Reviews: Francis, Pope of Good Promise, by Jimmy Burns; The Promise Of Francis, by David Willey

In their very different ways, writes Paddy Agnew, these excellent, well-written, much researched books ask the ‘big question’ – can Francis really reform the Catholic Church?

Francis, Pope of Good Promise
Author: Jimmy Burns
ISBN-13: 978-1472114211
Publisher: Constable
Guideline Price: £25

It is indicative that two of the most recent books written about Pope Francis, namely The Promise Of Francis by David Willey and Francis, Pope Of Good Promise by Jimmy Burns, both contain the word "promise" in the title.

In their very different ways, both of these excellent, well-written, much researched books ask the “big question” – namely, can he do it, can Francis really “reform” the Catholic Church?

Given that Francis has sat on the seat of St Peter for only two and a half years (a mere heartbeat on a Holy See timescale), both authors spend much of their time attempting to assess the Francis track record with a view to answering this all-fundamental question. Inevitably, however, both writers offer no definitive answer.

Both, again in different ways, hint that perhaps the Francis pontificate may be one which will profoundly change not just the Catholic Church but also the modern world, yet it is obviously too early to write that in stone.


Both authors point out that while the Francis pastoral approach, especially in reference to the Catholic Church’s preferential option for the poor, can seem refreshingly radical, his doctrinal approach, for example with regard to the role of women, is conservative, if not to say hopelessly old-fashioned.

Both suggest, too, that he has been slow to “understand” the full dimensions of the clerical sex abuse crisis.

Before going further, it must be pointed out that the two authors come at their subject from very different angles. Even if both describe themselves as “cradle Catholics” and even if, inevitably, both books make reference to many of the same important moments in the life of Francis, they tell very different but very engaging stories.

David Willey is uniquely qualified to write a book about Pope Francis. For more than 40 years, he has been the sharp, authoritative voice of the BBC in Rome. In that time, he has specialised in Vatican coverage, having made more than 100 foreign papal trips, studying the pontificates of Popes Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis at first hand.

His 1992 book, God's Politician: John Paul II at the Vatican, remains one of the most insightful books written on that pontificate. Inevitably, his reading of the current Vatican tea leaves, his interpretation of the Francis pontificate thus far, is the largest, most important section of his book.

He looks into Francis’s Argentine past and pedigree, all right, he travels to Argentina to retrace Francis’s steps and he consider’s Francis’s role at the time of the Generals but he quickly moves the narrative onto Rome and the Holy See. In the end, Willey’s answer to that “big question” about the Francis impact is open-ended:

“If Pope Francis’s election was neither a ‘miracle’ nor a ‘revolution’ – as some of his newer biographers and hagiographers have argued – how is his reign likely to be assessed by historians of the future? And is there a danger of the Vatican returning to the ossifications of the past when he decides to retire, or dies? The jury is still out”, he concludes.

In a very different way, Jimmy Burns too, is more than entitled to write a book on Francis. He is no “Vaticanista” (Holy See reporter) but as a Jesuit-educated boy, long-time foreign correspondent in Argentina, with Hispanic blood in his veins, he qualifies for the job.

Burns, too, is someone who grew up in a household where so-called Catholic writers such as Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, both published by his father, were regular presences. On top of that, his Spanish ancestry includes a great-aunt, Madre Maravillas de Jesús, who was not only a Carmelite mystic but also someone beatified by Pope John Paul 11 in 1998.

Burns is also no newcomer to book-writing. A Financial Times journalist for the last 40 years, he has written books on the Falklands/Malvinas war, on Barcelona and the Catalan people while his biography of Argentine football ace, Diego Maradona, called The Hand Of God: The Life of Diego Maradona is one of the best football books ever written.

Like Willey, Burns is open-ended about how it will all shake down. He starts off calling Francis “a key spiritual figure of our times whose political and social impact promises to be far reaching”. He concludes, however, by writing that “Jorge Bergoglio . . . as Pope Francis [is] at a spiritual crossroads . . . [on] a journey without maps but not without hope”.

To a large extent, the sub-title to both books indicates much of the direction taken by their respective authors. Willey's sub-title is The Man, The Pope, and The Challenge of Change. Willey assesses progress so far with regard to the immense challenge of being elected to clean up a church and a curia rocked, above all, by the clerical sex abuse tsunami and by the Vatileaks, papal butler scandals of rivalry, careerism, gay lobbies and corruption within the Holy See. Burns, too, does full justice to his book's sub-title, From Argentina's Bergoglio to the World's Francis, A Personal Journey. Not surprisingly, he dedicates much space to an analysis of Francis's very Latin American "personal journey", in the process trying to come to terms with the mind of a Pope, so clearly focussed on the underprivileged and dispossessed of the global south.

Burns points out how, in a preface to a book by Uruguayan theologian, Guzmán Carriquiry Lecour, in 2005, Archbishop Bergoglio had predicted that Latin America would play a key role in “the great battles that are taking place in the 21st century”.

Burns also outlines the impact on Francis of growing up in the post-war Argentina of the great populist dictator, Juan Perón, writing: “Bergoglio’s ideology was homespun, opposed to Marxism on the left, and fascism on the right but influenced from an early age by what he perceived were the similarities of traditional Catholic social doctrine and that strand of popular Perónism that was as hostile to liberal capitalism as it was to socialism.”

Inevitably, Burns focuses on Francis’s much discussed behaviour as Jesuit Provincial during the Dirty War of the late 1970s, with particular reference to the arrest and subsequent release of two Jesuit priests – Fathers Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics – two men who worked among the slum dwellers of Buenos Aires. Burns points out that Yorio, right to his death in 2000, believed that Archbishop Bergoglio had been complicit in his detention.

Burns, however, produces much evidence which suggests that Bergoglio had in fact intervened with the military to have not just the two priests but others released from the military prisons of torture. He also points out how Francisco Jalics also “absolved” Francis, in an interview just days after his election as Pope in March 2013.

Burns concludes that while Archbishop Bergoglio certainly did not collaborate with the military junta, he at times chose to “keep his head low”. Willey concludes that “there was no easy way to exercise spiritual leadership during what amounted to a civil war”.

In the end, both these books are well worth reading, well written by two “cradle Catholics” who both take a caustic, distant view of the machinations of the Catholic Church.

In the end, too, both are fascinated by Pope Francis, the pontiff who comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.

Paddy Agnew is Rome correspondent of The Irish Times