Pope Francis: Untying the Knots (book review)

Peter Rodgers

Pope Francis: Untying the KnotsPaul Vallely, Pope Francis: Untying the Knots. 2013, ISBN 978-1472903709.

Although an apology to the Editor was appropriate, as I had promised this review for the last Bulletin, I am rewarded for my sins by getting to re-read this book. It is a treat and I highly recommend it to you. Paul Vallely has an easy reading style and the “plot” is full of intrigue, violence, vice and heroic virtue.

Untying the Knots is the title of an 18th century devotional painting on the wall of a Baroque Bavarian Catholic church. It shows Mary unravelling entanglements in a ribbon assisted by two angels; under her foot is the head of a serpent. Bergolio discovered the image at a critical juncture in his career. He had been sent to Germany, ostensibly to study, but primarily to get him out of Argentina as he had become such a divisive figure in the Society of Jesus and the wider Church.

The knots which the author sets out to untie are those of Bergolio himself and the multiple contradictory reports of his character and behaviour particularly during the 1970s and 80s during the so called Dirty War in Argentina.
However Vallely opens with the 2005 conclave, where to my surprise Bergolio had already been a serious contender for the Papacy, but his candidature was sabotaged by the circulation of a “Stop Bergolio” dossier which charged him with complicity in the kidnapping of two Jesuit priests by military death squads in Argentina in 1976. This opening chapter is laced with high church politicking, conclave intrigues and an assessment of the difficulties of the subsequent Benedict XVI papacy leading to abdication and the 2013 conclave.
A brief trip through Bergolio’s early life and formation follows bringing us to his becoming Provincial of the Society of Jesus at the young age of 36, at a tumultuous time for Argentina and the universal Church, as the changes of Vatican II were still being absorbed.
Bergolio at this time is doctrinally conservative, charismatic but authoritarian.

Under a military junta, supported by the CIA and many right wing Catholics, there was wide spread torture and assassinations. Bergolio was in authority over two older Jesuits who rejected his instruction to stop their work in the slums, which the junta considered subversive and drew the attention of the death squads.  In response to their disobedience he withdrew their right to say Mass. Shortly afterwards they disappeared. Was Bergolio complicit? This key question is covered in the context of the time, many varying accounts of risks he took to hide and defend people and is fascinating.

This book is the description of a man’s journey and spiritual growth. His appointment as Auxiliary Bishop was highly controversial in the Society (apparently Jesuits don’t). His hands on approach from this time on brought him close to the people, particularly the poorest (“The poor do not need charity, but justice”).  He chose to live simply, was available to any priest at the end of a phone, tackled corrupt Church finances, and made both friends and enemies in Argentinian politics. There is lots more but it is well told and a great read.
A year on from publication it is also a different reading experience. More comforting and less anxiety provoking. My first reading was still at the stage where I was finding it almost impossible to accept that we had a Pope who makes me proud to be Catholic. I had not realized how little Hope I had left and how vulnerable this new discovery of Hope made me feel. This made every turn of the page nerve-wracking. But slowly the growth of the man in to Francis becomes increasingly convincing. The patterns of behaviour that so impressed in a new Pope, were laid down over decades, not made up to deceive as some former colleagues had suggested.

Pray God that he lives long enough to make the changes so desperately needed.

This review was originally published in the Quest Bulletin, no. 69 (Spring 2014)