Pope Francis by the Book

Three books attempt to shed light on the life and vision of the pope “from the ends of the Earth.”

Francis: Pope of a New World. By Andrea Tornielli, with a foreword by Father Mitch Pacwa, SJ.  Ignatius Press

Francis, Bishop of Rome – A Short Biography. By Michael Collins. Columba Press

Pope Francis: Why He Leads the Way He Leads. By Chris Lowney. Loyola Press

A new pope elected in March, a spate of books by the autumn, all ready for big sales in time for Christmas. So now, in early 2014, there is plenty to read about Pope Francis, available in bookshops and on the Internet.

Andrea Tornielli’s Francis: Pope of a New World is an attractive and readable handy-sized hardback, with a good professional “feel” to it, as might be expected from an Ignatius Press/Catholic Truth Society publishing project.  It begins with a very good account of the events of March 13, 2013; we can sense ourselves in Rome during momentous events, and feel the extraordinary atmosphere in St. Peter’s Square as an almost gawky figure came out on to the balcony and announced rather shyly that the cardinals had “gone to the ends of the earth” to get a new pope, and, well, “here we are!” Then his simple and rather tender first appeal for prayers for Pope Emeritus Benedict: “That the Lord may bless him and that Our Lady may keep him.” The world saw a sort of family moment as everyone in that vast crowd joined in the Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory be, and then, before blessing them all, the new pope begged for people’s silent prayers for him, and stood with bowed head as they prayed.

Tornielli’s book gets the measure of Pope Francis, and does not make the mistake—as too many commentators have done—of sliding him conveniently into a slot marked “nice, good liberal who will make changes in Catholic moral teachings.” Tornielli tells the story of the Bergoglio family, with much use of direct quotes from interviews with the future pope and his sister (from a Jesuit magazine in 2010 and elsewhere), and also gives a good analysis of his years as priest and as archbishop. There is some useful material about the tensions of being a bishop in the difficult years of the military dictatorship, although we could have done with some more general background information about that grim time as most of us know little about it.

We do get a vivid picture of a hard-working Archbishop Bergoglio, with a heart for the poor and a confidence in the truths of the Catholic faith. There are also insights into his spirituality. Rather than just focus on the obvious and by now well-known anecdotes about him (though it is still enjoyable to read about them, and there are some good descriptions of him caring for the poor, and also cooking meals for friends and washing-up afterwards and so on) there is, for example, a description of him as a newly-elected pope, teaching about mercy, rocking his arms as though holding a baby and saying “Our Lady…held in her arms the Mercy of God made man.”

Tornielli also sets the election of Pope Francis in context with analysis of Pope Benedict’s pontificate, including a fine description of its last days and his magnificent final address: “I have felt like Saint Peter with the Apostles in the boat on the Sea of Galillee…there were also moments when the waters were rough and the winds against us, as throughout the Church’s history, and the Lord seemed to be sleeping. But I have always known that the Lord is in that boat, and I have always known that the barque of the Church is not mine but his. Nor does the Lord let it sink.”

By contrast, Father Michael Collins’ book seems to try to squeeze Pope Francis into an ideological jacket that does not fit well.  We do not get insights into the spiritual life of the man. Instead, Father Collins takes the opportunity to criticise Pope John Paul II for a “pugnacious style,” a “lack of understanding of women’s role in the Church,” and an “authoritarian manner,” none of which quite rings true. Father Collins also has some spelling and grammar problems. In describing the events of 2013 and the retirement of Pope Benedict, he says that the conclave was to begin “immanently.” Perhaps there is a sense of immanence about a conclave—certainly we may assume the Holy Spirit hovers there—but here he actually means imminently. And he described soldiers marching “each in their loudly-coloured uniform.” No: each in his. (If the attempt to use “their” is an attempt to sound non-sexist it doesn’t work; it just reads awkwardly.) Finally, I am underwhelmed by his reliance on comments from ex-priest Leonardo Boff, who has strong political views but no particular insights about the priest, the Jesuit, the bishop, the man of prayer who now walks in the shoes of Peter.

However, I did enjoy some small anecdotes in Father Collins’ book: Pope Francis’ telephone message to the people in Buenos Aires begging them to care for one another—“Don’t take the hide of anybody”—and the touching meeting with Pope Emeritus Benedict, which is described with tenderness and charm.

I found Chris Lowney’s book baffling. It promises rather more than it delivers. There is rather too much Lowney and not enough Francis. We do get some insights into Father Bergoglio’s style of leadership: hard-working, humble enough to tackle his share of the laundry while directing a Jesuit house, good-humoured, prayerful. But we also get chatty descriptions of Lowney’s own experiences, and rather too much speculation on what we might learn from Pope Francis in the years ahead without much information on which to base it. I did find interesting the description of the ghastly cruelty meted out to Jesuits by public authorities when the Order was forcibly closed down for a time in the 18th century, including imprisonment, starvation, and slow, lingering deaths in grim incarceration. And I find very valuable this advice from Father Bergoglio to young Jesuits in training:  “A daily schedule for prayer, reading, reflection—and a commitment to sustaining it…in order to understand what is happening in one’s life, and all the more so when one is going to be exposed to a very active life.” Finally, I like Lowney’s summary of some good ideas for leadership, beginning with    “unify the team around a common objective” (and he cites the decision of Pope Francis to canonize John XXIII and John Paul II together as an example of doing this, which I think is a good point).

Pope Francis does not yet have (and as yet does not merit) his George Weigel. One day there will be a fine biography of this first Pope from the New World, exploring what we hope will be a long and fruitful pontificate. Meanwhile, we support him in prayer and serve God along with him and under his direction. I have certainly come to understand that we have a remarkable man here, and one who lacks neither courage nor a deep prayer life. We may hope for great and good things.

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About Joanna Bogle 76 Articles
Joanna Bogle is a journalist in the United Kingdom. Her book Newman’s London is published by Gracewing Books.