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REVIEW — Pope Francis: Life & Revolution — A Biography of Jorge Bergoglio

Pope Francis: Life and Revolution – A Biography of Jorge Bergoglio (foreword by Sean Patrick O’Malley OFM Cap). Loyola Press, Elisabette Piqué. ISBN-10: 0829442170. 313 pages.

I usually get put off quickly by hagiography – books of admiration. Elisabetta Piqué’s book, Pope Francis: Life & Revolution, starts too much on this note and I nearly put it down. I am grateful I persevered.

In the beginning the book reflects on the personality and character of the Pope Francis, but instead of piling on praise, the book immerses the reader in the wealth of personal information the book contains and that’s where its value lies. Piqué has been Pope Francis’ media advisor since he was Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires. And they’ve been friends since even earlier when he was appointed Provincial Superior of the Jesuits in Argentina. Does this make her the best person to write his biography? Yes and no.

Yes, because of a comprehensive knowledge she has of his career, which was the path to his papacy. No, because she’s too much a fan of his zeitgeist to have a penetrating psychological eye to identify his character flaws. The value of inner-circle closeness, valuable as it may be, is a double edged sword that cuts both ways. It blunts the necessary critical eye, even as it sharpens the gate of access into privileged information.

As an ordinary person he liked to walk the streets and ride public transport anonymously, what he calls a ‘cura callejero’—that is, a priest who walked the streets. He believes the old proverb: mens sana in corpore sano – a healthy mind, a healthy body. Unfortunately these are privileges he can no longer enjoy as pope.

He also does not take holidays. Something close to his favourite dish is the Patagonian lamb he likes to assist the sisters who cook for him in preparing. But this book doesn’t dwell much on traditional biography details of Jorge Mario Bergoglio. In the internet age such things are easily obtainable, and become as waste of space when you want to dedicate the first four chapters enacting the drama of electing a pope from the insider’s point of view – something I personally appreciated because it demystified the process in my mind.

Pope Francis’s willingness to be honest about the past failures of the Church has led conservatives to accuse him of being a meretricious populist and moral relativist. Piqué is at pains to dispute this, at times successfully demonstrating the orthodoxy of Pope Francis’ ideology with that of the Roman universal Church.

Often biographers are rankled by the demands of personal anonymity the genre demands. The fresh thing about Piqué’s book is that she doesn’t use the platform as an excuse to mawkishly preen her own achievements, something we’ve come to expect from such inside-the-bubble memoirs about powerful men of the world. She concentrates on the personality of the pope. She makes him come across as an amiable individual who has made powerful enemies within and out of the Vatican for his willingness to buck the system. She doesn’t hide her grave concerns about the pontiff’s life, which she fears might end in assassination. She is also not very pleased with Pope Francis’ faith-filled resignation in trusting the Holy Spirit about the matter, and accepting whatever happens as the ultimate will of God.

As the pope’s media adviser, Piqué has written a book that reflects the pope she serves as an intelligent, amiable, authentic, optimistic and principled person. However, you’ll be disappointed, for instance, if you’ve come to the book for the juicy inside gossip, designed to superficially attract instant attention. This book is a classic coming-of-age story of the prelate’s journey from idealism to realism; from moral stringency to spiritually matured acceptance of people and the world – with failings and all; of learning what it means when Christ says “it is Mercy I want”, and the understanding why the Father shines the sun on both the just and unjust this side of heaven.

My only regret is that this story is not told with the verve and clean narrative integration it deserves. Though told with plenty of candour, it lacks the seamless narrative immediacy that could easily have made it a classical work of investigative biography and scintillating religious/political memoir. But that’s just my artistic bias. I also found the book to be disjointed. It quotes Pope Francis’s sermons and speeches arbitrarily in attempt to expose his ideology. These quotes dull rather than illuminate the pope’s teachings, which is unfortunate because they are very good with proper context as published in full on books like Happiness In This Life and/or The Name Of God Is Mercy.

Compassion, both of the writer and the subject, is the major strength that rescues the book. Even the religious conservatives — the omegas of Pope Francis’s alpha — are treated with horrified amazement rather than vitriolic hatred. Because of it, Pope Francis comes out in the book as an abstemious man of discernment. He is affectionate, polite and respectful. Piqué demonstrates that though the pope can be testy he often eschews anger, especially in the face of provocative bigotry and squalid conspiracy-mongering of his more extreme conservative opponents. He sees their insistence of rigid moral and ethical laws as hypocritical and misguided clericism and failure to heed Christ’s demands for mercy. They see his mercy as the dilution of Gospel teachings and lack of moral strength. The pope is of the opinion that we “… need to take a broad approach to the question of sexual morality—not just contraception, homosexuality, or people living together without being married, because those are specific moral issues, but actually going right to the heart of the matter, to sexual morality as a whole”.

Despite his obvious distaste for excesses of capitalism, the pope still believes in the tradition of the Church’s Social Teachings; it is the best humane means to organise human industry for progressive development. He heavily criticises the insatiable greed of the rich for the miseries the capitalist system has poisoned the world with. He is politically moderate and a socio-economic revolutionary. He’s a humanitarian firebrand, especially on issues that affect the poor.

Piqué says Pope Francis’s best quality is that he’s “a man of great interior strength who is not easily demoralised;” he never loses his optimism, even when faced with the crass politics of the Vatican and the world at large. Though he knows the world can be a venal place he believes in Christ’s power and promise to redeem it. Thus he impressively avoids becoming a cynic, something that comes across very strongly in this humane and faith reaching book. The pope knows, with Martin Luther Jnr, and despite the hypocrisy and mendacity of even the men of the cloth, that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

Something valuable can be learnt from Piqué’s experiences with the pope by the Roman Church in the Southern Africa at this opportune moment. During the recent August plenary, the bishops made the impression that the Church in our region is struggling to find ways and means to build and communicate her image. But it is wary – lest it falls for the temptation of creating an echo chamber to the world.

We would do well to heed the warning of my favourite cardinal, the president emeritus of the Pontifical Council for promoting Christian Unity, the German Walter Kasper and the author of a book on Mercy that was publicly recommended by Pope Francis during his first Angelus: “It’s true, this papacy has aroused people’s hopes, and there are expectations of a new start for the Church like that of Vatican II. After a time of crisis, we all want a new beginning. But we shouldn’t overload this new papacy with disproportionate expectations, which will necessarily lead to new disappointments. A new pope can renew the Church, but he cannot invent a new church. Francis’s style may differ from that of his predecessor, but his doctrine certainly doesn’t. Personally, I’m hoping for a new phase in the implementation of the Second Vatican Council, which has not yet been completed.” Ditto that.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.