Biographies of Pope Francis are a bookseller's delight

By Patrick Howell, SJ

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Interest and enthusiasm about Pope Francis are abundant.  As with anyone we deeply admire, we want to know more. Who is he? What makes him tick? Where’s he from? What are the early influences? What’s his life story? And then there’s this rich motherlode of his early Jesuit history to mine.

Almost before the white smoke had cleared announcing that Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio was the new pope, commentators, journalists, and biographers were scrambling to get the stories into print.  I have tried to keep up with the literature, but they’re coming faster than I can manage.

At least four of them are eminently worth reading and discussing with your friends:  Paul Vallely, Untying the Knot; Austin Overweigh, The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope; John Allen, The Francis Miracle: Inside the Transformation of the Pope and the Church; and Walter Cardinal Kasper, Pope Francis’ Revolution of Tenderness and Love.This week I’ll comment only on the first one.

Paul Vallely’s Untying the Knot was the first out of the stalls in the horse race to print. Despite the rush, it reads well. It has several features of a good mystery. He tackles the murky history of Bergoglio’s role as the Jesuit provincial, 1973-1979, in the midst of the repressive, often brutal Videla dictatorship. He judges that Bergoglio was rather severe and unsupportive of two Jesuits eventually jailed by the military junta. But he also sets out evidence of clear moral courage and bravery by Bergoglio for smuggling out of others under life threats. Later he concludes that after some years of exile, Bergoglio had a life-changing conversion experience, which led to his support of the poorest of the poor and of his leading an increasing simple lifestyle as bishop and then as archbishop. The conclusion of Pope Francis:Untying the Knots – which takes its title from a favorite devotional painting of Bergoglio's in which the mother of Christ symbolically unravels a twisted rope – is that there is partial truth in both those stereotypes, which combine to reveal a man of great complexity.

Vallely doesn’t seem to grasp, however, the strong Jesuit origins in Bergoglio which led him at the conclave when asked whether he would accept the vote to become pope: "I am a great sinner, trusting in the mercy and patience of God in suffering, I accept." Rather Vallely interprets this as coming from a man haunted by guilt and needing to atone for earlier misdeeds. In fact, this phrase could be taken almost directly from the Jesuit documents of the 32nd General Congregation, which Bergoglio attended as the Jesuit provincial. Decree Two opens by asking, “What is it to be a Jesuit? It is to know that one is a sinner, yet called to be a companion of Jesus as Ignatius was.”  

As a Jesuit, as a Christian, and now as pope, Francis has a keen, interior sense that he is a sinner –forgiven out of mercy and called out of love to serve. This profound, mystical sense informs all of his actions as pope. 

Vallely gets a little lost in the intrigue, but his analysis is generally well-founded, and he writes with the sure hand of a journalist’s sensitivity to his readers’ capacities and interests. 


Patrick Howell, S.J., is the Chair of Conversations magazine and professor of pastoral theology at Seattle University.