The election of Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope Francis took papal pundits by surprise, but these days publishers are nothing if not nimble. In next to no time, they have found or developed a slew of quick-hit biographies and new translations of older works about the new pontiff. If the “instant” genre has a bad rap, the good news is that these works are all quality contributions. Which book is “best” will depend on what a reader is looking for.
In Francis’ Own Words
When you are talking about the pope, many people just want to know what he thinks about a particular issue so they can get an idea what position he will take. In that case, older may be better: On Heaven and Earth (Image, Apr. 19) is an English translation of a dialogue between then-Cardinal Bergoglio and his friend, Rabbi Abraham Skorka, rector of the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary in Buenos Aires. The Spanish-language original was published in 2010 by Editorial Sudamericana S.A., a division of Random House Mondadori. In the book, the future pope discusses a range of hot-button topics, from celibacy to the sex abuse crisis. But he also is surprisingly personal, revealing how he was “dazzled” by a young woman while in seminary, and how he once shunned a charity auction because it was awarding a gold Rolex watch as a prize; he viewed that as indulging vanity instead of helping the poor.
Pope Francis: In His Own Words (New World Library, May 13) is, as the title indicates, a compendium of the pope’s own words drawn from a range of sources over the years--homilies, interviews, writings--and arranged in more than 160 brief excerpts organized alphabetically by topic, from “Atheists” and “Bridezillas” to “Tango” and “Wealth Inequality.” It’s useful, though the excerpts lack context.
The Journalists’ View
For a compelling narrative, turn to Pope Francis: From the End of the Earth to Rome (WSJ e-books, Apr. 18) by writers from The Wall Street Journal. It features original reporting and strong writing in telling the story of Francis’ election and Bergoglio’s life, and what they both portend for his pontificate.
Francis: Pope of a New World (Ignatius Press, Apr. 10), also follows in this reportorial vein, but its author, Andrea Tornielli, the renowned Vaticanista for the Italian daily La Stampa, was friends with Bergoglio for years before the conclave. So Tornielli brings his personal experiences with Francis to the story, as well as the strong individual voice that often characterizes Italian journalism.
Several other books provide useful overviews of Bergoglio’s life and include sidebars and graphics about popes and church history.
Matthew E. Bunson’s book is simply titled Pope Francis (Our Sunday Visitor, Apr. 2), and it is a well-rounded, well-written book by an experienced church historian and author. Francis: Pope from the End of the Earth (Saint Benedict Press, Apr. 23) by Thomas J. Craughwell, who has written books on history and Catholicism, offers biography and includes 60 photos. Francis: Man of Prayer (Thomas Nelson/W Publishing, May 14) by Mario Escobar is a well-researched, chronological retelling of Bergoglio’s life and the events of recent years that led to his election as pope; the author has written about religious history. A Spanish-language edition of Escobar’s book will be available from Grupo Nelson.
Finally, if you like photos, flip through the picture book Pope Francis: The Vicar of Christ, From Saint Peter to Today by the editors of LIFE (Time Home Entertainment, Mar. 29). The catch: only the concluding chapter is on Francis himself, with most of the book exploring the history of the papacy and the Vatican, as well as Benedict XVI and the issue of papal resignations. Still, that context is a plus, providing a visually appealing history lesson and a wide-angle look at Francis.
David Gibson is a national reporter for Religion News Service who covered the election of Pope Francis in Rome and is the author of three books; the most recent is Pope Benedict XVI: Weighing a Papacy (Paulist Press e-book, Feb.).