than clear-cut theology around those borders, that have earned the Jesuits the respect of a great many and the scorn – and jealousy – of a few.

And as for the first member of their rank who rose to become pope?

As one of the most well-known Jesuits in the world, American James Martin, put it on Twitter: “Far from the way that he has sometimes been portrayed, Cardinal Jorge-Mario Bergoglio, SJ, was not the scourge of the Society of Jesus, but here its greatest supporter and defender”.

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.