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In the shadow of the Pope

Gerry Whelan SJ paid a flying visit  from Rome to his Alma Mater Gonzaga College. He was interviewed there by RTE’s Caroline Murphy about his life and work, particularly during the first two years of Pope Francis.

He began by talking about his vocation to the Jesuits, explaining how Fr Alan Mowbray SJ very gently and subtly allowed his vocation to unfold, advising him not to join the Jesuits straight after school but rather to go to university and experience life to the full. He encouraged him to let his vocation, if it was there, emerge as his deepest desire about what to do with his life.

Gerry spent his summers in India with Mother Teresa. When he graduated with his economics degree he secured a plumb job in Wall St., but he realised his heart was not in it. What he really wanted was to be a missioner and to work with the poor as a Jesuit.

He now teaches theology in the Jesuit Gregorian University in Rome. He spoke about his life and work there and the privilege of meeting with Pope Francis. Caroline Murphy asked him for his thoughts on the recent RTE  ‘Would You Believe’ programme marking two years of the Pope in office. The programme looked at Francis’ controversial relationship with his fellow Jesuits in Argentina during the military dictatorship in the country. Gerry thought that, whilst it was overall a good programme with interesting contributors, it nonetheless gave an unbalanced view of the Pope. He noted that the Pope said of himself that he made mistakes because he was too young and inexperienced to be a Provincial, and he was also too authoritarian, a trait he still has to watch. But it was important to take on board that the Pope did not regard himself as conservative, as people thought he was.

Gerry said that we can understand what the Pope is saying if we bear in mind that the thrust of social justice in Argentina was always a little different from the rest of South America. It was less influenced by Marxism. In Argentina, the bishops and leaders of the Church met many times, reflecting on how to implement Vatican II. Bergolio was part of those meetings prior to and during his Provincialate. Later when he was sent to Cordoba he sought to reach out to the poor there and he did the same when he  was auxiliary bishop in Buenos Aires. But he did so as one trying to implement the insights of  Vatican II and Jesuit congregational documents, rather than from being influenced by the Marxist-tinged liberation theology which was current and popular at the time.

In 2007, when Bergolio was President of South American Bishops’ Conference, he and the bishops jettisoned a 20-year-old method of deductive theology (favoured by John Paul II and Benedict XVI), and adopted an inductive method which involved going out and listening to the people first, assessing the context they are in, and then seeing how the gospel values could help and be implemented in that cultural context.

According to Gerry, the Pope made Walter Kasper his special theologian because he liked his emphasis on mercy. He said that the Pope was a little shocked at the hostility towards the idea of communion for divorced couples, at the Synod on the Family. He thought Kasper’s approach of mercy after suitable penitence would be more favourably received. Gerry also noted that the Pope’s   main critics are the American and the Italian church leaders.

The interview between Fr Gerry (class of 1978) and Caroline Murhpy (a Gonzaga parent) took place on Wednesday 18 March in the Coulson Theatre of the college with an audience of parents, past pupils, present students, Jesuits and colleagues. It was hosted by Fr Noel Barber SJ as an event marking the Bi-Centenary of the Restoration of the Jesuits in 1814.