The First Pope Francis Book

By Mark Judge

And it's Ignatius by a nose.

Since Pope Francis was elected March 13, there has been a breathless scramble by publishers to get anything by or about the pontiff into stores and onto Kindles. The first one out is Andrea Tornielli's Jorge Mario Bergoglio: Francis: Pope of a New World. It's published by Ignatius Press, the popular Catholic house that published most of the books by Pope Benedict XVI.

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Francis: Pope of a New World is exactly what you would expect of a book published by a respected house in two weeks: a serviceable primer that uses lengthy quotes from other sources. Still, Tornielli, a writer for the Vatican Insider website, is a good storyteller, and his insane deadline may have contributed to the lucidity of his prose. He's like a hard crime writer who had to chop anything superfluous in the rush to pub date.

Thus, we get a general sketch of Jorge Bergoglio, the man who would become pope. His parents were Italian immigrants to Argentina. They were devout Catholics, and during a confession when he was a young man Jorge felt the call to the priesthood. He joined the Jesuits because he liked the tough language of the order that called itself "the pope's Marines" (of course, today they're more like Obama's army).

He felt a particular compassion for the poor, and insisted on living simply even as moved up the ranks. He cooked for fellow priests and rode the subway to work. He moved up to Archbishop of Buenos Ares, and then was appointed a cardinal by John Paul II.

Tornielli relies on a lot of long block quotes, but his choices are always interesting. Very soon a picture emerges, and it is one that reveals just what a tonic, in fact how revolutionary, Francis may turn out to be.

The Catholic Church, my church, has become out of touch with the people, and I mean that in a very literally way. Growing up in the Catholic schools and community of Washington, D.C., I was surrounded by priests who were both powerful men and very involved in the minutiae of your life. In the first week of my freshman year at Georgetown Prep, the headmaster traveled to the house of every new student to meet with the parents. "We have them for eight hours and you have them for eight hours," Fr. Sauter told my parents.

You were taught by priests, played basketball with them, and the school chapel was open 24/7. You'd see them when you went out socially. One of my most indelible memories was going to see the King Arthur saga Excalibur when I was sixteen and, just as the lights went down, noticing two priests from Prep sitting directly behind me and my friends. The movie's sex scene seemed to go on for days.

Once I graduated, all that ended. Priests were more remote, even unseen, and churches were often closed when mass wasn't going on.

This last point is a real beef of mine. It's dispiriting to be a Catholic walking through the city, especially at night -- the time when the soul is more prone to sex, sin, and mysticism -- and to feel the desire to pray or even just sit in a church, only to find that the place is locked.

This has happened to me at Trinity, the Jesuit run church in Georgetown (it literally is never open other than for mass), St. Matthews Cathedral downtown, and my favorite church in Washington, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. In fact, the going assumption when walking past a Catholic church is that it will be locked. One wonders how many conversions would have been lost -- from Thomas Merton to jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams -- if this had been the policy fifty years ago.

It seems that Pope Francis aims to change this. In Pope Francis he tells priests to "keep the church open." He talks of the "600 meter radius" of the church, and encourages priests to plug the spaces between parishes with lay catechists. When someone says that adding preachers makes no sense when people are not coming to mass anyway, Fr. Bergoglio argues that keeping the doors open and adding people in the in between places will actually have the opposite effect.

He was once late for a train when a drug addict who may have been mentally ill approached him for a confession. The future pope told him he was late and that another priest was going to be along soon. He took a few steps, but then turned around and offered to hear the man's confession. Ashamed, Bergoglio then went to confession about what he had almost done.

It turned out that the event Fr. Bergoglio thought he would be late for was itself delayed, so he was on time. He took this as a sign from the Blessed Mother: a priest had to be with the people. He had to be one of them. Like the pope's fellow Jesuits at Georgetown Prep, he has to keep not only the doors, but himself, open.

Such a Christian attitude has already had a huge effect on the church, and people's perception of her. Francis: Pope of a New World is a breezy but very worthwhile read.

 

Mark Judge is a columnist for RealClearBooks and author, most recently, of A Tremor of Bliss: Sex, Catholicism, and Rock 'n' Roll.

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