Author: Paul Vallely
Price: £12.99 RRP
The Pastoral Review Book shop 10% off price: £11.70 (+P&P)
Publisher: Bloomsbury Continuum, London
Paul Vallely is an experienced senior journalist, former associate editor of The Independent, and former chair of the then Catholic Institute for International Relations (now Progressio). This paperback and its kindle version is therefore well researched with some excellent primary source material, very readable, and considered by critics to be the best of several hurried biographies on the life of Jorge Mario Bergoglio – the complex man who is now Pope Francis, the Bishop of Rome and leader of the world’s billion plus Catholics.
Vallely starts with Jorge Bergoglio’s early family life and when he was attracted at different times to two women who he considered asking for marriage but did not proceed because of his growing call to become a priest. After the long period of formation and education that Jesuit scholastics undergo before being ordained as priests in the Society of Jesus, Vallely takes us on to the sometimes highly controversial trajectory of Jorge Bergoglio’s life, first as the superior of the Argentinian province of the Jesuits and then as Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires.
The time as Argentine Provincial Superior is described by both Vallely in his detailed ‘warts and all’ biography and Pope Francis himself in a very recent interview with a fellow Jesuit that he made some serious errors of judgement or even committed sins during Argentina’s ‘dirty war’ under the military dictatorship when 30,000 were tortured and murdered by the state – including 100 priests and hundreds of nuns.
Aged 36, Bergoglio was probably over promoted as provincial superior at such a comparatively young age. In his recent interview, Pope Francis describes that decision to appoint him as madness. Although Bergoglio now denies that he was a Catholic conservative, many of his contemporaries would regard him then as an authoritarian hardline conservative who was very much pre-Vatican II in his outlook. Politically he was also a right wing Peronist.
However, like the martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador, who was a conservative when appointed bishop, exposure to the poor and suffering of his diocese, led to Archbishop Bergoglio’s conversion to being an outspoken defender of his slum people and campaigner against economic injustice. He ended up visiting the slums regularly, giving aid and comfort to drug addicts, prostitutes, and those who had abortions. As now he hated sin but loved the sinners and showed them God’s mercy. Ironically he was calling for justice as had the two Jesuits he had criticised and acted against when they refused to obey his orders as their provincial superior. Bergoglio would not be the first religious superior during persecution to be concerned about the safety of his priests.
After extensive reseach in Argentina, England, and Rome, Vallely describes the freshly minted Pope as a paradox with the common touch. Pope Francis remains in Vallely’s mind as a man with a strong sense of power, a radical but not a liberal, an enabler with an authoritarian streak, a confident man in constant need of God’s forgiveness, an assiduous consultor and listener who then makes his own decisions, a churchman who combines religious humility and political wiles, and as the former hammer of Liberation Theology one who now accepts its importance. All of this personal development has been as a result of God’s grace, Bergoglio’s two hours of prayer each day, Jesuit discernment, and personal experience with the poor and suffering in Argentina.
Michael D Phelan, Permanent Deacon, Beaconsfield, Bucks