Book Review : Pope Francis – Untying the Knots
Reprinted from The Common Good, No 68, Lent 2014
Pope Francis – Untying the Knots, Paul Vallely, Bloomsbury, London, Paperback, published 2013, 227 pages NZ$24.35.
Reviewer: Robert Consedine.
The London Tablet said ‘read this book, forget the rest.’ They were right. It’s a page turner. I couldn’t put it down.
The author Paul Vallely, went back to Argentine to talk to a wide range of supporters and critics of Jorge Bergoglio, now better known as Pope Francis. The author pulls no punches in describing the ‘tortured complexity’ of life under the military dictatorship – one of the most brutal in the 20th century.
In this frightening environment, among many other atrocities 150 Catholic priests were killed and 500 pregnant women were held prisoners until their babies were born. The babies were then adopted out to ‘good Catholic families’ and the mothers were killed. In total 30,000 people disappeared in five years.
Bergoglio is initially portrayed as a silent enigma, sitting on the sidelines, refusing to speak out; he would have been killed. Then as the story develops, we learn of his quiet, courageous, heroic acts. In that journey the author uncovers a man of extraordinary complexity and paradox. ‘A doctrinal traditionalist and an ecclesiastical reformer; an authoritarian who seeks to empower others…. a radical but not a liberal…. a right wing sympathizer and a humble reformer. He combines religious simplicity with political guile.’
The author traces Bergoglio’s early career as a Jesuit superior where he developed the reputation of being an unpopular, divisive, authoritarian leader who was loved and hated in equal measure.
Then he was sent to live amongst the poor – and a dramatic transformation occurred. He was converted by the poor to a new understanding of the Gospel and of Christ. When the story of Bergoglio’s conversion experience became known, it went viral.
When he was unexpectedly elected, the new Pope described himself as ‘a sinner trusting in the mercy of God.’ He has been admitting his mistakes ever since.
He also described Vatican II as ‘a great work of the Holy Spirit.’ This bodes well for the future of the church. As Pope he appears determined to reform and decentralize a corrupt Vatican bureaucracy and banking system. He frequently challenges all the baptised to be part of the mission of the Church, emphasising God’s closeness to the poor and marginalised.
The author, despite the limitations of time and contacts, has done an impressive job in trying to balance the contrasting narratives of the life of Bergoglio – life under the military junta and his transformation into an advocate for the poorest and the most marginalized.
His papacy is a breath of fresh air for the Church and the world. There is a level of excitement and high expectation of change in the air. The world’s media has given him an extraordinary reception. Pope Francis will be smart enough to know that the ‘honeymoon’ with the world and the global media won’t last.
Although there are many gaps and some repetition, this book is a well balanced entry into the life of a remarkable man.