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Our new Holy Father does not lack steel

Three new books about Pope Francis show that the new Pontiff believes we are engaged in a daily battle with the Devil

By on Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Pope Francis  salutes the faithful in St Peter's Square (Photo: PA)

Pope Francis salutes the faithful in St Peter's Square (Photo: PA)

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first few days in office – all the meetings and acts of worship – which is likely to stand the test of time as a useful historical document.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

  • David Bird

    “Perhaps most importantly, he warns against shoehorning him into stale, simplistic categories such as liberal or conservative” I believe that the use of such words as “conservative”, “progressive”, and “liberal” was the worst thing that could have happened in the reporting of Vatican II. This, for the following reasons:

    a) These words are borrowed from the world of politics and are inappropriate in this context;

    b) They are too vague in content and vary in meaning according to the circumstances and the point of view of the person speaking – I know I am conservative to some, while hopelessly liberal to others, but I am the same person with the same views;

    c) It trivialised the deeply held opinions and professional judgement of very good people who were participants in the Council, from Cardinal Ottaviani (conservative) to Ratzinger (progessive)

    d) it caused people who were tring to think with the Council to adapt their theological view according to the profile of the party they felt they belonged to, rather than to think each theological position through in all its consequences. Thus, it was possible to foretell beforehand what position a person would adopt before they had even begun to think of the problem.

    e) It led people to misunderstand the bishops or theologians who spoke in the council because their words were interpreted in thecontext of these party labels with their vague and shifting meaning;

    f) finally, it has led to people misunderstanding Pope BenedictXVI because they have fitted his words and actions into the context of their own complete rejection of the liturgical processes since Vatica.n II. In fact, he follows the position of de Lubac who taught, way back before World War II that the people are being lost to the Church because they do no have an encounter with the Sacred which is the gateway to real religion. The Mass, as it was, was too cut off from the people, so that it was not an adequate instrument, being clericalist, to convey this sense of the sacred. The laity must be invited into the sacred as participants rather than observers. The problem was that the documents on the Liturgy and the Church were a vistory for this group to which he attached himself during the Council, but the tendency dominant after the council was to de-sacralise, to emphasise our relationships with each other, and not our encounter with God. For Ratzinger, de Lubac, Bouyer etc, the Sacred attracts people to religion, while de-sacralisation repels in the long run. Thus, the falling away of millions after the Council was partly due, in Pope Benedict’s opinion to the emphasis being taken away from a meeting with God, and the substitution with horizontal relationships. However, this objection was in no way in support of birretas, lace and reading the lessons in Latin with back to the people.

    Of course, Popes Benedict and Francis are different. Pope Benedict is an academic who sees the liturgy as an academic; while Pope Francis is a pastor, accustomed to celebrating Mass among the poor. They are different because their vocations have been different. The Liturgy of Francis has “the smell of the street”. Their priorities are different; but it is possible to exaggerate the difference. Both are concerned with a sense of the sacred, but they have different exoeriences of what brings about this sense. They both think that those who celebrate the extraordinary rite are doing the Church a favour by keeping alive this tradition; but neither think that the future of the Liturgy lies there. Benedict as Professor and as Archbishop had his favourite means of transport: a bicycle; and when he was a cardinal, representing the Pope at some function here in Peru in the seventies, he went to some event in Villa Salvador, a poor suburb of Lima, by ordinary bus. All this happened bu, because he was not popular, wasn’t news. I am sure he did not care too hoots about red shoes, but was willing to put them on if someone asked him.
    If the words “conservative”, “liberal” and “progressive” were banned from all commentaries on the pope and Church, then, I am sure, we could arrive at greater accuracy.

  • disqus_ylftYU1ikS

    If anything gets my blood boiling it is the Liturgy….Lets face it David, Card. Ottaviani hit the nail on the head…..but was ignored, as he was when he tried to speak during one of the council sessions on the liturgy…..alot of folks don’t know it but the N.O. was not the Mass of the Council…..also google Card. Ottaviani’s “intervention on the N.O.” it may open a few peoples eyes about the “new Mass”.

    the Bugnini’s of the church got what they wanted and then SOME!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    I dont want to keep on going as I could write a book and would say some things I would regret.

    Question to all here…How is it that the Eastern Catholics have not changed there liturgy in over 1000 yrs, they have kept there traditions. Yet those of us who prefer the Mass In the E.F. are treated like we have we have a disease .. All who pushed for the N.O. got what they wanted havic in the church and massive Faithful leaving the Church The N.O. needs a desperate Revision and more of the Mass of 1962 needs to be added to it.