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