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Rebuilding the house

02 October 2015

John Wilkins reads a handful of books for light on the Pope


New Franciscan saint: the Pope at the canonisation mass for Junípero Serra in Washington, DC, last week

New Franciscan saint: the Pope at the canonisation mass for Junípero Serra in Washington, DC, last week

Francis of Rome and Francis of Assisi: A new springtime for the Church
Leonardo Boff
Orbis £11.99
Church Times Bookshop £10.80 (Use code CT534)


Pope Francis: Life and revolution
Elisabetta Piqué
DLT £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9 (Use code CT534)


Pope Francis: Conversations with Jorge Bergoglio
Sergio Rubin and Francesca Ambrogetti
Hodder & Stoughton £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9 (Use code CT534)


Walking with Jesus: The heart of Christian life
Pope Francis
Giuliano Vigini, editor
DLT £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9 (Use code CT534)


NOT till now has any Pope dared to call himself after St Francis of Assisi. The example of the Poverello — the poor man of God — was thought to be too daunting. In the latest of his many books, Francis of Rome and Francis of Assisi, the leading liberation theologian Leonardo Boff, himself formerly a Franciscan, offers an extended comparison of the saint’s example and the Pope’s practice.

Behind the name Francis, Boff points out, lies a “project”. He proceeds to tease out the comparisons in a series of very short chapters. He grounds his interpretation in the words Francis of Assisi heard the crucified Lord say to him in the little church of San Damiano: “Francis, go and build up my house again, because it is in ruins.”

Reform was Francis’s mandate from the cardinals. The tired Church of the West, Boff thinks, was looking to the spiritual vigour of the Church of the South. But the cardinal electors got more than they can possibly have imagined.

Boff likes to quote from the first and most riveting of all the interviews Francis has given, published in the Italian Jesuit journal Civiltà Cattolica, that “the first reform must be the attitude”. He characterises the direction of travel as from the Church of the Lord of Creation, the Universal King, to the Church of the poor Christ walking the dusty roads of Palestine. A corollary is government by Pope and bishops on the pattern of Peter and the Eleven, not by Pope and Roman Curia.

This involves a wholly different understanding of what “sacred power” means. When Boff pleaded previously for a transformation, he found himself hauled before the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome in 1985 and silenced for a year. When in 1992 it looked like happening again, Boff left the Franciscan order and the priesthood. Now professor of ethics at the University of Rio de Janeiro, he feels under Francis that he has come in from the cold, allowing him to send the Pope materials to help in the preparation of his recent “green” encyclical.

Like Boff, Elisabetta Piqué hails Francis as a man from the South. Born in Italy but brought up in Argentina, she was the only journalist to forecast early on that the Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires would emerge as the front runner for election in the 2013 conclave. Her book, now available in paperback, is a very personal biography of the friend she calls Padre Jorge. She is a passionate supporter, as indicated by the spontaneity of her narrative, which she displays by couching it throughout in the historic present.

She charts how Francis progressed from his very early appointment as Jesuit provincial in Buenos Aires at the age of only 36, and then as Rector of the Colegio Máximo, the Jesuit house of formation, to his “exile” (a word Piqué does not hesitate to use, as indeed did Bergoglio himself) in Argentina’s second city, Cordoba. Clearly there was an almighty policy clash inside the Jesuit body in Argentina. Bergoglio was rescued by Cardinal Quarracino, who had his eye on him as a natural leader, and launched on his distinctive episcopal ministry in Buenos Aires, with the option for the poor at its heart.

Piqué highlights how Francis has not only changed the papal office, but has been changed by it. Before his election, his Jesuit colleagues used to complain that he never smiled. Now he smiles all the time. Pique quotes the Argentinian journalist Nelson Castro: “He’s another person. . . He’s transformed. . . He’s happy.” Her book, which takes the story as far as Francis’s visit to Brazil for World Youth Day in 2013, when he drew more than three million young people, is a good read.

More input from Latin America comes in Conversations with Jorge Bergoglio, now also available in paperback, by the journalists Sergio Rubin and Francesca Ambrogetti, the one born in Argentina, the other in Rome. Before he became Pope, the then Jorge Bergoglio almost never gave interviews. This book, which first appeared in 2010 entitled El Jesuita, is the only biographical exception. It is a “must” for anyone wanting to know about Bergoglio the man.

The book contains a mea culpa. Along the way, Bergoglio says, “I made hundred of errors. Errors and sins.”

This is the man who is now Pope. No wonder the flow of books about him shows no sign of slackening. Walking with Jesus looks like one that he has written himself, but it is not. It is a pastiche of his sayings and writings stitched together by Professor Giuliano Vigini of Milan. The subheadings refer to the diverse sources, which are grouped at the back instead of being credited in the text. They include the encyclical Lumen Fidei, which is almost entirely the work of Francis’s predecessor, Benedict XVI, though issued with Francis’s approval. Some readers will appreciate Vigini’s approach, but others may feel that it achieves the impossible: it makes Francis seem hard work.

In the end, Boff’s rather poetical reflections catch something essential that lies at the root of the hopes and fears that this astonishing papacy is arousing. Boff is frank that Francis of Assisi’s initial programme was “utopian” and was bound to meet opposition and cause splits. It remained for the first Jesuit Pope to revive the dream, Boff suggests, by importing the discipline and discernment for which the Society of Jesus is known. Let us see how the drama works out.


John Wilkins is a former editor of The Tablet.

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