Four years after being elected to head the Catholic Church, Pope Francis continues to fascinate; a whopping 87 percent of American Catholics expressed favorable opinions of the pope in an early 2017 Pew Research Center poll. Since U.S. Catholics number 67 million, that’s a lot of fans and potential readers. Catholic publishers are certainly trying to make the most of the pope’s popularity, with dozens of books by and about him already published, and many more planned for the spring.
The market is full and competitive, so publishers must vie for their distinctive share of it. Some are choosing particular themes of Francis’ papacy to develop; others are aiming at specific audiences. Enough material exists to prompt serious theological examination as well as light inspiration.
Bernadette Price, associate publisher at Orbis Press, the publishing arm of the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, said that Francis, with his informality, has broken the mold of papal expectations. “As the first pope from a non-European background, much of what he has said and done in his first four years surprised people and the press,” she said. Orbis has collected sermons delivered at the daily Mass he offers in a series called Morning Homilies. Three volumes in the series have so far sold a total of 13,000 copies since 2015, according to the publisher, and a fourth is due April 20. “This may be the time to dig deeper into the sources and implications of his theology,” Price said.
“Our readers want to go to the next level of really understanding Pope Francis,” said Kelly Hudson, director of marketing at Franciscan Media. Three books by or about the pope are among the house’s bestsellers, and its top seller this spring is The Hope of Lent: Daily Reflections from Pope Francis by Diane M. Houdek (Jan.), a collection of homilies and prayers for devotional reading during the Christian penitential season. “The combination of the Lenten season and Pope Francis is powerful,” Hudson said. “Pope Francis books really sell themselves.” The press added a push with advertising in the Catholic family magazine St. Anthony Messenger, also owned by the company that owns the press. On April 21, the publisher will highlight the pope’s devotion to Mary in a book intended to draw readers who are mothers, Mother Mary: Inspiring Words from Pope Francis by PW contributor Alicia Von Stamwitz.
With themes of mercy and ministry to the marginalized already established in Francis’ papacy, Loyola Press sees room for application of the pope’s teaching in Embracing the Way of Jesus: Reflections from Pope Francis on Living Our Faith (Jan.). “Readers can get straight to the heart of his message and see what they can do differently in their own lives today,” said Andrew Yankech, business development manager.
Because the pope speaks so often, from daily homilies and speeches to a variety of official church pronouncements and teachings, he has generated plenty of material. The apostolic exhortation, The Joy of Love (2016), has been among Paulist Press’s bestsellers, selling more than 10,000 copies, according to the publisher. Paulist is also pursuing the strategy of targeting small, distinct markets with two August publications by the pope: Tell the Prisoners I Pray for Them is aimed at prison chaplains and prisoners, while The Heart of the Good Shepherd and the Heart of a Priest is aimed at priests and seminarians.
The pope’s popularity extends beyond Catholics. Hampton Roads, which publishes mind-body-spirit titles, has sold 20,000 copies of Pope Francis’ Little Book of Wisdom: The Essential Teachings compiled by Andrea Kirk Assaf (2015) according to the publisher. The second installment, Pope Francis’ Little Book of Compassion: The Essential Teachings, released in March. (The “little books” are put together for Hampton Roads by HarperCollins U.K.)
Secular publishers are also adding to the list of books on Pope Francis this year. Independent publisher Seven Stories Press is releasing Francis: The People's Pope by cartoonist Ted Rall in July, calling it the only graphic biography of Pope Francis from a mainstream press.
While Francis is generally popular with the people in the pews, he has managed to raise eyebrows and hackles in the more traditional corners of the Catholic Church. The pope’s ministry to contemporary families, including contentious issues about divorce and family forms, has gotten some pushback from a few cardinals questioning points in The Joy of Love.
“There has been much discussion and even rancor about what Francis is or isn’t doing to church teaching there,” said Barry Hudock, publisher for the parish market at Liturgical Press. Given the interest in the papal exhortation, the press released Reading, Praying, Living Pope Francis’s The Joy of Love: A Faith Formation Guide by Julie Hanlon Rubio (Feb.), an ethicist at St. Louis University. Liturgical is also examining the personality, convictions, and gifts of the pope in Will Pope Francis Pull It Off? The Challenge of Church Reform by priest and sociologist Rocco D’Ambrosio, slated to publish on April 15.
The conservative opposition to Pope Francis makes its case in The Political Pope: How Pope Francis Is Delighting the Liberal Left and Abandoning Conservative Catholics by George Neumayr. The book will be published by Hachette’s secular imprint Center Street in May with a print run of 25,000.
Given the pope’s popularity and the volume of material he generates, works about the Holy Father are not expected to cease any time soon.
“I think he will continue to inspire the world,” said Loyola’s Yankech.