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Francis’ time of transformation revealed

Paul Vallely; Bloomsbury Publishing, London; 2013.

Reviewed by Barbara Flynn

PAUL Vallely, an internationally respected journalist and commentator on religious, political, cultural and ethical issues researched assiduously to obtain a profile of Fr Jorge Bergoglio’s pastoral work during a politically volatile period in Argentina’s history, and during his exile to Germany in 1986 and, more recently, during his ecclesial visits to Rome.

Information gathered from primary sources, Church archives, and government records makes compelling reading as Vallely identifies stages in the life and pastoral work of Bergoglio as a Jesuit priest and bishop and more recently as Pope Francis.

An insight into the socio-ecclesial circumstances existing in the Vatican at the time of Pope Francis’ election reveals a climate of contesting issues and “knotty concerns”.

Bergoglio had been ordained a Jesuit priest in 1965. Vallely reveals his political involvement in the “Dirty War” and his authoritarian attitudes towards those who disagree with his philosophies.

Despite appointments as a novice master, and a young provincial and finally rector of a Jesuit seminary, his superiors in Rome were not happy with his overall conduct.

Vallely states that eventually, due to their dissatisfaction, Bergoglio was exiled to Germany to advance his studies in 1986.

There, faithful to the Ignatian discipline of prayer and spiritual discernment and freed from immediate pastoral concerns he “reviewed his life experiences”.

In a church in Augsburg, Bergoglio experienced a deep spiritual encounter which Vallely calls a transformation of the heart and a re-ordering of attitudes.

Always a devotee of the Virgin Mary, Bergoglio prayed regularly before a 17th century, faded painting of Mary Untier of Knots.

With God’s grace he honestly faced the knots or personal difficulties and mistakes he had lived during the first 20 years of his priesthood.

On Bergoglio’s return to Argentina, the dramatic transformation commented on by Vallely was evident in all aspects of his ministry.

Subsequently in 1992 he was appointed bishop.

Vallely’s comprehensive and objective coverage of Bergoglio’s ministry as “Bishop of the Slums” gives a predictive context for readers to consider features of the pastoral approach which Pope Francis appears to have adopted in the first years of his papacy.

No longer is his approach authoritarian but consultative.

He is reported to minister with compassion, tenderness, humility and inclusion consistently drawing on Gospel principles.

Vallely illustrates Pope Francis’ engagement with the poor and marginalised and the urgency of his instruction asking people to recognise the human dignity of each person and their equality before God.

Noteworthy also is his desire for a Catholic population which co-operates and respects representatives of other denominations.

Vallely has skilfully developed the sequence of the biography.

The final chapters provide a setting for the reader to note that openness to the Holy Spirit during honest prayerful review and reflection on the personal experiences of life can bring transformation.

Pope Francis now shares with the Universal Church personal and pastoral qualities generated from his heart conversion.

Vallely’s account provides a transparency not always available on the life of a public figure.

Pope Francis is quoted as saying “I am a sinner but I trust in the infinite mercy and patience of Our Lord, Jesus Christ – I am a work in progress.”

This is a well-researched book giving an authentic, detailed account.

Available from St Paul’s Book Centre, Brisbane. Phone (07) 3336 9236 for more information. This is also available as an e-book.

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