Doing the things he can’t do

Paul Vallely, Pope Francis: Untying the Knots (London: Bloomsbury, 2013).

Even though his papacy is still a young one, Pope Francis has  surprised many, not only by being elected pope in the first place, but also by how unconventionally and daringly he has approached his illustrious role.

Paul Vallely’s book offers some fascinating glimpses into the life of this most unusual and controversial pope. We learn about his upbringing and meteoric rise through the ranks of the Jesuits and the divisions he once caused within The Society of Jesus in Argentina. We find out about his behaviour during Argentina’s Dirty War, which raised serious questions about Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s ecclesiastical leadership. Vallely’s account strikes me as balanced and judicious; it avoids rash conclusions one way or the other, weighing the pros and cons of Bergoglio’s words and actions carefully and, it seems to me, fairly.

We are told about Bergoglio’s remarkable transformation, which turned the man, who once condemned liberation theology and its preferential option for the poor, into the Bishop of the slums. And there is a captivating account not only of the conclave that would see Bergoglio elected pope, but also of the first days of Pope Francis’s papacy.

There are many little gems in this book, such as the story of the old, tattered shoes that the newly elected pope would be unwilling to surrender. But I would like to conclude, just as the book does, with the words of Alicia Oliveira, one of Francis’s closest friends. It was in a telephone conversation (apparently, previous popes would not make phone calls), she says, that she learned that ‘he’s having a great time. … He’s having fun with all the people in the Vatican telling him he can’t do things – and then doing them’.

A refreshing pope, and a compelling book.

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