Pope Francis Among the Wolves: A book review by Bob Morris

Pope Francis Among Wolves
Pope Francis Among the Wolves
: The Inside Story of a Revolution

Marco Politi with William McCuaig (Translator)
Columbia University Press (September 2015)

A brilliant examination of Pope Francis’ efforts to cleanse the Church of Rome despite subtle but substantial opposition

In this volume, translated by William McCuaig, Marco Politi provides what is described as an “inside story of a revolution” waged by an Argentine cardinal, Jose Mario Bergoglio, who was elected Pope of the Roman Catholic Church in March 2013. With regard to the book’s title, Politi recalls a legend: “Saint Francis of Assisi once met a wolf, to which he addressed a mild sermon. Won over by the saint’s words, the fierce animal grew gentle and submissive, lowered its head, and followed him. The adversaries of Pope Francis, however, are not so quick to yield.”

In a homily dated 23 February 2014, Pope Francis observes: “A cardinal enters the Church of Rome, my brothers, not a royal court. May all of us avoid and help others to avoid, habits and ways of acting typical of a court; intrigue, gossip, cliques, favoritism, and partiality.” By all accounts since then, Pope Francis has been actively engaged in eliminating or avoiding throughout and beyond the Vatican the “habits” and “ways” to which he referred.

Given the opposition to what some characterize as a “revolution,” consider this brief excerpt from the book: “His objective is to involve bishops, clergy, and laity in his project for change. Yet it is difficult to reform the Catholic Church and even more difficult to change its long-standing mechanism of command. The opponents are tenacious, and behind the scenes their aggressiveness has provoked a growing campaign to make the pope look illegitimate. Their hope is that the Bergioglio pontificate will end soon.”

These are among the several dozen passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Politi’s coverage:

o Pope Francis on poverty (Pages 5-6, 17-18, 112-114, and 153-154)
o Selection of Benedict XVI’s successor (11-19 and 38-40)
o Pope Francis’ interaction with people (52-53, 66-70, and 74-77)
o Pope Francis’ use of parables (72-73)
o Criticism of Pope Francis (76-77, 160-163, and 210-213)
o Communication style of Pope Francis (85-86, 1q01-102, and 113-114)
o Pope Francis on social justice (106-108 and 112-116)
o Roman Catholic Church in Argentina (117-122)
o Financial reforms of Pope Francis (140-145 and 148-156)
o Pope Francis’ financial reforms (167-170, 199-200, and 214-217)
o Pope Francis’ appointments (160-161, 210-211, and 225-226)
o Mafia excommunicated by Pope Francis (171-174)
o Reform of Roman Catholic Church in Argentina (193-196 and 235-236)
o Pope Francis on pedophile priests (217-220)

It should be noted that, according to Politi, the American cardinals were divided on whom to vote for, following Pope Benedict’s resignation/retirement, but had a shared program that drew strong support from many cardinal electors. “They were demanding transparency and order in the financial affairs of the Vatican, a radical cleanup of the IOR [Institute for the Works of Religion], a slimmed-down curia with less bureaucracy, and lastly — the other top priority of many episcopates — a rebalancing of the relationship between the Holy See and the Episcopal Conferences. They expected the future pope to consult the bishops of the church more often and more regularly. This was the principle of collegiality adopted fifty years earlier by Vatican II but never realized.”

Politi leaves no doubt that Pope Francis is opposed by “wolves” that have very sharp teeth. He also agrees with Jeffrey Krames, however, who in his own book acknowledges that opinions are divided – sometimes sharply divided – with regard to Pope Francis’ leadership style. “During his first year as pope – as during his tenure in Argentina – Francis showed himself again and again to be a man of humility. However, we mustn’t confuse his humble ways with those of a one-dimensional leader. Like all effective leaders, he has multiple agendas. In fact, according to the journalists who have covered Bergoglio for many years, he is nothing short of a ‘political animal.’ He is also a man of enormous intellect, which often gets obscured by his acts of humility.”

According to one Argentine journalist, Elisabetta Piqué, “He was not an ingénue coming out into the world. He had almost a war with [one] section of the Roman Curia.” Another journalist used the word “ruthless” to describe the way Francis operates. And Rolling Stone cover-story journalist Mark Binelli wrote, “Bergoglio has shown himself to be a stealth enforcer, capable of summoning that old authoritarian steel if it serves a higher purpose.”

It will be interesting to see what does (and doesn’t) happen in months and years to come as Pope Francis struggles to transform one of the world’s largest organizations. These are among Marco Politi’s concluding remarks: “If he succeeds in transforming the Synods of Bishops into a permanent instrument of coparticipation in papal government, in making them into little councils that assist the church to chart its course on the ocean of modernity — involving the faithful, laymen, and lay-women — the revolution of Jorge Mario Bergoglio will become irreversible…Francis has a vision, at which he hinted in the words he addressed to the cardinals a few days before the conclave: ‘I have the impression that Jesus has been shut up inside the church and that he is knocking because he wants to get out.'”

Those who share my high regard for this book are urged to check out two others I also hold in high regard: Krames’s Lead with Humility: 12 Leadership Lessons from Pope Francis (September 2014) and Gerald Posner’s God’s Bankers: A History of Money and Power at the Vatican (September 2015). Here’s another, highly acclaimed, that I have not as yet read but will, soon: Gianluigi Nuzzi’s Merchants in the Temple: Inside Pope Francis’s Secret Battle Against Corruption in the Vatican (November 2015).

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