I just finished reading Pope Francis: Untying the Knots, by Paul Vallely, which was recommended (and lent) to me by my friend Fr. Dan Griffith.
The title of the book comes from a Baroque painting Fr. Jorge Mario Bergoglio came across many years ago in a church in Germany, titled Mary Untier of Knots. It was a painting he prayed in front of many time.
Vallely’s book, based on many meetings with those who have known Pope Francis over the many years of his life, is well-worth reading. It is a book of transformation, of conversion. It shows the growth of a young man of great pride to one of openness and humility, the transformation from an authoritarian to a seeker of collegiality, a movement from almost reactionary to radical, and the development of a deep commitment to the poor.
One of the things Vallely emphasizes in talking about the change in Pope Francis is the importance of prayer in his life. He writes
For the change in Jorge Mario Bergoglio may not have been triggered by an event so much as a process. Bergoglio’s key decisions are all made during his long sessions of daily prayer. It is difficult to overstate the importance of prayer in his life, says his former close aide Guillermo Marco: “He liked to wake at 4:30a.m. to 5a.m. every morning to pray. He makes decisions while he prays.” Prayer, Bergoglio has said, “should be an experience of giving way, of surrendering, where our entire being enters in to the presence of God.”…In Buenos Aires he often prayed for two hours before the start of his day.
I confess that the early Bergoglio was not a man I found very attractive. Perhaps he was simply put in too high a position too early, but there is no denying he did not handle his job as Provincial of the Jesuits in Argentina. And while not all the facts are clear about (to use a chapter title) “What Really Happened in the Dirty War” in Argentina, it seems clear the way he handled the situation withe the Jesuits Yorio and Jalics contributed to their arrest and torture. (That is not to take away from the fact that it appears he acted with “considerable courage over the six years which followed as the Dirty War.”)
I’m guessing the early Bergoglio is also not a man Pope Francis finds all that attractive. He said in one interview
I don’t want to mislead anyone – the truth is that I’m a sinner who God in His mercy has chosen to love in a privileged manner. From a young age, life pushed me into leadership roles – as soon as I was ordained as a priest, I was designated as the master of novices, and two and a half years later, leader of the province – and I had to learn from my errors along the way, because to tell you the truth, I made hundreds of errors. Errors and sins. It would be wrong for me to say that these days I ask forgiveness for the sins and offenses I might have committed. Today I ask forgiveness for the sins and offenses I did indeed commit.
The question is not whether we have sinned; we are all sinners. Rather, the question is whether we can be open to the grace of God, open to conversion and transformation. Clearly the man who is now Pope Francis was.
Pope Francis has his fans and his detractors. Both would benefit from leaning more about what made the man who he is today. This book is a good way of doing that.