Francis: Man of Prayer
By Mario Escobar. Translated by Gretchen Abernathy
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Review Author: Raymond T. Gawronski, S.J.
I was warned that the books that appear right after the Pope’s installation would be embarrassingly superficial. Though I had hoped for more from a book published by Thomas Nelson, Mario Escobar’s Francis: Man of Prayer is, well, embarrassingly superficial. Its Spanish title, Francisco: el primer papa latinoamericano, held the promise of deep cultural understanding, but apart from a barely concealed cultural chauvinism that insists that the Spanish are somehow more concerned with the poor, there really is nothing to be learned from this book. Pope Francis, it is claimed, is finally going to be a Pope for the modern world — the only good model so far being Pope John Paul I! Pope Benedict XVI is singled out for dismissal as simply not a man of the modern world (never mind his life in modern Germany, in many ways the homeland of the modern experience). One of Benedict’s many purported flaws is that he sent out only 39 “tweets.” Perhaps he is tweeting more in retirement. Pope Francis seems likely to be a more active tweeter. But we learn nothing about his prayer life, which is odd when one considers the subtitle of Escobar’s book.
Francis: Man of Prayer is trite (e.g., Pope Francis “believes prayer is one of the pillars of the priesthood”), and at times misleading (e.g., the Pope did not complete a doctorate, contrary to the book’s claim). The translation is often awkward, sometimes seems to suffer from bouts of laziness (e.g., Regensburg is rendered Ratisbona), and often betrays a lack of understanding of Catholic language (e.g., “officiating Mass”). It also contains some unproven, damaging material (e.g., the statistics for pedophiles are “much worse” in the Catholic Church than elsewhere, a claim for which no reference is given).
Perhaps for an “Anglo” reader, the “other world” of Hispanic Catholicism is reflected in Escobar’s book. On the one hand, we witness a marrow-deep respect for the tradition of Catholicism and the need for internal, doctrinal coherence, if only as societal glue; on the other hand, we sense a desperate longing to be rid of the constraints of tradition in order to become respectable and “modern.” One thinks of the Spanish Civil War, the endless juntas of the Latin American world, rocking between Left and Right, Catholic ultra-conservatism and fierce anti-clericalism. It is simply a different universe from ours, and we would all benefit from appreciating this. Nevertheless, Francis: Man of Prayer is a silly, ill-written, misleading book. Caveat emptor.
Stefan von Kempis and Philip F. Lawler’s A Call to Serve: Pope Francis and the Catholic Future, a coffee-table type book, delivers considerably more than its glossy presentation would promise. In fact, its many excellent photos are singularly helpful — the ones from Buenos Aires, for example, give a good sense of Francis’s home environment. The prose is intelligent and clear, and quite engaging. Written largely from a “Vatican insider’s” point of view, it grounds us well in the papacy of Benedict XVI, who is viewed intelligently and sympathetically — hinting that his resignation was likely prompted by his fear of becoming a “marionette” to competing Vatican factions he could not control. Moreover, Francis’s encounter with Christ and personal vocational call during his now famous confession on the Feast of St. Matthew is well presented, as is his governance in the Society of Jesus and Archdiocese of Buenos Aires.
Also included in A Call to Serve is an utterly charming photo of Fr. Franz Jalics, one of the two priests, religious subjects of then-Provincial Bergoglio, who were hounded by the Argentine junta. The humanity, fairness, and great care of this book is seen in the treatment of this difficult situation: The priests were living with the poor and engaged in work that led to their arrest and imprisonment by the junta. There was criticism of Fr. Bergoglio for being implicated in their imprisonment, but this turns out not to have been the case at all: Fr. Jalics has issued a statement clearing the air of the false allegations. In fact, Bergoglio was deeply engaged in caring for them and other prisoners, interceding on their behalf with high civil authorities.
During a financial meltdown in Argentina, Cardinal Bergoglio issued a statement through the country’s Episcopal Conference urging people to read the Beatitudes and the Catechism, for “the Church is not a lobby or a pressure group.” Though unflinching in his presentation of Catholic moral teaching — and willing to confront government officials on these matters — Bergoglio steadfastly refused to make politics the center of the Church’s concern. That center must be, above all, the poor. He is shown to be a great pastor, a shy man who yet greatly loves and respects people, for there is no bridge to people without God, but also no bridge to God without people. Francis is to be poor, a man of peace — and also the man called to “rebuild the Church.” The authors see that this call clearly pointed to the Church in Latin America.
The best of the three books under review here is Thomas J. Craughwell’s Pope Francis: The Pope from the End of the Earth. His presentation of the Holy Father’s life and mission is clear, deep, edifying. The photos are superb; the book would be an ideal gift. It provides a wonderful overview of the achievements of Bl. John Paul II, and a very helpful overview of the difficult mission of Pope Benedict, highlighting his courageous accomplishments, not least his dealings with the disgraced Fr. Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legion of Christ, and the sex scandals. In addition, there are a number of informative inserts and an intelligent assessment of the history of liberation theology in Argentina in the book. Bergoglio’s comportment during the “Silent War” is presented well and fairly, and special attention is given to the situation of Frs. Jalics and Orlando Yorio. A citation from Fr. Thomas Reese, on how we who have not lived through such times should best respond, is most welcome: “Those who have not lived under a dictatorship should not be quick to judge those who have…. We should revere martyrs, but not demand every Christian be one.”
Written before the recent papal interviews that have caused concern in some circles of faithful Catholics who have been much involved in our culture wars, Craughwell’s book offers a splendid overview of Catholic social teaching, locating it squarely within the heart of the Church’s Gospel proclamation and call to holiness — it is, perhaps, the best I have ever read. His presentation on St. Peter Claver is especially moving. St. Peter Claver, a young Spanish Jesuit who poured out his life caring for African slaves as they were dumped on the shore of South America, referred to himself as “the slave of the slaves.” He models Pope Francis’s ideal of someone who gives priority to caring for the most despised and needy of humanity.
Of the three books, the first is a disappointing contribution from the Spanish-speaking world, which is a world in many ways very different from our own; indeed, one with a long history of suspicion of the English-speaking world — and often a corresponding contempt. But the reader will have to look elsewhere for a responsible presentation of the cultural background of Pope Francis. The other two books under consideration capture well the ecclesial context in which Pope Francis began his papacy, the first from an insider’s perspective — intelligent and respectful — the second successfully beginning to explore the Pope’s special concern for the poor.
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