Until I read this book, I knew very little about Pope Francis and I certainly don’t know enough about religion and politics in Argentina to challenge the scholarship, but what I do know is that this is a compelling read: a book I found almost impossible to put down and which I know I will go back to again.
It’s not just that Francis’ vision of a church which looks outward, prepared to take the risk of doing something rather than nothing for the poor, the marginalised and the dispossessed is so compelling, but that he seems to speak so vividly, for example, in his condemnation of a society which discards its elderly like old overcoats, with mothballs in their pockets. He comes across as a deeply prayerful man who seems never to have lost his sense of wonder and joy at discovering God’s love, mercy and compassion. “Mercy is the Lord’s most powerful message.”
However, this book is no uncritical hagiography of the pope of paradox: charismatic and divisive; radical but not liberal; authoritarian but empowering; combining religious humility with political acuity. The description of life during Argentina’s dirty war is unsparing and asks uncomfortable questions about some of Francis’ actions, and failures to act, during that time. Vallely concludes that no-one could now judge Francis more harshly than he judges himself; other writers may form a different view. One thing is clear: Francis was not only changed by his experience, he made a positive decision to change himself and to practice an audacious humility which is “not fake … but thought through.”
A recurring theme in this book is Francis’ awareness of his own need for blessing, and this prayer seemed appropriate as one he might both give and receive:
May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half truths, and superficial relationships, so that you may live deep within your heart.
May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression and exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.
May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, and war, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and turn their pain to joy.
And may God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.
Reviewed by The Revd. Norma Fergusson
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