Pope Francis bio fills gaps left by 'instant books'

(Photo: REUTERS / Tony Gentile)A newly married couple leave after meeting Pope Francis during his Wednesday general audience in Saint Peter's square at the Vatican September 11, 2013.

Book Talk

Paris (Reuters) - A wave of "instant books" about Pope Francis rushed into print after his surprise election in March left readers waiting for one that brought more insight into the two seemingly contradictory phases in his past.

In "Pope Francis: Untying the Knots," British journalist Paul Vallely fills that gap by showing how the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio went from being the divisive head of the Jesuit order in Argentina in the 1970s to the humble and inclusive pastor he became once made a bishop in 1992.

Since so little was written in English about Bergoglio, the first quick biographies depended heavily on two books in Spanish, one a long interview with him and the other his dialogue with the chief rabbi of Buenos Aires.

Vallely told Reuters how he put together these contrasting episodes to give a fuller biography of the Roman Catholic Church's new leader.

Q: How did the book project start?

A: I wrote a piece in The Independent (British newspaper) which explained to non specialists the symbolism of everything he did when he came out on the balcony after his election. The publishers read it and contacted me and said would you like to write a book? I said if this is going to be respectable, I need to go to Rome and to Argentina and you need to fund the travel. They agreed to that.

Q: Did you know Bergoglio or know much about him?

A: No, I was one of those who stood there as he came out and said, who's he? I was completely starting from scratch.

Q: How did you approach this book?

A. A lot of the instant books collected all the anecdotes but they didn't know what to do with them. They just kind of strung them together like a list. It seemed to me it was important to find out what the story was and tell it. I wanted the book to have a pivotal point where you say 'and then he changed.' He's had 15 years doing good work in Buenos Aires, so it's not a recent change.

Q: Bergoglio's critics accuse him of being arrogant and betraying two Jesuits to the military dictatorship in 1976 at the start of the so-called Dirty War. Was this the main factor in his early career?

A: The Dirty War and the incident with the two kidnapped Jesuits were a symptom of the deeper issue, which is the split within the Jesuits. People in the Jesuits either loved him or loathed him. He was a charismatic figure and very forceful and engaging. One person told me there was almost like a cult of Bergoglio. On the other side were the people who thought he was going in the wrong direction entirely.

Q: After being Jesuit provincial and heading their seminary, Bergoglio went to a smaller city to work as an ordinary priest. When he came back a few years later as auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires, he was a different man. What happened in between?

A: The most difficult part was to work out how much he had changed and why. I didn't get a definitive account from anybody. But by piecing together the jigsaw from various accounts and understanding how deep his prayer life and how important the Ignatian spiritual exercises were to him, it seemed to me pretty clear circumstantially that he decided in prayer that God didn't want him to behave like he was behaving.

Q: How do you account for this?

A: The split in the Jesuits explained a lot about his personality. He was an authoritarian and domineering kind of character and you can still see that in him, in a funny way. I think that he's gone through some kind of spiritual process and is wrestling with that all the time. His humility is not modesty or shyness, it's an intellectual decision. This is what he's decided how you've got to be if you're going to be a Christian leader in the modern world. Some people have suggested it's PR and gimmicky and manipulative, but I don't think it's any of that. I think it's a genuine conversion within him.

(Reporting By Tom Heneghan; Editing by Michael Roddy and Paul Casciato)

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