For those engaged in pope-watching (and who's not, these days?), Paul Vallely's new book Pope Francis: Untying the Knots may be of interest. I haven't read the book, but find Ken Briggs's recent review of it in National Catholic Reporter thought-provoking. According to Briggs, Vallely tells Bergoglio's story as one of conversion: in his life as a priest, Jorge Bergoglio has moved along a trajectory from rigidity to openness. Something along the way triggered this remarkable shift in his spirituality, and the shift is now on evidence in his papal style.
Vallely's account bolsters the debated narrative of a cautious company man who became a fierce advocate of mercy and simplicity on the strength of a powerful, enigmatic conversion.
The crux of the matter is the subject of conversion -- its depth and meaning for Bergoglio. He readily confesses that he is a changed man who acted out of youthful brashness and a wrong-headed concept of his vocation. He admitted to being something of a tyrant and a tunnel-vision Jesuit novice master and provincial in Argentina. He had indeed undergone a kind of Damascus Road turnaround, causing him to recast his role as a consummate establishment insider to a missioner of apostleship and outreach, especially to the poor and those in need beyond the church walls. What pope in modern memory has arrived bemoaning his actual record as a cleric who needed a spiritual jolt to discover that his original sense of "vocation" hadn't been his real vocation at all? Here was a conclave candidate with a self-admittedly tarnished résumé.
Vallely only partially explains the implications of Bergoglio's dramatic turn. Having trashed liberation theology, Bergoglio now says he had been wrong. He admits to errors in responding to the brutality of the "Dirty War" repression. His actions as a leader had reflected a mistaken, insular, self-serving attitude. Now he has become the foe of clerical privilege, legality and the temptation for the church to practice idolatry toward itself. Bergoglio's renewed priesthood was closer to his heart than his head. He became a messenger of mercy to those on the margins, making the slums his second home.
This review certainly makes me want to read the book. There's an intrinsic interest in stories of alchemical transmutation, in which human beings become distinctly different kinds of human beings after having been touched by . . . something, something people of faith employing Christian language usually call grace. When the person living that story is a leader of a world religion whose reach is very long, it's all the more intriguing (and necessary) to try to understand what has triggered powerful conversion in her life.
More food for papal-watching: at its website, Voice of the Faithful recently put online Paul Lakeland's VOTF lecture about Pope Francis this past October. Lakeland does a thorough job of listing what we know about Francis--17 points--and then asks five questions about Francis, the most intriguing of which is, Is the pope a feminist?