‘The Francis Miracle’ by John L. Allen Jr.

Originally at: http://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/books/2015/04/23/book-review-the-francis-miracle-inside-transformation-pope-and-church-john-allen/ITzXYlLhoq2KarQlNWf4oM/story.html

by Paul Vallely

How do you make sense of this? The pope famously asked “who am I to judge?” on gay Christians; then for months he blocked the appointment of the new French ambassador to the Vatican, a practicing Catholic who is gay. Or this? The pope pronounced “zero tolerance” on sex abuse in the church; then he appointed a bishop in Chile whose flock were so angry at his reputation for covering up abuse that local people physically disrupted his service of installation.

Both those incidents have happened too recently to appear in John Allen’s perceptive new volume on Pope Francis. And yet anyone who reads this book will be far better-equipped to understand such bemusing events as they unfold in Rome. Allen, an associate editor of The Boston Globe and its associated Crux website, is the doyen of English-speaking Vatican commentators. For almost two decades he has been immersed in the minutiae of church politics. The result, in “The Francis Miracle,’’ is a cascade of acute insights set against a background that establishes a clear context in which to understand what is happening as Tornado Francis tears through the musty corridors of the Vatican.

The miracle is the plain fact that a figure so radical as Francis could be elected by a collection of cardinals appointed to implement the conservative vision of popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI who laid down highly selective markers of Catholic identity on issues such as contraception, women priests, same-sex relationships, and abortion. The gospel is about much more than such so-called “below the belt” issues. Allen sketches a much wider range of Franciscan concerns.

He has not produced a biography. There are biographical elements here, but they are placed carefully into a montage depicting the current state of the Catholic Church. Allen’s strengths are his long background knowledge, his wide range of contacts, and a perspicacity that produces measured judgments. Other books have mentioned Francis’s pioneering papal washing of the feet of young women in a Rome detention center in 2013 but only Allen produces a compelling comparison with a previous pontiff. Benedict XVI had arrived in the same venue in 2007 with so many VIPs that half the prisoners were crowded out of the chapel. Francis, in contrast, left his aides and security staff outside, not the prisoners.

This is a book that places Francis in a Roman rather than an Argentine context. It touches on Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s earlier life, making shapes of what are merely stray facts in other books about the future pontiff. Allen is interested in the past only so far as it informs our view of the present. Sometimes his touch is too light — as when he conflates Bergoglio’s period as rector of the Jesuit seminary with the exile from Buenos Aires where he had deepened a political rift within his chosen order. But there is a sophistication to his understanding of how Bergoglio changed from a strict authoritarian young Jesuit provincial into a bishop who was gentler, more forgiving, and more consultative.

Allen sees clearly what some writers have not: that when Argentina was polarized under the military junta, Bergoglio felt forced onto the conservative side of the debate over liberation theology. He loved the religious piety of the poor but saw them as people in need of charity not empowerment. All that was turned upside down as Bergoglio became bishop of the slums and began to see that the poor needed social justice not charity. It is a vision that is being articulated as pope, much to the surprise — and even alarm — of some of the cardinals who elected him.

Senior figures in the church speak with extreme candor to Allen, who is so trusted it has been said that cardinals ring him when they want to know what is going on, rather than the other way round. One of the old guard Italian cardinals leading the resistance to Francis is relaxed enough to tell Allen: “Bergoglio won’t be here forever, but we will.” On the other side, an American cardinal confides to him: “Nothing will turn you into a reformer more quickly than sitting in the waiting room of some Vatican congregation and being read the riot act by a wet-behind-the-ears priest who barely speaks English, and is probably 30 years younger than you are.”

Other commentators ask bald questions like: Is Francis a conservative or a liberal? But Allen is more supple and subtle in his understanding. He explains the difference, in deft demotic language, between doctrine and practice. He spells out how Francis is radically changing the church “without altering a single comma in the catechism.” He shows how mercy, compassion, friendship, and warmth are the tools of Franciscan revolution. And he spots how others in the church are emboldened to change without Pope Francis having to say a word.

The crowning achievement of the book is to do all this without ever losing the perspective of the general reader. Many of Allen’s conclusions are necessarily provisional but then Pope Francis is a work-in-progress. The “Francis Miracle’’ is an excellent primer for those — conservative or liberal, religious or secular — who want to make sense of this pope as he progresses.

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