Paul Vallely on the Pope, red loafers and Catholic tradition 28 October 2013

After writing my review of Pope Francis: Untying the Knots, I got a chance to catch up with the author about his latest publication.

Paul Vallely(Daniel Rey) DR: Good afternoon Paul. Thank you for taking the time to talk to On Religion. Naturally a good place to start is to ask what motivated you to write about Jorge Mario Bergoglio?

(Paul Vallely) PV: I wrote an article in The Independent the day that he came out onto the balcony, and I deconstructed for non-Catholics what the significance was of the various things he did and didn’t do. Someone at Bloomsbury read it and rang me up the next day and said, ‘Would you like to write a book about him?’ I said I would, as long as I could go to Argentina and Rome for proper research, because otherwise it would just recycle all the usual anecdotes.

DR: How were you able to amass such as strong set of oral sources, particularly in Argentina?

PV: I was put in touch with a philosophy lecturer there who is a part-time journalist, and I told her what it was I wanted and who I wanted to speak to. When I arrived in Argentina she had organised the whole thing.

DR: That’s the sort of fixer you need!

PV: She was brilliant. We hit the ground running and did four or five interviews a day.

DR: And was your project well-received in Argentina?

PV: There were a few people there who didn’t like him and wanted to get their point of view across, and there were other people who loved him and wanted to share their feelings about him with someone from the other side of the world.

DR: The speed in which you wrote the book is remarkable. How were you able to complete it so quickly?

PV: By working very hard! When I came to write it I started at eight in the morning and worked until midnight for six weeks.

DR: Turning to the Pope himself now, how long do you think Francis can continue to shun papal tradition and modernise the Church?

PV: I think he’ll carry on indefinitely. He is putting into practice in Rome what he did in Buenos Aires. He’s not forging new ground for himself, even if it looks to the rest of the world like he is.

DR: You’ve suggested that he’s very much his own man. Do you see influence of previous Popes?

PV: He has some of the spirituality of John XXIII, some of that connection with people of John Paul II, and he’s got the thoughtfulness of Benedict. He is in the tradition of the Church. You don’t get to be Pope as a one-off maverick from down south. You’ve got to have some continuity with the way the Church has done things, otherwise you don’t get elected.

DR: But if he ripped up the rule book by not wearing red loafers, didn’t he burn it by not requiring that a second miracle be attributed to John XXIII?

PV: When I put it to someone high up in the Vatican that people thought the Pope was breaking the rules, he said: ‘No. The Pope remakes the rules’. There are various different kinds of rules as to what constitutes a saint, and that has altered over the centuries. He’s both a radical and part of a tradition.

DR: Do you think he should be conscious of not trying to push through too many reforms too quickly?

PV: I think he will be slower than a lot of people anticipate. A lot of his first changes have been about mood and culture, but in terms of changing the institution, I think he’ll do more in the long term.

DR: So far he has gone down very well with the secular media. Do you think that will change as he comes to make tough decisions?

PV: No, I don’t think it will. One of the reasons he appeals to the secular media and to non-Catholics is that he is clearly a man who walks the talk. That integrity is something the modern world warms to.

DR: What do you see as being his biggest challenges as Pope?

PV: He sees the biggest challenge as being getting the message of the gospel out into modern culture. He is very much of the modern world: the vernacular he uses, the way he talks about film and music. He’s very much plugged in. The other big challenge is that this is not how the Church has worked in the past, so he will be dragging round with him people within senior positions in the Church who will be reluctant to see change.

DR: Talking of change, do you think he will oversee a softening of the official position on the theology of liberation?

PV: Changes have taken place ahead of him. The world has changed. The Cold War is over and these people aren’t as frightened of Marxism as they were. The Church took sides in that ideological war and now there’s no need for it to do that.

DR: And finally Paul, will you consider writing a follow-up book to evaluate Pope Francis’ papacy?

PV: I don’t know – he might last longer than I do! No. I haven’t got any particular plans to do that, but it’s obviously an option.

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About Daniel Rey

Daniel Rey has a BA in Theology from the University of Oxford, and an MPhil in Latin American Studies from the University of Cambridge.

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