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Reforming spirit from Argentina

06 November 2015

Robert Nowell on two papal biographies

Pope Francis: Untying the knots: The struggle for the soul of Catholicism

Paul Vallely

Bloomsbury £16.99 (978-1-4729-1596-2)

Church Times Bookshop £15.30

Francis: Pope of good promise

Jimmy Burns

Constable £25 (978-1-4721-1421-1)

Church Times Bookshop £22.50


THESE two studies of Pope Francis complement each other.

The revised and expanded version of Paul Vallely’s biography of Pope Francis (the first version of which, I am ashamed to say, I have not read) is superb. A new chapter on Bergoglio’s exile in Córdoba helps the reader to understand how an authoritarian conservative developed into the bishop, archbishop, cardinal, and now Pope who has had such an invigorating effect both on the Church he leads and on the world of human beings which it is the Church’s duty to serve.

Five chapters expound the reforms that Pope Francis is implementing — above all, to the Roman Curia, the Church’s central civil service, but also to the bizarre world of the Church’s finances; to the way it is governed, by giving bishops a more decisive part to play in the way the Church is run (and, above all, giving a bigger voice to the burgeoning Church outside Europe); to a determined (though not always successful) effort to root out the scandal of child abuse; and to a greater recognition of the fact that women make up half the human race (even if Pope Francis remains firmly opposed to the idea of ordaining women, a position that I innocently thought had been comprehensively demolished by the Dutch Jesuit Haye van der Meer’s 1969 study Priestertum der Frau?).

Vallely’s work is scholarly, thorough, and eminently readable, and is essential for anyone trying to understand how the RC Church is developing today.

Also very readable is Jimmy Burns’s volume, chattier and more discursive, and — thanks to Burns’s stint as a foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires — excellent on explaining the complexity of the Argentina in which Bergoglio grew up, and where he learned how to be a Christian who can lead others to Christ.

Burns begins by setting out his own background as someone with roots in both Spain and Latin America, as well as Britain, Jesuit-educated at Stonyhurst (his parents had the good sense to wait until he was 13 before sending him there). He explores the particular characteristics of the Jesuits, before expounding Bergoglio’s roots as the son of immigrants from Piedmont who had preferred a new life across the Atlantic to Mussolini’s Italy.

Politically, Argentina gives the impression of alternating between military dictatorship and bouts of democracy, and Burns illustrates the way in which Bergoglio, as a bishop and archbishop, managed to maintain a discreet distance between himself and the powers that be.

He also vividly describes the appalling slums in which Bergoglio and other priests ministered (and minister), and the clear gulf between rich and poor.

Towards the end Burns interweaves interviews with journalists and commentators able to throw light on what might be termed the Bergoglio phenomenon, concluding with a visit to Tübingen to talk to Hans Küng.

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