Books

A papacy that reads like the plot of a TV series

Vallely says that becoming Pope liberated Francis to be the person he wants to be (AP)

Pope Francis: Untying the Knots – The Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism
by Paul Vallely, Bloomsbury, £16.99

There is a danger in writing a biography of a living person: as more events happen the target moves, and the story may have to be retold. It is a credit to the objectivity of Paul Vallely that his new and expanded biography of Pope Francis successfully builds on the insights of his 2013 biography, with new chapters dealing with the election and first years of the pontificate of Pope Francis.

For Vallely, the key to understanding Francis is his previous experience in Argentina. It is, in the first place, a story of redemption: Pope Francis is driven by his awareness of previous failings and, in his own words, “sins and offences that I did indeed commit”. The book stresses “personal transformation” and reads Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s actions as Pope, in part, as redressing the mistakes of the past.

Here, Untying the Knots differs from another well-received biography, Austen Ivereigh’s The Great Reformer, which argues for continuity in Bergoglio’s motivations and actions. But it is hard to believe today that Cardinal Bergoglio was once known as “horseface” for his dour disposition, or that his calculating management style became the “focal point of a deep rift” in the Jesuit community.

Yet Vallely also sees in Argentina the roots of the Pope Francis of popular acclaim – his work in the slums, his adherence to a life of simplicity, his accessibility. Here, papal office has “rejuvenated” Bergoglio, allowing him to share his vision with the wider Church, so that he is now “liberated to be the person he wants to be”.

New chapters in the biography deal with the election of Bergoglio as Pope Francis, his actions in the first two years of his papacy and the reactions to his papal style. The unfolding of the papal election, and the Vatican bank scandal, are page-turners. Deals behind the scenes, machinations by the “old guard” blocking reform, financial experts brought in to challenge Vatican officials who claimed to answer to God rather than to regulators – these read like the plot of a television drama.

Speaking as one present in St Peter’s Square on the night of Francis’s election, Vallely accurately captures the mood, at that first appearance of the new Pope on the balcony, that something fundamental had changed.

Vallely is no uncritical friend, though, and identifies gaps in Francis’s agenda. The glacial pace of action in tackling the child abuse crisis, and anomalies such as appointing a bishop in Chile linked to a notorious abuser, seem to indicate that, while the Pope is “sincere in his desire to address the child abuse crisis, it is far from his first priority”.

Although Francis believes that women are “the backbone of the Catholic Church”, they remain under-represented in the Vatican’s decision-making offices, envisaged only in terms of wives and home-makers – and, in Francis’s phrase which alarmed many, as “the icing on the cake”.

The impression given is of a warm and passionate man, who in daily discourse will frequently go off-message to express the mercy and inclusivity he believes are at the heart of the Gospel.

But Francis is also clever. He knows and uses the power of gesture to great effect. Vallely reads the divisions of the two family synods not as defeat, but as an opening up of debate in an unprecedented way, so that things have now been said that can never be unsaid. It is a smart move from a smart pope.

What emerges from the biography is not a plaster saint, but a frail man aware of his limitations, who in actions and in personal style has “set free a new spirit in the Church” to show us a new way to be Christian.