Pope Francis has a sense of humour. When asked whether celibacy should be abolished for priests, he says, “I once heard a priest say that, without celibacy, he would have a wife, but also a mother-in-law.”
When his mother became temporarily paralysed after giving birth to her fifth child, she would direct the children while seated on a chair in the kitchen. “Now put this in the pot and that in the pan,” she would say. As a result, Francis, the eldest child, learned to cook. So, is he good at it? “So far, no one has died,” was the impish reply.
These anecdotes are recounted in the book, Pope Francis (His Life In His Own Words), by Argentine journalists Sergio Rubin and Francesca Ambrogetti. This 2010 best-seller, published in Spanish, in Argentina, is based on a series of interviews that the pontiff gave the journalists over a period of two years. So, it was not surprising that when Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio became Pope Francis on March 13, 2013, an English translation has been put out, aimed at the estimated worldwide audience of 1.2 billion Catholics.
Francis’ family migrated from Italy to Argentina in 1929 and his father, Mario José Bergoglio, began his career as an accountant. The family was reasonably well-off, so when Mario asked Francis, who was 13 then, to start working, he was shocked. Nevertheless, Francis joined a hosiery plant as a cleaner and the experience gave him a lifelong lesson on the importance of work.
“Work anoints a person with dignity,” says Francis. “Dignity is not conferred by one’s ancestry, family life or education. Dignity comes solely from work. We eat and support our families through work. We can own a fortune, but if we don’t work, our dignity plummets.”
Francis speaks on an array on topics, including the qualities needed to be a good priest, the benefits of forgiveness, and the explosive subject of sexual abuse of children by priests.
“If a priest is a paedophile, then this perversion existed within him, before he was ordained,” says Francis. “Celibacy does not cure that perversion. They either have it or they don’t. Therefore, we must be very careful whom we admit into the priesthood.”
Francis has also been careful while refuting allegations that the Catholic Church, and Francis, who was head of the Jesuit order, did not do enough during the years of the military dictatorship (1976-83) in Argentina, when thousands of people disappeared, and their bodies were never found.
“At the beginning, nothing was known,” says Francis. “As a priest I knew that something serious was happening, but I realised it was much more only later. Society, as a whole, became fully aware of events during the trial of the military commanders.”
But Jon Lee Anderson, a staff writer of the respected New Yorker magazine, says, “The key allegation against Francis is that he pointed out left-leaning priests to the military, as dissidents, leaving them exposed, and that he did not defend two kidnapped clerics or ask for their release. He has denied this, and says that he protected priests and others, but, quietly, in secret.”
Gabriel Pasquini, an Argentine writer and editor, contends that Francis did not do enough. “He was not at the level required during those dramatic times,” he says.
Meanwhile, there are two surprises in the book. The foreword has been written by an Argentine rabbi, Abraham Skorka. “As far as I know, this has to be the first time in two thousand years that a rabbi has written the foreword for a book about the thoughts of a Catholic priest,” says Abraham. And he explains why he did it. “Some will disagree with Francis’ assessments, but everyone will accept the humility and compassion with which he confronts every one of the topics,” says Abraham.
The second surprise was to know that, in the previous election, in April 2005, in the second round Francis received an unprecedented 40 votes, and was tied with eventual winner Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI). To avoid a protracted contest, Francis stepped aside and asked that his votes be transferred to Ratzinger. However, destiny did not step aside and beckoned him eight years later.
Overall, this is an interesting and accessible book. The pope’s insights are simple, clear and compelling. He is a man who can be liked easily.