Tools for Getting to Know Francis

A Look at Books on the New Pope

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So much was unknown about Pope Francis after his election in March that publishing houses have been pulling out the stops to try and help readers get to know him better.

And to a large extent, they appear to have succeeded.

Of the dozen or so books in English about the Holy Father listed on, almost all achieve at least a 4 out of 5 star rating. They range from background facts on the new Pontiff and his election, to in-depth research into the life of Jorge Mario Bergoglio and conversations with him before he became Pope. Some have clearly been rushed out and suffered as a result; others have been more considered and better researched.

Taking the albeit rather unscientific measure of Amazon ratings, arguably the most popular books are those in which the Pope himself speaks, either as archbishop of Buenos Aires or as the new Vicar of Christ. Of these, one leading contender appears to be a work that was actually published in Spanish in 2010.

In the book titled «Pope Francis: Conversations with Jorge Bergoglio: His Life in His Own Words,» Sergio Rubin, an award-winning Argentinian author, and Francesca Ambrogetti, an Italian journalist, have assembled a series of extensive interviews with the future Pontiff conducted over a two-year period.  

Unlike his more studious predecessor, Jorge Bergoglio has never written a memoir, but this comes the closest to being one. Within its 304 pages, the former cardinal discusses his childhood, family life, the importance of his first job and discovering his vocation to the priesthood. Published by Putnam books, it first appeared at the end of April. Readers have described it as “inspiring” and “invaluable” and that it shows the Pope to be someone who “understands people and is filled with the love of God and others.”

Another similar book, titled “On Heaven and Earth: Pope Francis on Faith, Family, and the Church in the Twenty-First Century,» also appeared in Spanish in 2010. The 256 pages contain conversations between Cardinal Bergoglio and Rabbi Abraham Skorka, and has received a 4.6 out of 5 rating on Amazon based on 69 reviews. Among the many revealing passages, the book highlights the new Pope’s particular closeness to the Jews, and his fervent wish for dialogue. Published in English in April by Random House, I reviewed the book here

A more up to date publication containing the Pope’s own words comes from the respected Catholic Truth Society in Britain. Called «First Addresses of Pope Francis,» the booklet is put together by the veteran British Catholic author Peter Jennings. It offers an early indication of Pope Francis’ priorities and his sense of the Church’s mission, as well as providing uplifting insights into the Holy Father’s humanity and spirituality. Jennings’ reflections in the introduction also recall the joy and surprise many of the faithful felt when learning that the cardinal electors had chosen the first pope from Latin America and the first Jesuit pontiff.

Moving on to more personal analyses of Pope Francis, one book that stands out is Robert Moynihan’s “Pray for Me: The Life and Spiritual Vision of Pope Francis, First Pope from the Americas.” Published by Image books in April, the 256 page work has received a star rating of 4.9 out of 5 from 21 reviews.

Known for his vivid and incisive newsletters as editor and founder of Inside the Vatican magazine, Moynihan has pieced together an enlightening introduction to the life and spiritual teachings of the new Pope. One reviewer said the book made him feel as if he knew the Pope “on a first-name basis,» and said it “lifted my heart” and contains “good storytelling” prose.

Another personal analysis comes from Matthew Bunson, an American professor of Church history, whose book “Pope Francis” takes the reader through the entire conclave as well as providing background to Pope Francis’ life, his ideas, his mission, and his challenges and opportunities. The book includes 16 pages of full color photos from Pope Francis’ past and present. One reviewer called it a “joy to read” while another described it as a “good primer on our new Pontiff.” It has received a 4.3 star Amazon rating out of 5 from 42 reviewers. Running to 224 pages, it is published by Our Sunday Visitor. ZENIT interviewed the author here

One of the first studies on the new Pope was “Francis: Pope of a New World” by the doyen of Vaticanistas, Italian author Andrea Tornielli. He told ZENIT about his book here. Like others, he tries to decipher the mind of Francis, looking at his background, ideas and worldview. The book also includes Tornielli’s own observations of the Conclave, providing context to the reader from the world’s foremost Vatican observer. Running to 200 pages and published by Ignatius Press, it has so far received a 4.5 star rating from 66 reviewers. It serves as another useful primer, with one reviewer saying it is a “great book” for anyone trying to understand how Pope Francis “ticks.” But as one of the first books to appear on Pope Francis, it suffers from appearing rushed and, uncharacteristically for Tornielli, has been criticised for lacking sufficient original research.

A more favourably reviewed book, possibly because it appeared a month later, is “Pope Francis: The Pope From the End of the Earth” by best-selling author Thomas J. Craughwell. (See a review published here in ZENIT). The book is “beautifully illustrated” with over 60 full-colour photographs and a foreword by Cardinal Sean O’Malley. It also includes the Pope’s first homilies and has supplemental sections on the Catholic faith, practices and traditions. One prominent reviewer describes it as a book that presents what we know so far “while emphasizing interesting facts and underappreciated nuances.” Published by Saint Benedict Press, it runs to 176 pages and has received an Amazon star rating of 4.8 from 15 reviewers.

A booklist on the new Pope wouldn’t be complete without an entry by John Allen, the respected veteran Vaticanista for the National Catholic Reporter. In his “10 Things Pope Francis Wants You to Know Paperback,» Allen examines the qualities that have defined Pope Francis from his days as a cardinal and the early days of his papacy. The American author draws on the most recent, as well as archived, interviews with Pope Francis and those who know him. He also describes Francis’ vision of leadership and evangelism. Published in April by Liguori and running to just 48 pages, it has received a 4.8 star rating out of 5 from 28 reviewers. The book has been described as “concise and to the point.”

Another book from the United States, “A Call to Serve: Pope Francis and the Catholic Future” is the work of author Stefan von Kempis and Philip F. Lawler, editor of the Web site Catholic World News. Reviewers have described it as “an outstanding photo journal” featuring 150 full colour photographs to explain the story of Pope Francis, and a “really inspiring and moving book.” Published in May by The Crossroad Publishing Company, it runs to 160 pages and has a 4.8 star rating from six reviewers.

The secular world has also had a stab at deciphering Pope Francis in these early days of his pontificate. The Wall Street Journal has published a 109-page book called “Pope Francis: From the End of the Earth to Rome,” which has received a 4.2 star rating from 64 reviewers. The book has been described as “very insightful and provocative” but also criticised for being “slapdash” and poorly edit
ed. The editors of LIFE and Time magazine have also produced their own books on the surprise new pope.

Meanwhile, anyone wishing to know the Holy Father even better might wish to look out for two forthcoming books. The first, by the British journalist Paul Vallely, is titled “Pope Francis: Untying the Knots.” Already published in the UK, it will be available in the US on Sept 24. Its publicity material says the book “lays bare a Pope of paradox – a man who is a radical but not a liberal, an enabler with an authoritarian streak, a self-confident man in constant need of forgiveness, who combines religious humility and political guile.”  The publicity goes on to say that Vallely uncovers the hidden past of Jorge Mario Bergoglio and “illuminates the kind of pope Francis will become.” Although some have criticised the standard of the editing – possibly another casualty of the rush to publish – others have described it as “unputdownable”, surprisingly well researched given the short time since the Pope’s election, and of high journalistic quality.

Finally, Magnificat will soon publish “In Him Alone Is Our Hope: The Church According to the Heart of Pope Francis” – further comments from then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio taken from a retreat he led for the bishops of Spain. Ignatius Press, a distributor of this title, promises “a rich, captivating text with a strong, uncompromising message.”

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Edward Pentin

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