I have read several biographies on Pope Francis and they all did a fairly good job covering his life up to his accepting the chair of Peter. While covering the basic facts rather well and giving some measure of the man, I really did not come away feeling I knew him at all really.
This new book put out by Ignatius Press is more than just another biography. Pope Francis – Our Brother, Our Friend: Personal Recollections about the Man Who Became Pope by Alejandro Bermudez is something a bit different. The book is a series of interviews of people who knew him as a priest, bishop or both. While some basic questions were asked of each person this lead down several pathways in intriguing ways.
The first half of the book were interviews of Jesuits and I found these interviews the most interesting. These interviews for me gave me more of the measure of the man. Especially since all the Jesuits interviewed were not exactly Jorge Bergoglio fanboys. There were plenty of back-handed compliments considering Bergoglio theological orthodox in that he was not considered “adventurous” enough. You could certainly read behind the scenes that some of these Jesuits considered this a defect in what they thought was an otherwise goodman. Still there a a common thread of great respect for the man even from his theological adversaries. He seemed to have won them over not by pretending that these theological differences did not matter, but that he could deeply care for and be concerned with a person he had fundamental disagreements with. This fact was evidenced throughout the various interviews interviews.
Some of the questions asked were what you would expect since they were the hot button ones concerning his life as a priest and then bishop. For example the time he spent as a Jesuit superior at a rather young age during a very difficult time in Argentina along with his actions regarding the dirty war there. All the interviewees were asked about their own reaction when the announcement was made that he was elected. The answers to this question didn’t really add much to the book and it is no surprise that they were surprised.
Other interviews came from layman and some of the journalists involved with books released about him or his book project with Rabbi Skorka (who was also interviewed).
We have heard a good deal about his simplicity and austere lifestyle. His great concern for the individual in talking and listening to them. There are some great stories in this book in how he takes action totally uniting what he preached with what he did. Another great thread is how much he is a man of prayer and also a very capable spiritual director. One of the questions I had wondered about the Pope is his leadership abilities? How he came to make decisions and how he implemented and followed up? There are plenty of good and holy people that have poor leadership skills – Pope Celestine V come to mind regarding this. The answer to this really came through regarding his leadership abilities. That this is a man who seeks advice, but is not afraid to make a decision. Someone who expects things do be done correctly and as he specified. Willing to let people know when things were not being done right, yet showing mercy to those who messed up.
I found this passage by Father Angel Rossi, S.J. to be indicative about what others said about him:
So if I would have to single out only one thing that always remains with me—even though I do not know if I practice it, I am nevertheless grateful for it—it is his sense of mercy. Very few times have I seen mercy at the depths to which he lives it, and it does not consist in allowing anything whatever to happen, but, rather, in taking charge of the hearts of others and suffering and enjoying life with others. And he brought this to the other person with a very refined charity, a charity of gestures.
While it doesn’t really matter if I approve of the Pope or not, I am rather looking forward to seeing his leadership style of both collaboration and decisive decision making as it plays out in the years to come. In his short time as Pope I don’t think we have really seen this played out yet. Although for example his appointment of eight Cardinal advisors is part of his leadership pattern.
One other interesting insight in the book is the events around a particular Te Deum Mass. These Te Deum Masses are common in Latin America on their national independence day. At the time President of Argentina Cristina Fernández and her husband (the ex-president) took as an insult the homily given by Cardinal Bergoglio. It seems likely his homily on poverty and service was aimed at everybody and they out of arrogance thought it was all about them. This event and his later speaking out forcefully against so-called same-sex marriage got him charged as interfering in politics. Some of this is related by Lilian Negre a pro-life and pro-family senator who often consulted with the Cardinal.
Overall I found this to be an intriguing book and one that helped me flesh out the man beyond the normal biographical details.