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KELLNER: Getting a read on the new pope

- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 30, 2013

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

As with the 1978 election of Pope John Paul II, the March selection of an Argentine Jesuit, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, as Pope Francis stunned many within and outside the Roman Catholic Church: The new pontiff wasn't widely known outside of South America, and his views on many issues were a bit mysterious.

Some of the mystery quickly evaporated after the vote: The new Bishop of Rome (one of the pope's formal titles) began his remarks to a packed St. Peter's Square with a modest request: "Pray for me." The next morning, Francis telephoned the owner of the newsstand near his now-former Buenos Aires apartment to cancel his daily newspaper subscription. Pope Francis, as did his predecessor, Benedict XVI, now sends short messages to the world via Twitter.

Those wanting to dig a little deeper and get to "know" the new pope can now consult several books in which his life story and philosophy are sketched out. Wanting to get a "read" on him for my own edification, I've gone through some of these.

"Francis, Pope of a New World," by noted Italian journalist Andrea Tornielli (Ignatius Press, $19.95), seems to be the first out of the gate, having been released less than a month after the conclave's conclusion. His peers view Mr. Tornielli, a correspondent for Milan's La Stampa newspaper, as a well-connected Vatican reporter, and this book clearly displays his insights.

But it is in discussing Francis' background in Argentina — including allegations that, as provincial superior for the Jesuit order in that country, he was somehow complicit in the 1976 kidnapping of two Jesuit priests by the Argentine navy — that Mr. Tornielli truly shines. The kidnapping flap is discussed, and the conclusion is that then-Monsignor Bergoglio was not involved, but rather worked to free the priests.

More important, and wonderfully explained by Mr. Tornielli, is how the man who was Cardinal Bergoglio before his election expanded the Catholic presence among those who were not well off. After holding services in the poorest areas of Buenos Aires, he directed priests to rent storefronts and dispense Communion there, if necessary, in order to reach those not connected with the church. An unwed mother was as welcome to the cardinal as anyone, and he would offer baptism to her children without condemnation of her circumstances.

Of perhaps greater accessibility to an American readership is "Pray for Me: The Life and Spiritual Vision of Pope Francis, First Pope from the Americas," (Image, $19.99) by Robert Moynihan, an American Catholic scholar who is the founder and editor of "Inside the Vatican" magazine. Mr. Moynihan writes with a cadence familiar to American readers (Mr. Tornielli's book has been quickly and well translated from the original Italian), and as an American, Mr. Moynihan aims his coverage at what readers here are interested in.

During the days leading up to the conclave, and during the electoral event, Mr. Moynihan's daily email dispatches contained all sorts of fascinating details about the proceedings, and many of these are reprised here. He also rehearses the Bergoglio biography, but also fleshes out Francis' early days as pope.

Mr. Moynihan put his finger on the initial enigma of Francis: "And so those first days of the new pope became in some ways like a detective story, where each action, each word of Francis, gave us a clue to who he is, and why. The mystery was: What is the source of this man's humility and strength? And the answer was: his faith."

Those wanting to hear directly from Francis can get a generous sampling of his thoughts in "On Heaven and Earth: Pope Francis on Faith, Family, and the Church in the Twenty-First Century," which records conversations then-Cardinal Bergoglio had with Argentinian Rabbi Abraham Skorka (Image, $22). The topics range widely, from "fundamentalism" and euthanasia to globalization. There's much discussion of the relationship between Judaism and Catholicism, as well as of the meaning of the Holocaust.

In these exchanges, Francis and his interlocutor both come across as they apparently are: highly educated, literate and aware people discussing issues that stir great passion, but always with respect. This respectful exchange of ideas might be one of the most hopeful signs we can have from Francis, who now has the world as his constituency.

Mark A. Kellner can be reached via email at mkellner@washingtontimes.com.

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