Pope Francis: Untying the Knots 28 October 2013

Pope FrancisBefore 13th March 2013, few people outside of Buenos Aires were familiar with the name Jorge Mario Bergoglio. And although he quickly became famous as Pope Francis, questions remained as to where this unknown priest had come from.

The uncertainty and lack of clarity was best represented by sections of the media’s generally unsubstantiated remarks about his possible involvement in the state terrorism of Argentina’s guerra sucia, or ‘dirty war’. Overnight many commentators claimed to be experts on Argentine political history, either to condemn or to exonerate the new Pope and his intriguing background.

Seeking to ameliorate public ignorance, Paul Vallely undertook the challenging task of presenting a detailed portrait of the Pope, utilising invaluable first-hand accounts of many who know him best. Vallely charts his transition from priest to Bishop of Rome: from Bergoglio to Francis.  Vallely’s book is more a portrait than strict biography, and is all the better for it. He prepares a rich, colourful canvas, out of which come hues of Francis’s personality.

That said, Vallely is acutely mindful of an over-generalising presentation of the new Pope. Francis comes across as a man of paradoxes rather than contradictions. He is a theologian aligned to the poor and marginalised, but suspicious of the principles, motivations and methodologies of unduly political theologies of liberation. Although not an anti-establishment man by nature, he rebelled vocally against what he considered the social inconsistencies in the approaches of leftist Argentine presidents such as Carlos Menem and the two Kirchners. Through his use of source material, Vallely cogently places these perspectives in their appropriate context, and provides the reader with the tools to understand Bergoglio’s positions.

Another of Vallely’s major strengths is that he is not hagiographic, but nonetheless writes from a position of respect towards Bergoglio. It would have been all too easy when interviewing the subject’s friends to be caught up in the humble Jorge Mario. Instead, Vallely’s narrative rejects such an approach. He provides details on Bergoglio, but it is up to the reader to interpret them.

As outlined, there is much to herald about Paul Vallely’s book on the new pontiff, not least the speed at which it was written and published. It is testament to Vallely’s written style that this haste is not always evident. That said, there are spelling errors of proper nouns that bring into question Vallely’s acquaintance with Argentinian and Latin American history. A really interesting comparison that would have been worth more than the cursory mention it is afforded, is the almost certain inspiration of Father Carlos Mugica (1930-1974), the martyred Argentinian slum priest, on Bergoglio’s social thinking and action. Born six years prior to Bergoglio, Mugica also lived through the years of the nascent theology of liberation, but unlike many in his circle, he did not follow the guerrilla-revolutionary path of Colombian priest Camilo Torres. The pacific Mugica was the most important and celebrated churchman aligned to the cause of poor Argentines, and if Bergoglio was not inspired by Mugica, it would be compelling and revealing to learn why.

Furthermore, Vallely no doubt rightly states that the influence of President Juan Domingo Perón (1946-55, 73-74) is crucial to Bergoglio’s social, political and intellectual zeitgeist, but does not expand on why this is the case. Peronism, the political movement based on Perón’s thought, has been the major political force in Argentina since the mid-twentieth-century. With its nationalist, socialist and populist themes, not to mention its assimilation by both the right and the left, peronismo is a key to unlocking the Argentine political landscape. One possible explanation is that the multiplicity of forms of peronismo, itself conceived as a third way between capitalism and communist-collectivism, feeds into the ambivalences and paradoxes in Bergoglio’s own thinking.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio is an inspiring figure, and although it is very early to say so, he may prove to be one of the most important Popes since the Reformation. As traditional Roman Catholicism stands at a crossroads with a secularised and indifferent world, Francis will be crucial to the future of the faith. In Vallely’s book, many of the knots his title refers to are left partially or imperfectly untied, and there will be many we are unaware of. Nonetheless, he has captured and presented several critical aspects of the man at a crucial time, before the significance of Jorge Mario Bergoglio gives way to his importance as Pope Francis.

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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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