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The papacy in all its color and controversy

Pope Francis attended the celebration of the Way of the Cross on Good Friday in March.GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images

‘Never grow weary of being merciful.” That’s what THE FUTURE Pope Francis said, over the years, to the priests of Buenos Aires. He’s taken his own advice. When he was Argentine bishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio — “Padre Jorge” to all — the future pope was renowned for celebrating masses for the cartoneros, the local poor who SUBSIST BY PICKING recyclables from the trash of the rich. He held masses in the Plaza Constitución for the city’s prostitutes. He visited AIDS patients. On his watch, many more priests were sent to live and preach in the villas miserias (shanty towns). Indeed, Padre Jorge chose the name Francis because the saint of Assisi was a man of peace and poverty.

He’s no liberation theologian, though. And he’s just endorsed the censure (begun by Pope Benedict XVI) of the leftist group of US nuns known as the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Then again, he sure can sound like a lefty: “We are tired of systems that produce poor people so that then the Church can support them.”

The ink is still wet on several fresh papal bios. I chose to read “Francis: Pope of a New World” (Ignatius, 2013) because Vatican journalist Andrea Tornielli knew Padre Jorge before his selection by the cardinals. The book offers touching stories of the pope’s Italian immigrant childhood; I love the wise note his grandmother wrote to him for his ordination, still tucked in his breviary. “A look at Mary at the foot of the Cross,” she wrote, “can make a drop of balm fall on the deepest and most painful wounds.” And Tornielli doesn’t skirt potential controversy about Bergoglio’s ties to ARGENTINA’S DICTATORSHIP. There’s also an honest overview of Benedict’s tangled reign — plus the revelation that other 20th-century popes seriously considered resigning, too.

A cynic might think Francis I was selected because his novelty — he’s the first Latin American pope, the first Jesuit, a man of the people unlike the academic Benedict — will distract from the crisis of the church’s sex-abuse scandal. However the new pope tries to heal the deeply injured church know that to read about the papacy is also to read about controversies surrounding the papacy.


Take “The Pope’s War: Why Ratzinger’s Secret Crusade Has Imperiled the Church and How It Can Be Saved” (Sterling Ethos, 2012) by Matthew Fox, an ex-Dominican brother whom Benedict (in his pre-papal role with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) forbade to teach in 1988. The book is by turns harrowing and completely overwrought; Fox, á la Martin Luther, pinned his own 95 theses on the door at Wittenberg. And he flat out accuses the pope emeritus of overseeing the implosion of the Catholic Church. To that end, he details what he views as Benedict’s role in the church’s coverup of the problem of pedophile priests and prints a “wailing wall” list of priests whom this hard-line pope “silenced, expelled, or banished.”

Upsetting stuff, to be sure. But seeing as we’re now on our 266th pope, it’s imperative to take the long (really long) view. Eamon Duffy is the man for that. “Ten Popes Who Shook the World” (Yale University, 2011) is a slim volume based on BBC radio talks by this Cambridge University professor of the history of Christianity. Here, you can marvel at the paradox that the church was founded in the homeland of Jesus’ executioners. You can appreciate Gregory the Great, a sixth-century Roman aristocrat who gave his estate to the church and missionized Britain. And you can thank Leo the Great (440-461) for having the Bible translated into vernacular Latin and persuading Attila the Hun not to attack Rome.


You can also shudder at the ramifications of Gregory VII (1073-1085) forcing German king Henry IV, on the verge of becoming Holy Roman Emperor, to kneel before him, barefoot in the snow, to concede that the spiritual kingdom ruled over the secular. This set off a chain of events that resulted in a weakened German state for a millennium.

Then there’s Duffy’s denser, but still wonderfully readable “Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes” (Yale University, third edition, 2006). It presents the admirably brave, distressingly chaotic, and also cruel days of the early papacy, in which much strenuous time was spent on — shades of our era — deciding which errant clerics deserved clemency. Reality check: You think Benedict’s resignation is disruptive? Consider the third century, in which there were 25 popes in 47 years, and only one died peacefully.

“Catholics have fallen out of the healthy old habit of reminding each other how sinful Popes can be.” So writes the thunderous Catholic intellectual Garry Wills, in another Vatican tirade (and bestseller) called “Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit” (Image, 2000). He concentrates on the last few centuries and lacerates the idea of infallibility. But he also hands out hope, by way of his favorite speakers of truth: St. Augustine, Cardinal Newman, and John XXIII. And he knows that “[t]here were no good old days of the faith apart from what faces us today.”


As these books show, papal history swings like a thurible between the sacred and profane. In each era, charismatic movements are embraced or rejected (Franciscans then, Opus Dei now). Clerical marriage is tacitly condoned (let’s not forget some popes were the sons of other popes) or condemned (in recent centuries) or tantalizingly left open for consideration (see Francis I). Along the way, other leaders try to marginalize popes, openly or craftily. As Cardinal Richelieu said, “We must kiss his feet, and bind his hands.”

What of the papacy now? I give you “The Vatican Diaries: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Power, Personalities and Politics at the Heart of the Catholic Church” (Viking, 2013). Author John Thavis, the newly retired Rome bureau chief of the Catholic News Service, cheerfully says that Vatican City is “more Keystone Cops than Machiavelli.” He adds that it is “in theory, a culture of confidentiality — yet it leaks like a 2,000-year-old boat.”

Some goodies, then: One American president is so befuddled by all the Vatican City ceremonial uniforms that he salutes an elevator man. Pope Benedict somberly called Bob Dylan “a false prophet.” A ceremonial usher named Massimo Sansolini is such a fashion and protocol arbiter, he can spot clerical imposters (who knew there were so many?) by the just-barely-wrong hue and cut of their faked garb. I’ll bet Sansolini is not happy with Pope Francis; he’s declined the traditional ermine stole and the gold, jewel-encrusted cross (he prefers his humble metal version). In Tornielli’s biography, one Buenos Aires priest describes the new pope thus: “A religious man from the heart, with no tinsel.”


All religions bristle with divisions, and I quite enjoyed the catfights in “The Vatican Diaries.” Take the one between the “fabbrica” (sort of high-end artisanal maintenance men) and the Swiss Guards over who, exactly, presides over the basilica. One monsignor explains the stakes: It’s “not just a question of protecting one’s turf but of defending hundreds of years of tradition.”

This sheer longevity, in part, is what fascinates most. The papacy is our living link to the Roman Empire, to the earliest days of Christianity, when Peter and Paul were executed by Nero, having left the Jerusalem of Jesus only a decade before. How will Francis I advance the ancient story? He will inspire some, surely, and DISPIRIT others. But let’s turn to the primary source, from the pope’s first press conference: “Oh, how I wish for a church that is poor and for the poor!” Hard not to say amen to that.

Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at