biography william doino
The Good Shepherd
Francis: Pope of Good Promise
By Jimmy Burns (Constable 432pp £25)
At a recent morning Mass in St Peter’s Basilica, dozens of worshipers were surprised by an unexpected visitor: Pope Francis. When Monsignor Lucio Bonora, the Vatican official assigned to celebrate the Mass, wondered if he should stop and allow Francis to take over, he was told to proceed as usual. After Bonora descended the altar to offer the sign of peace and then communion to the faithful, Francis stood in line with everyone else.
Later, recounting the special event for L’Osservatore Romano, Bonora reflected: ‘It’s the style and sensitivity of a man who was placed by the Lord at the service of the entire church, but who wants to walk with all the faithful with simplicity, modesty and the example of the saints.’
Since his election to the papacy in 2013, when he became the first Argentine and Jesuit to lead the Church, Jorge Bergoglio, who adopted the name of Francis, has been moving people everywhere with gracious gestures. He has become a religious phenomenon, attracting the attention of an increasing number of biographers, who have tried to discover the secrets behind this remarkable pope. The latest, and one of the best qualified, is Jimmy Burns, an award-winning journalist who was not only educated by the Jesuits but has also covered Argentina for years and knows the country inside out. In Francis: Pope of Good Promise, Burns takes the reader on a sweeping tour of Bergoglio’s life, from his infancy to the halls of the Vatican, and admirably succeeds in capturing the character of a man whom countless people – and not only Catholics – now look to for leadership and inspiration.
This biography of Francis is quite different from others in that it is a highly personalised account, with Burns often implanting himself into the narrative. For a writer of less skill, this might have proved a distraction – if not an act of hubris – but Burns makes it work, because he knows so much and writes so well. He is able to relate his own experiences with the Church and Argentina to Bergoglio’s in a seamless fashion, making the latter’s life much more comprehensible.
Describing the future pope’s family, piety, education and Jesuit training, Burns reveals why Francis became a ‘loyal son of the Church’, while also developing a strong social conscience that placed him at odds with many around him. At no point in his life in Argentina, whether under the populist Juan Perón, the later military juntas or the unstable civilian governments, did Bergoglio ever witness peace and prosperity, much less respect for human rights or the rule of law.
In order to maintain their privileges, many Church leaders made compromises with the ruling powers and even kept silent when innocents were tortured and killed. Bergoglio’s record in this regard is a matter of some controversy. Some Argentinians still believe the future pope failed to take a prophetic stand against the brutal military regime (1976–83) – as other brave Jesuits did – but recent research indicates Bergoglio may have saved a good number of lives (quietly) during that time. Whatever Bergoglio’s failings, Burns makes clear that he learned some important lessons and now strives to oppose all forms of political extremism, defend the persecuted and speak out strongly for the poor and oppressed.
Bergoglio’s leadership abilities and admirable qualities as a human being were well known to the College of Cardinals, so his election to the papacy was not as surprising as many imagine. What is surprising – and continues to startle many people, especially the old guard in the Vatican – is the way Pope Francis has gone about reforming the Church. Having witnessed so much dysfunction and corruption in Argentina, he was not about to tolerate any as Vicar of Christ. Since becoming pope, Bergoglio has cleaned up the Vatican’s banking scandals and cracked down on abusers and cover-up artists in the
Church, not sparing high-ranking prelates. He has brought the papacy far closer to the people by highlighting the important role of the laity (especially women) and discussing the problems of modern Catholics more frankly than his predecessors.
It would be a mistake, however, to regard Pope Francis as a ‘liberal’, for his reforms and innovations are rooted in the faith of the Apostles. His many homilies about sin, temptation, the Devil and eternal damnation (which even John Paul II and Benedict XVI shied away from) offer ample evidence of that.
As a Catholic sympathetic to Francis, but one still holding out hope for official support for those in gay relationships, and for communion for the divorced and remarried, Burns expresses frustration about the Church’s unwillingness to give ground on these points. At last year’s Synod on the Family (which will resume this October), the Church reaffirmed its traditional teachings on sex and marriage, even if the tone was more compassionate and seemed to leave the door slightly ajar for more pastoral (as distinct from doctrinal) changes in the future. Burns comments: ‘Certainly, the Catholic Synod revealed that elements within the institution were out of touch with the loving message of the Gospels, and depressingly lagging behind the progress of civil society.’
But a defender of Catholic teaching might well reply that no true understanding of Christian love would ever justify sin, as the Church defines it; and that the Gospels repeatedly warn against temptation and the world’s ideas of what today is deemed ‘progress’. Pope Francis himself has been an outspoken opponent of ‘adolescent progressivism’, and has not changed one word in the catechism since becoming pope.
If there is one theme that shines through Francis: Pope of Good Promise, it is that, without compromising any core doctrines, Francis hopes to enliven and unify Catholicism and broaden its appeal throughout the world. With all the polarisation he faces, both inside and outside the Church, that may seem like an impossible task. But Francis does believe in miracles, and after reading Burns’s captivating book, one cannot help rooting for a pope of such faith and goodwill. To order this book through our partner bookshop, Heywood Hill, see page 28
october 2015 | Literary Review 11