Arts & Books

Book Review: The ascetic with a spicy side

'The Pope is austere but not puritanical: a rare combination that explains his popularity' (CNS)

Pope Francis: Life and Revolution
by Elisabetta Piqué, DLT, £9.99

Francis of Rome and Francis of Assisi
by Leonardo Boff, Orbis, £11.99

Do we need another book on Francis? If you’ve absorbed Paul Vallely’s perceptive Pope Francis: Untying the Knots and Austen Ivereigh’s thorough The Great Reformer, you probably feel you have a good handle on the Pope. What about all the other books that have appeared since Francis’s election two years ago? If you laid them end to end they would probably stretch from Rome to Buenos Aires. But which, if any, are worth reading?

Elisabetta Piqué’s biography certainly is. The veteran journalist for the Argentine daily La Nación knows Francis so well she received a call from him shortly after the conclave wishing her a happy birthday.

She presents Francis as both an unusually spiritual man and a startlingly earthly one. She records him saying things such as “the Virgin came to visit me last night and asked me for three deacons for Buenos Aires”. A few pages later she describes how he launched a Catholic television channel, insisting there should be “no Masses, no asses and no priests directing it”.

Lesser biographers would be tempted to resolve this apparent contradiction. But Piqué isn’t afraid of details that undermine Francis’s saccharine media image. She reports that he used to dip dummies in whisky to sooth crying babies, taught his godson his first swear words and continued to have a rather spicy vocabulary even as a cardinal. Her portrait rings true. Francis is a refined man – an admirer of Manzoni, Borges and Furtwängler – who loves a gritty turn of phrase. He is austere, but not puritanical: a rare combination that helps to explain his astounding global popularity.

Piqué is an excellent guide to Francis’s Buenos Aires years and is particularly good at explaining why he made so many enemies and how they conspired to make his life a misery. She has superb narrative skills, presenting the now familiar story of Francis’s election with great emotional intensity.

Like all early biographers, Piqué struggles to offer a coherent account of Francis’s rapidly unfolding pontificate. Yet she has a good eye for telling details. She says Francis has a habit of wandering around empty curial offices at night switching off lights and reveals that Vatican officials nicknamed him “Mike Bongiorno” after a jovial Italian television host.

There are few laughs to be had in Leonardo Boff’s Francis of Rome and Francis of Assisi, a deadly serious polemic against what the writer calls “the monarchical-absolutist church institution”. Boff, a Brazilian Franciscan priest who clashed with Cardinal Ratzinger in the 1980s, believes that Francis may be inaugurating a new era in Christian history. He divides the Church’s story into three parts. In the first millennium it was a freewheeling, egalitarian community. In the second, it became rigidly hierarchical. In the third, it is returning to its original, looser form. Written shortly after Francis’s election, the book is breathless and repetitive.

Boff cares passionately about the Church but isn’t the kind of author who patiently builds up an argument. Instead, he clubs the reader over the head again and again with his conclusions, apparently unaware of the logical leaps they require. One moment he is complaining about papal infallibility and the next he is insisting on Hans Küng’s “irrefutable historical erudition”. He claims that the concept of magisterium is “a recent creation”, but seems to have no doubt about the correctness of his own opinions.

Elisabetta Piqué’s book is a great help to those seeking to understand the Pope. Leonardo Boff’s tells you more about the fiery friar than it does about Francis.

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (20/3/15).

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