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Welcome change of direction in Rome

11 October 2013

John Wilkins reads about Pope Francis

Pray for Me: The life and spiritual vision of Pope Francis
Robert Moynihan
Rider Books £8.99
Church Times Bookshop £8.10 (Use code CT513 )

Francis, Bishop of Rome: A short biography
Michael Collins
Columba £8.50
Church Times Bookshop £7.65 (Use code CT513 )

On Heaven and Earth: Pope Francis on faith, family and the Church in the 21st century
Jorge Mario Bergoglio and Abraham Skorka
Bloomsbury £14.99
Church Times Bookshop special offer price £12.99 (Use code CT513 )

"IT'S a liberation," one English Roman Catholic bishop said to me shortly after the accession of Pope Francis. The delight in his face mirrored the sentiments of many of us from the moment when the curtains across the balcony of St Peter's Basilica were pulled open to reveal the chosen successor to Pope Benedict XVI.

Buona sera, said Francis, the former Argentinian Cardinal Bergoglio, speaking in Italian - "Good evening." That person-to-person tone was reminiscent of Blessed John XXIII's words after he was elected. Francis continued, simply, richly, colloquially. Reading between the lines, he was sketching what amounted to a new programme. He described himself not as Pope, but as the Bishop of Rome, the Church that "presides in charity over all the Churches". So he would be a bishop among bishops, among his people and with his people, especially the poor. He asked them to pray for him before he blessed them. Silence fell over the huge crowd. It was a startling change of style. He teaches in that way.

In the publishing world, there was a scramble for biographies of this unexpected choice - the first Latino Pope and the first Jesuit. Robert Moynihan's Pray for Me is one of the pop-up books that followed. As editor of the Inside the Vatican monthly, Moynihan had access under the previous two papacies to sources deep in Rome. His focus this time is different: the new Pope's spirituality. Inspired by his subject, Moynihan reveals himself as a bit of a lay preacher. He recalls Francis's first days, with comment and interpretation, then looks back at his life, and ends with quotations from his works.

Moynihan wants to assert continuity between the new papacy and the old, whereas what enthuses so many is the difference. So he repeats the pre-conclave homily delivered by the then Joseph Ratzinger in 2005 with its denunciation of "the dictatorship of relativism". Francis agrees; but there is abundant evidence that he has a mind of his own.

Some of that evidence is on hand in Francis, Bishop of Rome by the Dublin priest Michael Collins. He recounts, for example, how, after Benedict XVI's 2006 Regensburg lecture, with its unfortunate uncon- textualised reference to Muhammad, the then Archbishop Bergoglio's press spokesman gave a highly critical comment to Newsweek Argentina. Rome was furious. Collins reports also that Bergoglio told the Anglican Bishop in Argentina that the Ordinariate for former Anglicans seemed to him to be an irrelevance.

Collins makes a stab at the political setting to Francis's career in Argentina as Jesuit Provincial and then Archbishop of Buenos Aires. In somewhat helter-skelter fashion, inevitable in a book produced at short notice, Collins explains how Peronism became the ideology of Argentina, purporting to bring together Church, army, and unions in a corporate harmony. It split apart under the weight of its own contradictions, and, from 1973 to 1983, there was civil strife culminating in an appalling "Dirty War" between Left and Right under a military dictatorship that left hardly anyone safe. Some 30,000 victims "disappeared".

In other countries, such as Brazil and Chile, Jesuits were in the van of resistance to dictatorship, but in Argentina Bergoglio cautiously reined his men back. Some of them loathed him for it, as Moynihan and Collins note. But at least he brought his men through: on his watch, no Jesuits in Argentina were killed.

Particular controversy surrounds the kidnap, detention, and torture of Fr Francisco Jalics and Fr Orlando Yorio, who had been working in a Buenos Aires slum. Bergoglio feared that they were in danger, and ordered them to leave. They refused. It was not clear how far they were still affiliated to their Jesuit order, and the snatch squads came for them.

To the end of his life, Yorio believed that they had been cast aside by Bergoglio; but Jalics changed his view, and, in 2000, he and his former Provincial were reconciled. After celebrating mass, the two men fell into each other's arms and wept. Both Moynihan and Collins cover this murky episode.

Later, when Bergoglio was Primate and president of the Bishops' Conference, the RC Church in Argentina made several apologies. Bergoglio reflected on those "complex" times and his own attraction to a Peronist position in his conversations with Rabbi Abraham Skorka, now published in English translation as On Heaven and Earth.

This is a book of another sort. It will be a "must" for any student of the new Pope, but it makes demands on the ordinary reader. Pope and rabbi range over the gamut of human life, faith, and practice. They consider religion and atheism, prayer, death, euthanasia, abortion, divorce, same-sex marriage, the Holocaust (both urge the Vatican to open the archives), communism, capitalism, and globalisation.

The new Pope shows himself in the book to be a doctrinal conservative, just as John XXIII was. But, as with Pope John, the doctrinal stance is linked with openness. Francis has changed. Throughout his career he has been a governor. He has learnt from mistakes and felt "the caress of the mercy of Jesus Christ on my sin" ("an astonishing phrase", Moynihan says). I get the impression that, like John, he will be carried further by the Spirit.

The Jesuits used to say that he never smiled. Now he smiles all the time. When he joined the Jesuits, he did so in part because of their commitment to mission. At the age of 76, he has a new mission to fulfil.

John Wilkins is a former editor of The Tablet.

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