If Pope Francis allows himself the chance today, he might pause at his 80th milestone to review his core life task and be grateful for its remarkable fruition.
A core life task is the source of our sin as well as our redemption. It is our inspiration, as well as our temptation. It is the playing out of the hand we were given at birth, developed in childhood, and which as an adult we must deploy in the service of others lest it lead us into a dead end.
For Jorge Mario Bergoglio, that life task was defined at an early age. Call it ‘big politics’: the craft of building consensus and unity out of the material of diversity. It’s the art of building institutions and nations.
It is a passion with him since childhood that is also a fruit of his personality.
On the Enneagram, that personality-type identifier first created by the desert fathers which received its modern form from the Jesuits, Francis is an Eight — as Father Richard Rohr OFM, the leading Catholic authority on the Enneagram, has confirmed to me in an email.
(Pope Francis, incidentally, knows the Enneagram well and is not against it. But he is wary of the way it can be misused and lead to excessive introspection if not deployed within a solid spiritual framework.)
The Enneagram has long been used in retreat houses to help people identify their core compulsion, usually a driving need or desire inherited from childhood which in adulthood needs to be ‘redeemed’ if it is not to hamper our ability to function and relate to others.
Eights are paradoxically both leaders and rebels, life’s “challengers.” Fearless and intuitive, often breathtakingly blunt, they instinctively go against elites, and have an uncommon ability to identify injustice and oppression.
They grasp power, and know how to build it and use it. They have an extraordinary capacity to improvise, to live on the fly, and to deal with pressure.
What they do with this gift depends on their spiritual capacity. History, from King David onwards, is full of Eight leaders, some of them selfless and inspiring, while others were tyrannical demagogues. Mostly, they are a mixture.
Martin Luther King was an Eight; so was Fidel Castro. So was St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, who took a very Eight idea — agere contra, acting against — and turned it into a means of spiritual growth: to act against our compulsion helps to redeems it.
Eights are typically sensitive types who as children develop a tough carapace in response to trauma.
Francis has mentioned, but given few details, of bitter arguments among his mother’s relatives which marked his childhood and terrified him. They created in him a desire “for people to not fight, to remain united.”
His life task has been to deploy his extraordinary leadership gifts and skills in the service of building that unity, but not in a way that fuels division or creates a cult of personality, as demagogues do.
Fascinated by politics, as a teenager he used to sit in on debates at political party clubs. Had he not been launched on his vocation by a profound experience of God’s mercy when he was almost 17, he would almost certainly have been a politician.
But God in that confessional in Buenos Aires offered what to an Eight is the one thing they find hard to accept: unconditional love and mercy, a deep sense of oneness and belonging. It was followed by a terrible abandonment, when the priest who over the following year was his soul companion died of cancer.
As a young Jesuit he learned leadership lessons from St. Ignatius and the German philosopher priest Father Romano Guardini, as well as from the Argentine master, General Juan Domingo Perón, whose classic 1952 manual of political strategy, Conducción Política, is a good guide to how Francis operates even today.
For example, there are three things anyone working in the Roman curia will tell you about Francis: he’s incredibly well informed, you never know what he’s thinking, and he loves to spring surprises. All three can be found on p. 200 in my edition of Conducción Política.
Conducción translates as leadership, but it is more akin to directing, like an orchestra or an army. It involves craft and strategy, but also intuition, and an emotional connectivity. (“A good leader never has to give an order, because he is able to direct,” says Perón.)
Think, for example, of Francis’s remarkable leadership of the popular movements, or the way he guided the synod, and it’s hard not to see the pope as conductor.
Francis often says, “I don’t like conflict.” But really what he means is that he prefers to avoid direct confrontation. From Perón and the British military strategist Basil Liddel Hart he learned the value of the indirect approach, wearing down opposition gradually, over time — and keeping opponents close by.
He does not fear, or run away from, tension and disagreement, but spent many years studying how the dynamics of disagreement can be fruitful.
For years after he stepped down as provincial and rector he worked on a study of Guardini’s theory of ‘contrastingness’ (Der Gegensatz), in which the philosopher describes “two elements, each of which are irreducible, impossible to confuse with each other, yet are indissolubly bound together, and cannot be thought of except together.”
(An example would be the way permanence and change co-exist in a human being. People both change and stay the same. This is a contrast, yet the coexistence and codependence of each quality is what makes us human.)
Although the thesis was never published or defended, it has deeply influenced his understanding of leadership and politics — and is the main source of the part of Evangelii Gaudium entitled ‘The Common Good and Peace in Society,’ where he deploys his famous four principles in the service of what he calls “people-building.”
The most important of these is that ‘Unity prevails over conflict.’ He rejects both those who avoid conflict and those who embrace it in such a way as to become its prisoners — fueling polarization. The third way, he says, “is the willingness to face conflict head on, to resolve it, and to make it a link in the chain of a new process.”
It is hard not to recall Perón’s advice in Conducción Política, that the leader’s role is not to take sides between two factions but to force them to enter into relationship. “I need to call them together, talk to them, and say to them: ‘Enough questions! You’re going to carry on arguing! But I want you to come to an agreement, and solve the conflict.’ And once we’ve come to an agreement, there is no problem between us that cannot be solved.”
But for Francis there is an extra, dynamic element in that resolution — the Holy Spirit. In Evangelii Gaudium he quotes the Beatitudes: “‘Blessed are the peacemakers!’ To face conflict, and to resolve it…”
For an Eight, whose instincts are to confront and to polarize — think Donald Trump, the other Eight striding the world stage — this is astonishing spiritual maturity, the sign of a deeply redeemed personality. Conflict can be confronted (embraced) without being polarized.
It is a lesson he learned after being dethroned. As a Jesuit provincial, Jorge Mario Bergoglio was an outstanding leader, but he was too controlling and dominant. It was when he was displaced in the mid-1980s, and deprived of all leadership positions, that he threw himself into his studies of Guardini.
Later, suffering exile and powerlessness, he learned some deep spiritual lessons about leading without creating unhealthy attachments.
He would apply these lessons as bishop and cardinal, mortifying his own tendencies towards demagogy, purifying his leadership so that it would be placed increasingly in the interests of building the body. Now, as pope, he is putting that vision into practice as never before.
It is what Francis means by the ‘culture of encounter’: not the imposition of uniformity by decree or by force, but the holding together of contrasts in ways that allow for the Holy Spirit to bring the gift of unity, “overcoming every conflict by creating a new and promising synthesis,” as he says in Evangelii Gaudium.
The leader resolves the conflict, not by forcing the different sides to agree to an imposed solution, but by getting them to work together, to enter into relationship, creating the chance for a “new process.” This is, essentially, the craft of what he calls ‘big politics’ (la política grande) and it’s what he laments is lacking at the moment across the western world.
The synod was a masterclass in holding together opposing sides in tension in search of a creative new synthesis on a question that bishops had long grappled with.
Pope Benedict XVI spoke often of the pastoral challenge of the divorced and remarried, saying in 2012, for example, that “the problem of divorced and remarried persons is one of the great sufferings of today’s Church” which did not admit of “simple solutions.”
Francis boldly opened up the question, created a mechanism in which disagreement could be brought together in a Guardini-type interdependent contrast, and allowed the Holy Spirit to forge a creative new synthesis, just as it had in the first councils of the early Church.
(That new synthesis — captured in Amoris Laetitia — is not yet clear to many, and is being actively resisted by some. But that is always true of anything new in the Church.)
This new form of ’synodality’, in which disagreement becomes dynamic, not destructive, will be one of Francis’s greatest legacies — the fruit of a lifetime’s intellectual, spiritual and personal development which is being placed at the benefit not just of the Church but of society at large.
It is an extraordinary achievement — which, of course, is not his but Christ’s.
Happy birthday, Pope Francis.