Magazine article The Christian Century

Pope Francis among the Wolves: The Inside Story of a Revolution

Magazine article The Christian Century

Pope Francis among the Wolves: The Inside Story of a Revolution

Article excerpt

Pope Francis among the Wolves: The Inside Story of a Revolution

By Marco Politi; translated by William McCuaig

Columbia University Press, 288 pp., $27.95

Catholic progressives love to read Marco Politi. Four years ago he published a book about Pope Benedict XVI in Italian. The narrative became a familiar one: Benedict was a theologian first and a leader second. Politi wrote speculatively about the 2005 conclave that elected Cardinal Ratzinger, and in this book he speculates about the conclave that elected Ratzinger's replacement. His account is more revealing than anything yet published in book form about what happened among the cardinals in the Sistine Chapel on those days in March 2013.

Politi is a journalist of the highest standing in Rome. His sources are usually interviews, which are impossible to check. This book is the result of access. I counted a half dozen cardinals from the 2013 conclave that Politi quotes as unnamed sources. One says, "At the moment of the decisive vote, we felt joy. The rapidity gave us a sense of relief." Others he quotes by name: "In the conclave I felt like a pen in the hand of God" (Cardinal Antonio Maria Veglio).

Politi offers Benedict XVI a backhanded compliment: the emeritus pope's resignation made possible a golden Catholic moment. In a Politi's estimation, Benedict XVI is a "tragic figure" who saw problems, wasn't capable of facing them, and was willing to take the fall, hoping that the one who replaced him could do what he could not.

There have been popes who clearly didn't want the job. John Paul I said in 1978 to those who elected him, "May God forgive you." He died mysteriously 33 days later. There was also the medieval hermit who tried to flee when the cardinals climbed his mountain to tell him that they'd elected him (he became Celestine V and would quit a few months later). And there was Benedict XVI, who served willingly, then quit, leaving the vacuum filled by today's Pope Francis.

Politi makes a mistake when he argues for Benedict's tragic, antiheroic status. His argument rests in part on the mistaken notion that Benedict was the first and only pope to willingly step down. Still, I would love to believe that Politi's understanding of the matter reflects the resigning pope's intentions:

   Benedict XVI wanted to sweep the
   board clear of all the entrenched positions
   of power in the curia. By resigning,
   he triggered the automatic resignation,
   as stipulated by canon law, of
   the other principle office holders of
   the church's central government. De
   facto, his decision to abdicate
   amounted to a sort of coup d'etat, a
   virtual "reboot" of the Vatican.

When he writes about Jorge Mario Bergoglio before he became Pope Francis, Politi tells a now-familiar story. In Buenos Aires, the archbishop's priests called him Jorge. He didn't have a car and driver. He refused to live in the upscale, protected residence reserved for his position. On the bus or the subway it was "not unknown for a woman seated beside him, upon seeing his black habit, to ask him: 'Padrecito, will you hear my confession?' and to receive the answer: 'Yes, of course.' Once on a bus he finally had to interrupt a man whose catalog of sins was interminable with the polite remark, 'Bueno, I get off two stops from here. …

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