May 10, 2013

A new book about a new pope holds pregnant promise, at least before the reading begins; between the white-and-gold covers, one hopes to discover a living, breathing man. Popes are priests before they vanish behind the veils and balconies of their post, leaving the faithful to parse their cryptic statements like special agents cracking code. Perhaps this book will contain a key, a revelation, a passport into this most eminent of souls: an unguarded moment or an actual opinion about a matter of great import or even about nothing at all.

Perhaps the new bishop of Rome will express unscripted fury at the sexual abuse of children over generations. Perhaps he will offer a hand to those who feel unseen or excluded by his Church. Perhaps he will do something much simpler and show the world a sympathetic, everyday self, as Augustine did 1,600 years ago in his “Confessions” when he described himself as a lusty, selfish boy at odds with himself over his devotion to God.

“Pope Francis” is mostly unsatisfying in this regard. A collection of interviews with Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio originally published in Argentina in 2010, it has the slapdash feel of the well-timed repackaging project that it is. (And the English translation does Francis a disservice, at times makingthe erudite and paternalistic cardinal sound like a musty and antiquated library book.) At its best, “Pope Francis” shows a man of simple tastes who thinks of himself as a pastor above all. To the question “How would you introduce yourself to a group of people who have no idea who you are,” he answers, “I am Jorge Bergoglio, priest. I like being a priest.” Francis believes in the spiritual value of hard work; he believes that the way for the Roman Catholic church to compete with fast-growing evangelical churches in the developing world is to “go out and meet people,” and that amid all the church’s controversies, people have lost sight of the main point of the gospels, which is joy. “Look to God,” he says, in the book’s most tweetable line, “but above all feel looked at by God.”

It is in the quotidian biographical details that we find Francis at his most appealing. He can make a passable veal scaloppine, he says, because after the birth of her fifth child his mother, unable to walk, used to direct him around the kitchen like an air traffic controller. She was “extremely upset,” he says, when he decided to become a priest. He had a girlfriend as a young man and can dance the tango “although,” he adds, “I preferred the milonga.” He loves poetry and music, the paintings of Marc Chagall and the movie “Babette’s Feast,” and he considered the great writer Jorge Luis Borges to be a friend. (Borges, says Francis, was “an agnostic who said the Our Father every night because he had made a promise to his mother.” ) Francis is a man who, even as he ascended through the clerical ranks, continued to answer his own phone and take the bus to work. In a moving anecdote, he describes his shame at being too busy, one afternoon, to hear the confession of a man who was mentally ill; he had a train to catch. If the voting members of the College of Cardinals wanted a lively palate-cleanser after eight years of the cold and dour-seeming Benedict, they found one in Francis.


‘Pope Francis: His Life in His Own Words,” with Francesca Ambrogetti.

But on the urgent questions facing him and his church, Francis largely fails to distinguish himself. Critics have suggested that he didn’t do enough to protect two priests who were kidnapped by soldiers in 1976 during Argentina’s “dirty war.” Francis insists he worked to gain their eventual release: “The very night I learned they had been kidnapped, I set the ball rolling.”

He does little to ease the detente between modernity and Roman Catholicism. He takes a hard line on abortion, of course, and tells divorced people, who are prohibited from taking communion, to attend church anyway and find something to do: “try to be part of the spiritual community,” he commands before conceding, in a more conciliatory way, that “being unable to receive Communion is obviously painful for some.” He goes on to blame “aggressive transvestites and feminists,” progressive educators and inattentive parents for the spiritual desiccation of Western culture. His interlocutors, perhaps too cowed to approach the sex abuse crisis head on, redirect their questions to the subject of priestly celibacy. Here, Francis is surprisingly open saying that he can imagine a circumstantial argument for loosening celibacy requirements, as the Eastern church has done in allowing married men to be ordained. But then he comes down on the side of tradition. “Right now,” he says, there’s no reason to revisit the question; the problem with pedophiles is that they’re pedophiles, he argues, not that they’re celibate. And then, in one of the book’s most heart-sinking moments, he uses this opportunity to make a sexist joke about the comparative disadvantages of marriage over the priestly life: “I once heard a priest say that eliminating celibacy would allow him to not be alone and to have a wife, but with that he would also be getting a mother-in-law.” Laughter ensues, and one is visited by the terrible image of a cardinal chuckling in his chambers with fawning interviewers at the expense of women and wives — an image that he does not dispel when he blames disappointing church attendance in Argentina on the parish secretary, who can be, in his estimation, “a bit of a shrew.” For Francis to fail to acknowledge that in places like Argentina it’s women and wives who keep the church alive, by doing parish work and sending their children to mass, is a failing on his part, not theirs.

For the faithful, desperate for good news, “Pope Francis” does offer a crumb or two: an implicit critique of the self-protective and paranoid Vatican bureaucracy, and a renewed commitment to the role of the laity. Using the missionary experience in Japan as his example, Francis expresses wonderment at what a group of baptized Catholics can accomplish, even without the presence of priests. “Faith was kept intact by the gifts of grace that gladdened the lives of the laity,” he says. For too long now, the Church has concerned itself with its own administration, rather than with the spiritual health of her flock, he says. “The shepherd who locks himself in is not a true pastor for his sheep, but just a ‘hairdresser’ for sheep, putting in their curlers instead of going out to seek others.” One has to wonder whether this metaphor makes Benedict a hairdresser and whether, three years before his election, Francis was positioning himself as an antidote to that.

bookworld@washpost.com

Lisa Miller is a contributing editor at New York magazine and author of “Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife.”

POPE FRANCIS

His Life in His Own Words

Conversations with Jorge Bergoglio

By Francesca Ambrogetti and Sergio Rubin

Putnam. 265 pp. $24.95