Fresh lens on a new pope

A well-researched exploration of Pope Francis' reputation and past lifts this book well above the nervous reverence of much papal biography, writes Mark Lawson for The Guardian.

Pope Francis: Untying the Knots by Paul Vallely (Bloomsbury)

The Roman Catholic papacy is understandably compared to a monarchy: a pope wears a crown, sits on a throne and, while he is debarred from having heirs, the cardinals are styled as pseudo-filial ‘princes.’ Pontiffs differ from monarchs in one significant way, however: succession. While we have recently endured multitudinous articles about how the royal baby might rule as King George VII in, say, half a century's time, most popes come as a surprise.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now known as Pope Francis, had tendered his resignation as Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires (having reached ecclesiastical retirement age), and chosen his room in an Argentinian clergy retirement house, before flying to Rome to vote on a successor to Benedict XVI. Bergoglio had been mentioned in almost none of the media pieces on who would next rule the Vatican and, were Catholic priests not discouraged from gambling, could have got odds of 30-1 against himself at turf accountants.

The absence of any line of succession or electoral primaries creates problems for authors of papal biographies. Their books have most in common with the campaign-biogs that are rushed out by informed journalists as soon as the contenders to be next American president become known. However, with no shortlisting system, the papal biographer has to write after the election and with a speed that reflects the fickleness of public interest and the risk of being overtaken by what the new man does in post.

Two recognised classics of the form were inspired by shock events: Peter Hebblethwaite's The Year of Three Popes (1979) was a quick-turnaround work covering the transition from Paul VI to John Paul I and then John Paul II, a time later covered more reflectively in John Cornwell's A Thief in the Night (1989), which examined the theory that the first John Paul I had lasted for only 33 days because of the literally or metaphorically murderous pressure caused by opponents of his attempt to reform the Vatican civil service.

Paul Vallely has the advantage that he is dealing with the only equivalently dramatic handover in the modern history of the papacy. The startling resignation of Benedict XVI and the subsequent oddity of a papal election that did not follow a funeral shape a story that could have been titled, after Hebblethwaite, The Summer of Two Popes.

With the apparent help of at least one good source within the college of cardinals (who are officially sworn to secrecy until death), Vallely gives riveting accounts of the conclaves in which first, in 2005, Cardinal Ratzinger was named Benedict XVI to follow John Paul II and then, in 2012, the first pope from the Americas was selected to succeed Benedict.

As Vallely tells it, Bergoglio of Buenos Aires ran Ratzinger close eight years ago, but his candidacy was hobbled by the circulation among the cardinals of a dossier alleging that the Argentinian had colluded with the country's military dictatorship in the mid-70s arrest of two fellow Jesuit priests, who were subsequently imprisoned and tortured.

These allegations, which may have prevented him from becoming pope last time, rapidly resurfaced when he claimed the white skull-cap, and form one of two opposed simplistic narratives about the new pope that exist in the mainstream media: the right-wing sympathiser with blood on his hands, or the humble reformer who lived among the poor in the slums and is so without ego or ceremony that, after becoming the leader of the world's Catholics, he personally phoned his newsagent back home to cancel future deliveries.

The conclusion of Pope Francis: Untying the Knots – which takes its title from a favourite devotional painting of Bergoglio's in which the mother of Christ symbolically unravels a twisted rope – is that there is partial truth in both those stereotypes, which combine to reveal a man of sometimes tortured complexity.

Vallely, after tough-minded analysis, rejects the suggestions of some (led by the journalist Horacio Verbitsky) that Bergoglio, who at the time was head of the Jesuits in Argentina, was a lackey of the Videla dictatorship. However, he accepts that the two Jesuit priests were placed in jeopardy by their then superior's decision to withdraw from them the protection of the Jesuit order as part of a row over the way that the gospels should be taught. Against this clear failure by Bergoglio, though, the biographer sets evidence of moral courage and bravery, including the smuggling out of others threatened by the junta.

Fascinatingly, Vallely argues that the Bergoglio lionised by liberals – living in the slums where he was so non-churchy that he was known as ‘The Dude’, and urging compassion towards those traditionally ostracised by Catholicism – developed during the latter part of his life in direct response to the priest's guilt and self-chastisement over his actions under the dictatorship.

Support for the book's theory that Bergoglio is haunted by guilt comes in the startling detail that, when asked in the conclave if he accepted the vote to become pope, he replied not with the traditional ‘Accepto’ but the words: "I am a great sinner, trusting in the mercy and patience of God in suffering, I accept…"

The Deaths by Mark Lawson is published next month by Picador.

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