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From Wojtyła to Bergoglio

18 July 2014

Robert Nowell looks at two popes with the common touch

Pope John Paul II
Hugh Costello
The History Press (Pocket Giants) £6.99
Church Times Bookshop £6.30 (Use code CT641 )

My Door is Always Open: A conversation on faith, hope, and the Church in a time of change
Pope Francis with Antonio Spadaro
Bloomsbury £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70 (Use code CT641 )

The Church of Mercy: Pope Francis
Giuliano Vigini, editor
DLT £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9 (Use code CT641 )

The Francis Factor: A new departure
John Littleton and Eamon Maher, editors
The Columba Press £12.50
Church Times Bookshop £11.25 (Use code CT641 )

FOUR books and two popes. Hugh Costello provides a useful and commendably brief life of John Paul II (would it be disrespectful to call him il santo subitissimo?), which offers only a few nits to pick. Given that Pope Paul VI inaugurated the modern custom of papal trips overseas, most memorably his visit to the United Nations in 1965 with his passionate plea to banish war for ever, it seems a little odd to write of John Paul II: "His immediate predecessors had remained immured in Vatican City, showing little apparent interest in an increasingly diverse world outside."

Nor is it correct to assert that priests of the Eastern Orthodox Churches are allowed to marry: as in the Eastern Catholic Churches, married men are ordained to the priesthood, but once ordained marriage is forbidden. A minor point is that Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith used to be known as the Holy Office rather than the Holy Inquisition. And, to my mind, the author does not bring out what might well be an important factor affecting John Paul II's policies as Pope: church life in Communist-ruled Poland was governed by the need to maintain a united front, since any divisions within the Roman Catholic community would have been ruthlessly exploited by the authorities, and this meant that he was unlikely to have much sympathy for divergent views within the universal Church.

Then two volumes of some of the many (and often surprising) things the present Pope has said: his extended interview with La Civiltà Cattolica (in which, when asked: "Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?", he replied without hesitation: "I am a sinner"), and a useful collection of his speeches and talks on various occasions. The Church of Mercy gives the context and date of each talk, but these are banished to an appendix: it would have been more helpful if these details could have been provided in a discreet footnote at the start of each speech.

Both volumes are rewarding: this is a Pope concerned to make people think about how they respond to the gospel message of hope which he is trying to bring to the world of today. What he says reminds us that, when the gospel was first preached, it was a message of hope and joy, not the bleak reminder of our iniquity into which it can too often be distorted. Yes, we and the world are in a right mess, but with God's help, as Julian of Norwich recognised, "all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well." As his fellow-Jesuit Peter McVerry writes in the collection of studies edited by John Littleton and Eamon Maher, as in the time of Jesus, "people have been thirsting for a God who cares, but were being fed a God who judges and condemns".

That is but one of the many useful insights that The Francis Factor provides into what Pope Francis's refreshingly new approach means for both Church and world. The editors have brought together a commendably wide range of contributors, including a rather cantankerous columnist who has little trust in how the world's media report the papacy: "Most journalists, especially the Catholic ones, are hostile to the Church," writes John Waters. Particularly valuable are the contributions of a Palottine priest who worked in Buenos Aires, a Divine Word priest who was a missionary in Togo, the current Bishop of Limerick, Brendan Leahy, and the former Bishop of Killaloe, Willie Walsh; but all the essays are worth chewing over (even the one by Waters).

A minor irritation is that most contributors quote from Evangelii Gaudium, the apostolic exhortation published last year, but, instead of stating once and for all at the start of the volume that quotations will be cited as EG, followed by the paragraph number, there is a footnote to this effect attached to nearly every contribution.

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