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On retreat with Pope Francis

Biographies - much like hunting or birdwatching - track elusive prey. So my hopes were set relatively low for The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope by Austen Ivereigh, especially when the media narrative of Pope Francis, the "pope of surprises," is so often clouded by the trifecta of bias, ignorance and superficiality.

But when I finished The Great Reformer, I felt instead that, should the pope stop by my house this evening - as he has, impromptu, to hundreds of homes in Buenos Aires - I could be at ease with much to discuss. I can no longer describe him as enigmatic. That's because Ivereigh - an accomplished journalist, historian and leader in the new evangelization - never lets one reality out of his sights: Father Jorge Mario Bergoglio's life of prayer.

To paraphrase an old adage: "Show me how a man spends his time alone, and I'll know the man." So many biographies founder because in an effort to tally events, accomplishments and influences, the writer misses an important subtlety: how the subject spends time before God. If someone has no life of prayer, he is running from himself and will elude any biographer, however skilled.

"He was haunted, as cardinal archbishop," Ivereigh explained to me, "by the temptation to become an executive, becoming too busy for people and self-preoccupied. It's not an easy one; busy people with major responsibilities soon identify with their functions, and he saw how bishops could get caught up in that."

Ivereigh presents a portrait of a leader of immense intellect, courage and humility in a country beset by decades of political and social unrest. We glimpse the future pope grappling with the tension between means and ends - between executive actions and the outcomes of the ministries they serve.

"Prayer was both antidote and vaccine," Ivereigh said. "It allowed him to order his priorities so that the pastoral needs of ordinary people came first. It amazed me, studying his life, how resolute he was in preserving that - to a really remarkable degree. Only someone deeply anchored in prayer could pull it off. That was, and remains, the source of his strength and focus."

With each turn of the page, The Great Reformer delivered more amazement. No matter the distractions buffeting Father Bergoglio through the decades, he maintained consistency in his prayer life: beginning each day at 4 a.m. with two hours of prayer and bookending it with an hour of Eucharistic adoration before turning in at 9 p.m. This is the "Francis narrative" that the world has yet to hear - if it had ears to hear.

Father Bergoglio's 4 a.m. prayer habit opened some doors and closed others. It largely meant "no" to late evening dinners, fundraisers and receptions - even as it meant "yes" to a widening availability to the Lord, primarily through nearness to the poor. Even as he seemed "unavailable" to some, he was radically available to encountering Christ every morning.

"Most people who put prayer first - whether monks, bishops or busy moms - find that the dawn hours are their key time, when it's the birds, not your mobile, that make a sound," said Ivereigh. "It's the birthing point of the day, the point vierge as Thomas Merton called it. If you decide to live as if God, and not you, is the center of the universe, you have to create some space for that to become true. When we think we have no time for prayer is usually the beginning of disordered priorities, and disaster usually follows."

"Comparisons are odious," the saying goes. And I largely agree. But Ivereigh's tracking of this man in prayer offers an edifying opportunity for everyone to draw important comparisons: When will others find us in daily prayer? What are we saying "no" to in order to say "yes" to prayer?

Father Bergoglio's mining of the early morning hours for prayer and his examinations throughout the rest of the day offered me both inspiration and indictment. It is so easy to respond to challenges with more effort and less prayer. I slip quickly into identifying with my productivity. Since prayer seems so passive, I sideline it in favor of action. And in the process, I sideline the Holy Spirit.

Father Bergoglio's daily calendar, by contrast, reads like a credo of trust in the Holy Spirit. His daily schedule has a built-in mortification to self-guided busyness.

Ivereigh gives us not a biography but a personal retreat guided by none other than our own Pope Francis.

Johnson, a husband and father of five, is Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde's special assistant for evangelization and media. He can be reached on Twitter @Soren_t.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015