There are several quickly published Pope Francis books on the market right now attempting to tell the story of how we came to have the first Hispanic, Jesuit, southern hemisphere pope. None could be called biographies, but Thomas J. Craughwell's "Pope Francis: The Pope from the End of the Earth" does a good job of presenting what we know so far. He quotes most of the Vatican reporters, expert commentators, papal-watching blogs and past papal biographers, and nearly 70 photographs, including a rare shot of the pope's parents, Mario and Regina, on their Dec. 17, 1936 wedding day, tell the story as well.
A foreword by Cardinal Sean O'Malley offers a helpful firsthand, chronological account of the election of Pope Francis. O'Malley and the other cardinal-electors knew many things before we did: They heard Father Bergoglio explain his choice of the name Francis; then each greeted and congratulated him; together they all sang the Te Deum; and then the new pope went off to dress and pray privately, all before the ballots were sent up as white smoke.
Then Craughwell himself retells the story that many of us have already read and heard in varying accounts, while emphasizing interesting facts and under-appreciated nuances. For instance, he points to the prescient and immediate grasp of the situation from St. Peter's Square as white smoke rose, of Argentinian journalist Sergio Rubin, who said: "It is the first time a pope has taken this name. That means he wants to give a message: the message of Saint Francis, a man who arrived to the Church in a great moment of opulence, bringing with him humility and love for the poor to revitalize the Church, to give some fresh air." This was before Pope Francis ever emerged at the balcony.
One quibble I have is that some of the first 75 pages in Craughwell's account are not about Father Bergoglio at all. One chapter, devoted to the resignation of Benedict XVI, could have been excluded in favor of more fresh word from Argentina. But using accounts from media around the globe, the author finds occasional backstories that even the most devoted pope-watchers may have missed. There is, for instance, more to the story of jettisoning the red shoes of his predecessor. Father Bergoglio's black ones, it turns out, were purchased by friends just prior to the conclave, since his old ones were embarrassingly shabby.
We learn that Jorge Bergoglio was an exceedingly happy child, interested in soccer, tango, girls and chemistry. Craughwell's research into the published reports is thorough, and his curating of them is inspired. For example, a single long paragraph on a youthful Bergoglio love interest is just enough. At 12, he developed a crush on a neighbor girl, writing her a love letter that included a drawing of the house they might live in, one day, when they marry.
Similarly, we heard often and early of Cardinal Bergoglio's understanding and appreciation of Jews and Judaism, beginning the day after his election as pontiff. Orthodox Christians and Muslims, too. But his respect for evangelical Protestants and evangelical Protestantism has been reported much less, and their challenge to the Catholic Church in Latin America is of the greatest importance to many Catholics. Craughwell does a good job of telling this story.
Another interesting new account of Pope Francis' life comes from the reporters at the Wall Street Journal. Their "Pope Francis: From the End of the Earth to Rome" takes a decidedly more journalistic approach. With four reporters in Argentina, they were able to interview several of the pope's friends, ordained and lay, including even the archdiocese handyman. Pictures they paint in the slums walked by Father Bergoglio are valuable to inform what we see now in Rome: "The new pope forged his ethos at the bottom of the pyramid of life and faith, in the slums of Argentina, where entering a Catholic parish is often as much about getting a warm meal and sanctuary from drug dealers as it is about prayer and reflection."
We also learn more about Father Bergoglio's life as a Jesuit. The Journal describes how he was drawn to the missionary rigor of the order, but when a lung infection at 21 halted his plans to go abroad he turned his full attention to the missional needs in Argentina. Then, as several interviewed subjects reveal, as Jesuit Provincial, Bergoglio steered his priests clear of political involvement, cut back on funding of a liberal Jesuit-run think tank and chided priests who refused to baptize children of unwed mothers. He attempted to counter the perception that priests were a threat to the government by instructing those of the Argentina province to disassociate with unions and political organizations, without wavering in their commitment to the poor.
The Journal offers accounts from several of the pope's detractors, all from Argentina. They relay a message we haven't heard in the media, yet: Pope Francis is adept at politics. They quote one journalist who says, "Everybody is talking peace and love, and that's all right, but he's a real tough son of a bitch. He's a Jesuit. He doesn't move directly on an objective. He will surround it and when it is the right moment, he will pulverize it." The Journal's writers also refer to problems in the Holy See such as "a leaks scandal of cinematic proportions" and an "entrenched culture of secrecy." For his part, Craughwell seems to try avoiding taking sides as he describes contentious issues, whether it be the need for reform of the Vatican Curia or Father Bergoglio's activities during the Dirty War. He usually succeeds but there are times when Craughwell seems to embody the perspective of his subject. For instance, when he writes, "Liberation theology is a theology with a political agenda," it feels like we are hearing Bergoglio's own words.
We are all waiting to see how the new pope, who opposed liberation theology and yet champions the poor and oppressed so vigorously, will speak on political issues when faced with them. In Argentina he most often avoided the political. As Holy Father, such silence would be a radical departure from the recent past, as well as deeply disappointing.
Craughwell pays Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI more respect than the Journal, while pointing to the near crisis caused by his resignation, as well as the broad opportunities for reform that are possible in the Church that Pope Francis has inherited. Toward the end of the book, Craughwell intriguingly refers to the emeritus pope as Pope Francis' "great helper and model." Unpacking that phrase alone would make for an intriguing, quick sequel. But perhaps it cannot be written -- not yet.
Jon M. Sweeney's new book is an annotated collection of the writings of Francis of Assisi: 'Francis of Assisi in His Own Words: The Essential Writings' (Paraclete Press).