Pope Francis may be one of the most unusual Popes of the modern era. He came into his role as Bishop of Rome only after the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, something which had not happened for 700 years. Pope Francis also had the oddity of being born in Argentina, making him the first non-European Pope since the eighth century. However, Pope Francis has also caused a stir among the liberal and conservative sides of Catholicism. Firstly, through his radical mercy for those outside and estranged from the church, but also through his unwillingness to simply rewrite Catholic doctrine. In this time where the Catholic Church has faced so much scandal and corruption, Pope Francis may be the perfect man for the job. Yet, who is he? Where did he come from, what has he done? Pope Francis, through no real effort of his own, may be the most well-known person on the planet right now, but I for one knew very little about him. Thus, what better way to learn about him than to read his biography?
The life of Pope Francis (formerly Jorge Bergoglio) does not disappoint. Raised by immigrants from Italy, Bergoglio grew up in the Catholic Church. He attended a Jesuit school. At a young age, he decided to become a priest. Bergoglio committed himself to the Jesuit way, following the ideals of St. Ignatius of Loyolla: poverty, servitude, and finding God wherever He may be. St. Ignatius himself was heavily influenced by St. Francis of Assisi, and lived during a time when the Catholic Church was quite corrupt. It is no wonder that Bergoglio found these two saints so inspiring.
Slowly, without searching for it himself, Bergoglio found himself serving the church in higher and higher roles. Yet, as he found himself holding more and more responsibility, he also found the world around him growing darker and darker. Argentina went through a time of political and economic turmoil. Bergoglio spoke strongly on behalf of the poor, condemning rampant capitalism and advocating for the middle route which Argentinian President Juan Perón took between capitalism and communism. However, despite the work of the priests among the poor, the economy continued to be an issue. In the 70’s, the government was overthrown by the military, and people started ‘disappearing.’ Among these people were two priests who had been working among the poor. The priests were imprisoned, tortured, and only released after being held for several months. They were released upon Bergoglio’s urging, but some criticized the amount of time it took to free them. Others also decried the fact that Bergoglio did little publicly to denounce the violence against the common people. Defenders of Bergoglio state that his public denouncement would help little, and that he could do more behind the scenes if he remained silent. Still, this time of Argentinian unrest, and his reactions to it, is surely the most controversial time period of Bergoglio’s pre-papal life.
Despite the controversy, Bergoglio continued to rise in favor and in the Catholic hierarchy. In 2013, he was elected Pope, and he took on the name of Francis. This biography was written in 2015, so it only covers the first year or so of Francis ‘reign’, but the amount of difficulties he has faced is surprising. Francis was forced to deal with a corrupt Vatican bank as well as a litany of remaining sexual abuse charges against Catholic priests. Opinions differ on how well he handled the issues, and this biography does offer both sides, but most agree that Francis has been a breath of fresh air into the Vatican. Francis also had to face the increasingly difficult issue of how to address women in leadership. This biography documents the many theological strings this issue plucks, yet it also shows how Francis is clearly committed to Catholic doctrine and tradition. He will not change things needlessly, but he is still willing to consider the issue with the seriousness it deserves.
Ultimately, the life of Pope Francis is a fascinating one. I was engrossed in discovering the history of his life and the history of Argentina. Thus it is truly a shame that the story of his life was so unnaturally crafted. Burns is a reporter, and each chapter reads like a separate article. He interviews people, covers related topics, but does not fit into the common form of a biography, focused on the life of Pope Francis. Instead, Burns looks at the world around Francis, sometimes digging deeply into the history around Francis. Were this not a biography, I would not have minded, but by breaking the common form of a biography, I found myself annoyed and confused by the lack of focus. The book gets better as it goes along, with the last several chapters being quite compelling, but as a whole the book falls short. Perhaps if it was offered as a research book on the person of Pope Francis it would be less confusing; but as a biography, the style made it difficult for me to focus on the person about whom the book was written.
Overall, Pope Francis is a truly interesting person. From his time as a Bishop in Argentina to his time reforming the Vatican, his life has had very few dull moments. On that basis alone, I recommend reading about him, and this book is a helpful collection of information. With the hindsight of having finishing the book and accustomed myself to the structure, I will say that my opinion of this book has increased. However, unless you come into this book recognizing that it is less biography and more study of the world in which Pope Francis lived (formerly known as Jorge Bergoglio), you may come away, as I was initially, frustrated.
Published on 4 September, 2016. Last updated on