Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The world seemed to be on pins and needles recently as it awaited the announcement of the new pope who would take over after the unexpected retirement of Pope Benedict XVI.  There was much rejoicing in the Americas when the first non-European pope, Francis I, was announced.  The book Francis: Man of Prayer takes a look at the background of the new pope and how he was able to become the leader of the Catholic Church.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1934 to parents who were both children of Italian immigrants (so his "non-European" roots don't stretch too far!).  At age 16, he heard a "call from God" during a confession and decided to give up his girlfriend and prepare himself to enter the priesthood.  At age 21 he entered the seminary and became a member of the Society of Jesus, the most powerful and prestigious religious order in Latin America.  In addition to wielding a great deal of influence, this order is also focused on education, with nearly all its members having a college degree.  Pope Francis himself studied widely in Europe, earning a doctorate from a German university.  He also taught literature and philosophy.

There is not a lot of information about the questions concerning Bergoglio's activities during the dictatorships in Argentina during the 1980s.  Some instances are mentioned, including his intervention (or lack thereof) in cases of kidnappings, and his ties to members of the military junta.  The author seems to take a very forgiving view of his actions during this time, stating, "What would we have done if it meant risking our lives?"  Of course, an anonymous member of the public could not wield as much power or influence as the leader of the church, but perhaps this issue was more fully discussed elsewhere.
The book goes on to chronicle Bergoglio's rise within the church, including his being appointed as archbishop of Avellanda in 1998.  With this new position came all sorts of "perks" including  luxurious living quarters in the "archbishop's palace", but all of these benefits were rejected.  The new archbishop continued to use public transportation, refused to have new clothing created especially for him, and maintained his work among the poor.

Further chapters discuss the history of the Jesuits and how the Conclave of 2013 went about its work in selecting Bergoglio as the new pope.  The book ends with a discussion of the Five Challenges that the new pope faces, including globalization and the scandals facing the church.

I thought the book was an interesting look at the life of the new pope, however, I also found it to be maddeningly vague in many respects.  For instance, the early chapters mention Jorge's father insisting that he start work while he was in high school, and it discusses his work as a cleaner at his father's accountancy firm. Then there is much talk of his work "in the lab," as well as how much he learned while working "in the lab" and all of his contacts from "the lab", but what sort of lab this was, and what exactly his job there entailed, are never clarified.  There is also some discussion about medical problems he suffered as a young man that prevented him from achieving his dream of becoming a missionary in Japan, but what sort of medical problem this was is also not mentioned. 

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Francis: Man of Prayer as part of the BookSneeze program in exchange for this review


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I'm a librarian who is interested in all things British. I try to visit London as often as possible, and am always planning my next trip. I lived in Sweden for a few years with my Swedish husband, so the occasional Swedish reference may occur . . .

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