There is a magnificent scene in Paolo Sorrentino’s The Young Pope in which Pius XIII, played by Jude Law, sits open-mouthed at a table in the Apostolic Palace as a vision of his predecessors unfolds. He has prayed for their help as he wrestles with the inevitable human conflicts of the affairs of state; now they file in, ready to advise their latest replacement. Each wears the robes of his respective century, with just a hint of homage to Fellini. Tiaras abound.
“I beg of you,” prays the former Lenny Belardo, “confide in me the wisest thing you have ever learned.” After a moment of muttering and nodding, their spokesman, cast in the image of the fearsome Julius II but with the voice of John Gielgud at his hammiest, raises his hand and speaks. “In the end, more than in God, it is necessary to believe in yourself, Lenny.” “Oh,” replies Lenny. “Have you got anything better?”
The option of consulting their predecessors, at least in earthly terms, is not one that most popes have; Pope Francis is one of only two reigning pontiffs in centuries to be in such a position. This year, 28 February marked the eighth anniversary of Pope Benedict’s abdication; he has now been Pope Emeritus for longer than he held the papacy. In retirement, he has lived at the former Mater Ecclesiae convent in the grounds of the Vatican; the arrangement is certainly different from the last time that the phenomenon occurred.
Boniface VIII spent most of 1293 annulling the official pronouncements of the former Celestine V, and also had him thrown into prison for good measure. Francis has instead been assiduous in paying Benedict every public honour, but of late there have been rumours of friction between them. Last year there was the controversy over Benedict and Robert Sarah’s intervention on priestly celibacy in the context of the Amazon Synod. More recently, concerns about Francis’s health have caused commentators to reflect on what will happen when he vacates the office himself, one way or another.
Sensationalist headlines have abounded, alluding to a great bust-up between Francis and Benedict over the direction of the future of the Church. Many of them seem to circle around the idea of a secret plan in which Francis has packed the Sacred College with men after his own heart. Of course he has; every pope does, and we have all seen him do it. It may well be that he hopes to swing the next Conclave away from papabile conservatives like Cardinal Sarah, but the speculation that he and Benedict now co-exist as nemetic forces seems too juicy to be allowed to let lie.
Well, newspapers have to sell; journalists have to eat. At the end of the day these are two men of immense interest, who inhabit the public consciousness at an enormously interesting time. That point was not lost on the team behind The Two Popes in 2019, starring Anthony Hopkins as Benedict XVI and Jonathan Pryce as Cardinal Bergoglio. Francis is the Pope, Benedict is The Man Who Was Peter. Francis continues to use the @pontifex Twitter handle that Benedict launched in 2012; when they speak, people listen.
This tension, creative or otherwise, is the broad focus of Christopher Lamb’s The Outsider: Pope Francis and his Battle to Reform the Church, which came out last year. I asked Lamb, who is well-known as The Tablet’s Rome correspondent, about his book. He thinks that “Francis faces deep-rooted opposition from inside his own Church, including some powerful Catholics [which] raises the question about the long-term impact of the Francis pontificate and whether the Church will continue on the path that he has set out”. Others have championed a similar theme.
Lamb’s title echoes Austen Ivereigh’s Wounded Shepherd: Pope Francis and His Struggle to Convert the Catholic Church, which he produced in 2019, following on from The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope in 2014. Peter Seewald has already rebutted Lamb in the foreword to the first volume of his Benedict XVI.
“Benedict has never become a parallel pope,” he argues. “He is scrupulously careful not to get in his successor’s way.” That book also appeared in 2020, but 15 years after Cardinal Ratzinger’s election.
Authors from different stables have found a rich seam of creative inspiration in Francis. I asked Ivereigh about this; he thinks that “the number of books reflects a fascination with him as an outsider and a reformer. A lot of them are attempts to shoehorn his papacy into a predetermined narrative, reflecting progressive hopes or traditionalist fears; many are journalists’ accounts of the turbulence provoked by the vigour of the opposition and the contradictions it exposes.”
This can hardly be gainsaid: Paul Vallely’s Pope Francis: Untying the Knots: The Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism and Jimmy Burns’ Francis: Pope of Good Promise were both published in 2015, while Henry Sire’s The Dictator Pope: The Inside Story of the Francis Papacy ruffled feathers in 2017. Even more recently, Ivereigh has also brought out Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future, in which the pope lays out his manifesto for a post-Covid world.
Next up is John Cornwell’s promised Church, Interrupted: Havoc & Hope: The Tender Revolt of Pope Francis, which is due out in March. That makes at least eight books on this papacy since 2013, in the English-speaking world alone—and all from this side of the pond. From any direction, a rate of one a year is a remarkable figure, and the market shows no signs of saturation.
Lamb puts it down to the pope’s eclectic approach. He calls him “a news-maker”, who speaks to people “without the filters expected for a world leader. It means his message cuts through to a large audience, including many non- Catholics”. No-one would publish these books if they didn’t think they were going to sell; that seems to be as true of those who love Francis as those who seem to loathe him. Panegyrics and polemics all find their outlet.
Francis is a ‘disruptor pope’, willing to bypass protocol and certain styles of operating
Until comparatively recently in the church’s history, the personality of the pope, distinct from his office, was inevitably distant and entirely detached from the day-to-day life of most Catholics. It was a nebulous aspect of popery that Protestant England particularly detested. Emancipation only came after the reins of government had been inherited by the young English milords who had visited Rome as part of their Grand Tour, and encountered a genteel old man in white whom they thought on balance might possibly not be the Antichrist, after all.
Such illustrative encounters were for the rich; it was only much later, with the advent of daguerreotypes and cheap postcards, that most people would have been able to recognise any pope’s likeness without a caption. The same sense of distance applied in an administrative sense, too, for the relationship of a diocese with the Holy See was generally governed by the length of time it took letters to be exchanged – if they arrived at all.
The situation changed drastically with the railway, the steam packet, and the telegraph. After two world wars it was entirely transformed when the developing media technologies that first beamed Pius XII and then John XXIII into Catholic homes burgeoned exponentially. Paul VI tried to embrace and harness the phenomenon with Inter mirifica in 1962; John Paul I had no time to use such outlets, but John Paul II became an international superstar. Benedict XVI was often reticent in front of the lens, which sometimes made him seem distant by comparison.
Francis has had no similar problem, and off-the-cuff soundbites have become a regular feature of his papacy – for better or worse. Furthermore, his engagement with the press has only made him of more interest. Lamb calls this pontificate “a fascinating, and at times dramatic, story. [Francis] is a ‘disruptor pope’, willing to bypass protocol and certain styles of operating […] He is the pope of surprises who brings back refugees on his papal plane and has offered global leadership during the Covid pandemic.”
The image of the octogenarian pontiff limping slowly through St Peter’s Square in the pouring rain to give benediction of the Blessed Sacrament urbi et orbi at the height of the coronavirus outbreak will surely endure as one of its defining moments. Benedict XVI would have had something to say about the crisis, no doubt, and it would have been profound and rooted lovingly in the theology of the Incarnation of which he has been so eloquent an exponent. It is, however, the grand gestures, at which Francis is so adept, that have caught the imagination of the world far beyond the hedges of the church.
Perhaps Ivereigh gets close to the reality of this distinction when he says that “the Francis pontificate has often felt like a white-knuckle ride, in part because of the pope’s prodigious energy and communicativeness. In an institution that many mistakenly believe is resistant to change, it has sometimes felt like a whirlwind. At the same time, the fascination with Francis is a recognition that the papacy matters, and is back at the centre of world affairs, and this needs accounting for.”
Lamb agrees; Francis is certainly a communications expert who has caught the world’s attention. He points out that he is “the first pope to pick up the phone to call members of his flock”, and that the number of media interviews he has given is “unprecedented”. This all makes him a publishers’ dream: Benedict writes books, but Francis sells them. Meanwhile, I have often wondered what the form is if one answers the blower to find the Vicar of Christ at the other end. Does one stand, kneel, or genuflect?
Serenhedd James teaches Ecclesiastical History at St Stephen’s House, Oxford
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