Papal Biographer: This Is Going to Be a Remarkable Pontificate

Matthew Bunson Speaks on His Study of Cardinal Bergoglio

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A man at ease with himself, characterized by personal warmth and intelligence. An early riser, with an affection for opera, tango and Dostoevsky. A man defined by the Ignatian spirituality.

These are just some of the descriptors to be found in the first English-language biography of Pope Francis (Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio), written by Matthew Bunson.

“Pope Francis” is due out from Our Sunday Visitor next month. In addition to a complete biography of the new Holy Father, including family history, his work as a priest and bishop, and his time as cardinal, the work also looks at the events surrounding Benedict XVI’s resignation. It also has a discussion on Francis’ coat of arms.

ZENIT asked Dr. Bunson to tell us about his book, and what he’s discovered about the new Pope.

An excerpt of the book can be read here.

ZENIT: How is it that you’d already begun work on a biography of the new Pope?

Bunson: I was able to be at work on this book for several reasons. First, the initial chapters deal with the events of the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, the sede vacante, and the deliberations of the cardinals in the lead-up to the conclave. This was important to provide the context for the election of Pope Francis, especially the chapter on what the cardinals were discussing in the General Congregations and press conferences about the needs of the Church at this moment and the characteristics of the man they were seeking who might be most qualified to confront these needs as the next Supreme Pontiff. These were chapters largely written in time and captured, I hope, the drama, poignancy, and significance of the events that led to the selection of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope Francis.

More important, as I write in the Introduction, the book in many ways began in 2005 and the conclave that elected Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI. Cardinal Bergoglio was very much among the papabili in that conclave, and he remained over the ensuing eight years a major leader in the Church in Latin America and someone very familiar to the members of the College of Cardinals.

As part of my work for Our Sunday Visitor as general editor of the Catholic Almanac and senior correspondent, and a professor of modern Church History for the Catholic Distance University, I was aware of his remarkable work in Latin America, especially at the bishops’ meeting at Aparecida, Brazil, in 2007.

I had been researching the cardinals for years, and Cardinal Bergoglio – while far from a front-runner – was among those I had been studying. When the announcement was made of his election as Pope Francis, I was thus able to proceed quickly with the book.

ZENIT: Initial reports about Pope Francis highlight his reputation as a servant of the poor. Similarly, and as his papal name suggests, he is being presented as a man of simplicity. What would you add to the reports?

Bunson: The remarkable impact of Pope Francis was felt in the very first moments of his pontificate, when he asked for the prayers of the people, and then over the next few days when stories and images of his practical humility were discussed all over the world. As you note, when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, he was truly dedicated to the poor and the most vulnerable. In the first days of his pontificate, he has certainly shown that his commitment to the poor remains. Consider his Mass of inauguration when he stopped and blessed a handicapped man and his decision to say Mass on Holy Thursday in a prison for juveniles. These are powerful gestures, but they also point to the importance he places on humility in service, seeing Christ in those who suffer, are defenseless, vulnerable, or forgotten, and helping all to have an encounter with Christ. These will be significant elements of the pontificate in the coming months and, God willing, years to come.

ZENIT: Argentina became the first Latin American country to legalize same-sex “marriage,” and Cardinal Bergoglio was a vocal leader in the opposition to that movement. What did you learn about him from that struggle?

Bunson: Then Cardinal Bergoglio was a powerful and passionate voice in Argentina and Latin America in the defense of the family and the true nature of marriage. He spoke prophetically to those in power and urged them not to go down the road of relativism. In his recent addresses as Pope, Francis has made it clear that he agrees with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI that we face a dictatorship of relativism. This is not something new. We can see in his homilies and his efforts to stop the tide of same-sex “marriage” when he was archbishop in Buenos Aires that he was, even then, determined to fight against secularism and relativism. This will be a priority in this pontificate as part of his commitment to the New Evangelization.

ZENIT: As a cardinal and archbishop, of course his ministry has been in the public eye for years. What can you tell us about his personal life: his family, his hobbies (we’ve learned he’s a great fan of soccer), his tastes in music or literature, etc.

Bunson: The world has come to know about some of his personality and humility since his election. He is now well-known for taking the bus and subway in Buenos Aires, cooking his own meals, and spending time in the worst slums of the city to say Mass, hear confessions and offer counsel and consolation. This is not some pretense but informs his daily life.

In that regard, he typically rises at 4:30 or 5 a.m. to pray for several hours. He then customarily prefers a light breakfast and a casual lunch. His dinners in Argentina were always simple. Aside from his life-long love of the San Lorenzo football (or soccer) team, he has a great passion for literature, and his favorite authors include the Argentinian novelist and essayist Jorge Luis Borges and the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky. He also enjoys classical music, including opera. As a young man, he was fond of tango, the national dance of Argentina.

ZENIT: A human person cannot be “summarized” in a few paragraphs, or even in a full-length biography. And yet, how would you summarize the character and personality of our new Pope?

Bunson: Pope Francis came to the papacy very much at ease with himself and grounded squarely in his spirituality and commitment to humility and service. His personality is one that has been formed powerfully by Ignatian spirituality and by the long years of service as a priest, bishop and cardinal in a country that has immense wealth and staggering poverty, at times in close proximity one to the other. He has a great practicality to his approach to problems, which is matched by his humility, personal warmth and well-attested intelligence. As cardinal, he was especially respected for his ability to build consensus and respect the opinions of others. This was seen in 2001 during the Synod of Bishops — when he stepped in as relator for Cardinal Egan of New York immediately after 9/11 — and in 2007 at Aparecida, Brazil. These different characteristics point to someone who is exceptionally authentic, prayerful and striving to bring Christ to others. It is going to be a remarkable pontificate to study and appreciate. 

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On the Net:

“Pope Francis”:

An excerpt of the book in ZENIT:

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Kathleen Naab

United States

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