Pope Francis: Untying the Knots by Paul Vallely Cover courtesy of Bloomsbury Press

The man who became Pope

By  Meredith Gillis, Youth Speak News
  • April 10, 2015

Pope Francis: Untying the Knots by Paul Vallely (Bloomsbury Press, hardcover, 240 pages, $18.81).


I love Pope Francis, but I was not thrilled when I received his biography for Christmas from a friend. But now that I’ve finished reading it, I can say Pope Francis: Untying the Knots is a page turner of a biography.

Well-researched and filled with anecdotes and stories about our pontiff, it takes us from the conclave which elected Pope Benedict XVI and the public criticisms against then Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio when he was provincial superior of the Jesuits.

Even just reading about the conclaves was more interesting than I expected. It made me laugh to read about cardinals Googling one another. I (perhaps naively) thought the Catholic Church had moved past distributing secret documents and that such stories were caricatures of the Church circa Alexander VI and the Borgia years popularly depicted on TV shows.

In chapter three, Jesuit Secrets, we’re introduced to the political and social climate of Argentina while Fr. Bergoglio was the Jesuit provincial superior there. Fr. Michael Campbell-Johnston monitored the work of Jesuit social institutions around the world at the time. He says “there was widespread evidence of torture and assassination. Yet in Argentina the institute was silent on all that. (Fr. Bergoglio) defended his position, trapped between the Catholic military and the very secularist anti-Church Left.”

Throughout chapter three, we are learning about a time that was deeply divisive amongst the Jesuits. It’s a time that Pope Francis continues to be criticized about today. As a proud member of the Pope Francis fan club, this chapter was hard for me to read. It reveals a darker side of the Church and of our Pope’s history.

By chapter five, The Bishop of the Slums, the narrative has moved forward again to his years as an archbishop in the slums of Argentina, and the difference in his attitude and actions towards the liberation theology he was so against in his days as provincial superior.

Padre Pepe is a priest who was threatened with death by drug dealers in the slum he worked in. Padre Pepe says Bergoglio helped write documents from the Argentine priests, the gist of which is that “the state and the local city authorities should not just impose changes on what the people here have decided. The people here need not to be helped but to help themselves. Our theology is not theoretical. Its main idea is to respect people’s choices. Liberation has to start, not with an ideology, not with charity, but with people.”

The most moving chapter for me was chapter six — What Changed Bergoglio? By this point the reader feels familiar with the world Pope Francis inhabited growing up. We’ve gotten to know his grandmother who taught him to pray and seen the difficult decisions he was faced with over the years, decisions which his opponents still criticize today.

Over the course of chapter six, knowing the context and the decisions from earlier chapters in his life, it’s very easy to see how Bergoglio was changing and how those experiences shaped the man who became Pope.

What really pulled me into this book was the use of first person accounts of Pope Francis during his life before the papacy. The book doesn’t shy away from the ugly parts of his life, and doesn’t seem to be pushing too hard for either the ultra-conservative or the ultra-liberal narratives which have taken hold about the pontiff over the last two years. The author gives a balanced and fair account, and leaves the reader is left to make up their own mind about Pope Francis and whether or not the knots referenced in the title have been untied.

(Gillis, 25, has an undergraduate degree in journalism from St. Thomas University in Fredericton, N.B.)

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