The election of a new pope was always likely to inspire a race to the printing presses. The potential readership is huge (millions of English-speaking Catholics eager to know more about their leader) and in these uncertain economic times publishers can hardly be blamed for backing a dead cert. A little imagination is still desirable, however, and the first of these books lacks that precious commodity.
Pope Francis In His Own Words is a compendium of extracts (ranging from short paragraphs to one-liners) from Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s writings, speeches and homilies, covering everything from Christmas to the tango, and from assisted suicide to television. Aside from a cursory five-page introduction there is no attempt to place Francis’s musings in context: just a random trawl through the press-clippings and internet sites.
It could be argued, I suppose, that the editors had little time to put together their volume, but Robert Moynihan’s splendid book demolishes that excuse. He, too, was under an unforgiving deadline but he managed to produce an insightful and important book. Moynihan offers a detailed eyewitness account of Francis’s first few days in office – all the meetings and acts of worship – which is likely to stand the test of time as a useful historical document. As a seasoned Vatican-watcher, Moynihan has a sharp eye and his evaluation is even-handed.
It is entertaining to read about Francis making mundane phone calls to Argentina – to his dentist, cancelling appointments, and to a kiosk owner, announcing that he no longer needs the newspaper to be delivered – and Moynihan makes some good guesses about the kind of pope Francis is likely to be. Perhaps most importantly, he warns against shoehorning him into stale, simplistic categories such as liberal or conservative.
The book also provides a potted biography, from Francis’s childhood and education to his progress through the ecclesiastical ranks and the reconstruction of what probably happened at that 2005 conclave has the ring of authenticity.
Best of the bunch, though, is a volume that has nothing directly to do with recent events in Rome. It is a translation of a book, first published in Argentina several years ago, which recounts some of the conversations between Cardinal Bergoglio and Rabbi Abraham Skorka. It is a treat and should be placed in the hands of anyone who thinks that Francis is not going to be a sufficiently intellectual pope. One doesn’t have to agree with everything Bergoglio has to say in order to be impressed by his passion and rigour.
The two men covered a great deal of ground – from the Holocaust to the competing flaws of capitalism and Communism – and the new Pope came up with his share of memorable observations. It would be hard to disagree with his comment that “one who worships God has, through that experience, a mandate of justice toward his brothers”, and this will encourage those who anticipate a socially engaged pontificate. I also enjoyed the denunciation of self-seeking, self-serving prayer: attempts to bribe or control God. “The prayer of a person with this kind of attitude is simply a soliloquy.”
The book provides many clues to the likely complexion of Francis’s papacy. Same-sex marriage is deemed to be an “anthropological regression”, spending time with atheists without trying to convert them is regarded as a fruitful exercise, and political engagement is held up as a priestly duty – “We are all Political animals, with a capital P” – and while it is wise to steer clear of partisan squabbles there is an obligation to preach fundamental values and influence the wider cultural debate.
Francis did not shy away from this in Argentina (much to the annoyance of some local political bigwigs) and there’s no reason to suppose he’ll do so now he’s in Rome.
There has been much speculation about whether Francis wanted his new job and the book’s sections on leadership and vocation offer some telling insights. One thing seems clear, however: he will not be afraid of enacting change and letting in a little fresh air. One phrase carries great significance: “The risk that we must avoid is priests and bishops falling into clericalism, which is a distortion of religion.” It is not about saying “I am the boss, here” it is about respecting and caring for the “entire people of God”.
This most certainly includes the most vulnerable and impoverished and it is heartening to learn that the new Pope once said that “a poor man must not be looked at with disgust: he must be looked at in the eyes”.
One final, intriguing point. Moynihan notices that Francis has been mentioning the “evil one” quite frequently and, in his conversations with Skorka, Bergoglio is adamant that the Devil exists and that “maybe his greatest achievement in these times has been to make us believe that he does not”. This will perhaps strike some as antiquated but it reveals that Francis has a sense of being engaged in a spiritual battle, and that’s not the worst papal attribute. The gestures of humility and simplicity are lovely, and they genuinely reflect the nature of the man, but don’t imagine for a moment that the new Pope lacks steel or a sense of mission.
On Heaven and Earth by Jorge Bergoglio & Abraham Skorka, Bloomsbury, £14.99
Pray for Me, by Robert Moynihan, Rider books, £8.99
Pope Francis in His Own Words, by Julie Schwietert Collazo & Lisa Rogak, William Collins, £8.99
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Catholic Herald, dated 24/5/13