At this moment four new books on or by Pope Francis—four in an endless flood, several every week, of pope publications which have swept across my office desk in the months since the publishing world decided there was no limit to the market for a man who in the earlier stages of his career declined to call attention to himself, to give interviews, to join the world of celebrities—defined by Gertrude Stein as someone “well known for being well known.” So now we have a growing number of little paper volumes collecting his sermons, famous quotes, interviews, reflections on family life and his devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Today Pope Francis seems to see that fame is the indispensable instrument in making his message heard. And, like the Gospel, a basic, gutsy, profound message it is. He has warned us that we may have him for only a few more years, and clearly he has decided to pour himself out, flying all over the world, trying to convince a world that sometimes appears to be coming apart at the seams that we must serve the poor, settle our differences peacefully and rescue God’s Earth from our gluttonous and irresponsible stewardship.
Two of these new books stand out. For every Catholic institution coffee table and many a Catholic home is Pope Francis: A Photographic Portrait of the People’s Pope, by Fr. Michael Collins of Dublin, featuring the exclusive photography of Rodolfo Felice (Penguin Random House, 250 pages, $25). The first nine pages summarize Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s pre-papal life, opening with pictures of his first grade class all in white suits, a family group and a smiling young theology student. The narrative, understandably, does not deal with the more controversial years during Argentina’s “Dirty War.” The book, rightly, is a celebration, and the photography is spectacular, but with only a few less formal shots, like those of him hearing a confession and then going to confession himself. The rest is crowds, crowds and more crowds, long lines of cardinals in red, bishops in mitres and priests in white carrying candles. The Swiss Guards in full armor, black and orange pants, helmets with pink plumes standing at attention with their spears reminded me of those opera and operetta armies waiting to sing their marching song.
The pageantry of most of the pages tends to reinforce the image of clericalism that Francis has publicly scorned. What I yearned for was some really informal pictures, like the house and rooms where he actually lives, reads, eats dinner and chats with his fellow lodgers wearing regular pants, a plaid shirt and a sweater. We all know the movies and stories where the new pope slips into jeans, a denim shirt and sneakers and strides out through the neighborhoods of Rome looking for good pizza. Maybe someday soon.
The fourth serious Francis biography, not contradicting but building on its predecessors, Jimmy Burns’s Francis, Pope of Good Promise (St. Martin’s Press, 432 pages, $28.99), will appear in September. Reading it was an always absorbing, sometimes thrilling, experience, largely because Burns, an Irish-Catholic with journalism experience in Buenos Aires and a contributor to CNN, BBC and The London Tablet, among other places, writes with a novelist’s grace and a historian’s perspective. He is always answering the question, “What else was going on when Bergoglio was here or there?” As a Jesuit provincial and as a bishop Burns’s constant moral question is, “How much injustice must Bergoglio witness and tolerate in order to avoid the retaliation of the state?” It took until May 1998 when he was 61 years old for Bergoglio to distance himself from the corrupt government of President Carlos Menen: “A few are sitting at the table and enriching themselves, the social fabric is being destroyed, the social divide is increasing, and everyone is suffering; as a result our society is on the road to confrontation,” he said.
Indeed, where have we heard those words before? Many like them have been used to describe the United States in recent years. They should be kept in mind as the U.S. church approaches not just Francis’ visit in the fall but also the Synod of Bishops on the family. Burns spends his final chapters interviewing lay and clerical leaders on the big issues that can make or break the church’s renewal: the Vatican bank scandal, the “long shadow of sexual abuse,” the role of women in the church’s future and a very sad interview with Hans Kung, who, suffering from a number of debilitating ailments, considers ending his own life. Whatever happens, Kung has corresponded with Pope Francis who, in long handwritten letters, has given him reason to hope.