[Editor’s Note: This is part one of a compilation of Crux staff book picks from the past year. While the titles we recommend aren’t all Church related, nor necessarily even new, we thought it would be fun to give you a glimpse behind the curtain as to what prose we’re reading when we’re not busy penning it ourselves. Part two will be published tomorrow.]
Ines San Martin, Vatican Correspondent:
I should begin with two disclaimers: First, I don’t like recommending books, and I rarely like one being recommended to me, unless it’s by my mother while I’m perusing her library in Rosario, Argentina. Her collection is vast enough to keep me well supplied while I’m home over the Christmas season, and several of her titles have earned a one-way ticket to Rome through the years.
Second, after spending most of my days living, breathing, and eating in English, when the time comes for me to choose a book, I tend to gravitate towards the Spanish section. (The fact that the only book in English I’ve found on my mom’s shelves is a 1954 edition of a 1909 book titled English Idioms might have something to do with this tradition…)
Hence, my two books from this year are, to date, only available in Spanish: El Papa de la Alegría and No Permanecer Caídos. Since neither has so far been translated – though I believe both should be – I’ll translate them into English as, The Pope of Joy and Don’t Remain Fallen.
The Pope of Joy by veteran Spanish journalist Juan Vicente Boo, is about Pope Francis. It explores the essential traits of the pope’s personality, the axis of his thought and what moves him to action – things which, according to Boo, are very coherent.
The author, who’s been the Rome-based correspondent for the Spanish newspaper ABC since the late John Paul II years, presents a realistic yet positive image of Francis and his pontificate so far, giving a balance of the past four years, without pouring over every single detail of Francis’s biography, which at this point one can easily find on Google.
Boo avoids focusing solely on one aspect of the pontificate, for instance, the reform of the Vatican. He draws on his analytic ability, which is the product of not only 18 years covering the Vatican, but the previous 13 years based in Brussels and New York covering the United Nations, to present a much more ambitious image of Francis and what he’s done- or attempted to do- so far.
He sees the pope as a man capable of rolling on full steam ahead despite criticism; focused on a reform much more profound than that of the Vatican: transforming each person. Boo sees Francis as a “radical” in the real sense of the word, a derivate of the Latin word radix, meaning “root.”
“He wants to go to the roots of Christianity,” the author argues.
The book, edited by Espasa, is available through Amazon Spain in Kindle format.
Don’t Remain Fallen, written by Argentine Federico Gallardo, was also published in 2017, with the subtitle of “The history of the Spartans, the rugby team of Unit 48 of the Province of Buenos Aires.” It tells the story of Eduardo “Coco” Oderigo, a rugby coach who managed to change the lives of hundreds of inmates through his favorite sport, education, employment and the rosary.
Oderigo began training inmates over five years ago, and the book tells the lives of the Spartans, addressing the fact that in Argentina, there are people who are condemned from birth to be slum dogs. The book is full of hard stories, including childhoods that seem to come from Hell itself.
The book had me hooked from the first page I opened at random- I often do this, never at the end, but half-way through, to see if I might like it – and in this case, I ran into a chapter called “Diary of a Journey” that included one of my favorite movie dialogues of all times, from “Men of Honor”:
“Why do you want this so bad?”
“Because they said I couldn’t have it.”
The chapter tells the story of some of the men’s pilgrimage to Rome, who’ve gone from playing rugby in prison to regaining their freedom and finding formal employment. In the Eternal City they met Pope Francis, presented him with an image of Our Lady, and asked him to bless the rosary beads they prayed with along the way.
Despite its sad moments, the book is about hope, about people who’ve been able to rebuild their lives through the help of a man who saw them not as who they’d been, but who they could be. It’s a book worth keeping by the nightstand.
John Allen, Editor:
By consensus, probably the two most talked-about Vatican books of the year have been Original Sin: Secret Accounts, Hidden Truths and Blackmail: The Power Bloc That’s Getting in the Way of Francis’s Revolution by Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi, and The Dictator Pope, whose anonymous author used the nom de plume “Marcantonio Colonna” in homage to a 16th century admiral of the papal fleet at the Battle of Lepanto.
Nuzzi’s book came out in early November, The Dictator Pope in early December. What’s interesting is that both basically agree on a diagnosis of the current situation, but radically differ in explaining it.
For both Nuzzi and “Colonna,” the story of Francis’s papacy so far is of promised reforms that haven’t been delivered. Both write extensively about vested interests they believe have successfully thwarted serious moves towards greater accountability and transparency, instead strengthening the grip on power of an opaque, and largely Italian, old guard.
Both books, it must be said, also recycle old material presented as something fresh, both traffic in gossip and lurid insinuations, and both drop strong hints of even more disturbing revelations to come without ever delivering the goods. In that sense, they’re overheated, and at times unreliable, guides to the lay of the land.
Still, at the big-picture level, both books are undeniably onto something in pointing out that the pontiff’s own stated reform agenda from five years ago, at least as it applies to the operations of the Vatican, remains largely unrealized – and, in some cases, apparently abandoned.
For Nuzzi, all this is a story of a courageous, noble outsider pope doing battle with the Evil Empire, led by a group of ruthless ecclesiastical Darth Vader figures who will stop at nothing to frustrate him. In The Dictator Pope, it’s a story of a psychologically disturbed control freak elected pope by a liberal cabal, a man who’s border-line paranoid and vengeful, and whose personal instability is being increasingly reflected in the institution he leads.
In the end, both narratives obviously are driven by pre-conceived notions of who the bad guys are, and both come wrapped in such a scandal-sheet style of prose that reading either book is, at best, a guilty pleasure – something you’d do at home, for instance, but you probably wouldn’t want to be seen at a Roman bar lost in the pages of either one (unless it’s on your Kindle, of course, so no one can see what you’re doing, which has been my approach.)
That, in turn, is the question left open by the Vatican literary genre during the past year.
Let’s say it’s true there are real problems with Francis’s reform effort, at least as the Vatican is concerned – and, at the moment, with key figures vanished under mysterious circumstances, promised audits blocked, and power steadily drifting back to the Secretariat of State, it’s hard to draw any other conclusion.
Here’s one measure of where things stand: “Transparency” was supposed to be the hallmark of reform, yet we haven’t even gotten an annual financial statement from the Vatican since July 2015, the only one prepared under the leadership of Australian Cardinal George Pell, who’s now back home fighting off charges of “historical sexual offenses” (which he has vigorously denied.)
Granted, those annual statements in the past left a great deal to be desired, but it was at least a gesture towards disclosure. So far, what we’re getting instead is silence – except from the Vatican bank, it should be said, where the clean-up operation was largely carried out under Pope emeritus Benedict XVI.
Thus, the question: When are we going to get the book treating the state of Francis’s reform with the seriousness and balance the story deserves, as opposed to titles that play only with people already committed to a specific, and fairly hyper-ventilated, view of things?
Publishers, maybe that’s the basis of a compelling New Year’s.
Charles Collins, Managing Editor:
Over the past year, our managing editor Charles Collins has lived in three different countries while dealing with Britain’s immigration process (although he is happy to be at home with his wife and two boys in Leicester, England, as of November). He apologizes he hasn’t read a new book in that time, but offers these older works for your consideration:
Edmond About’s The Roman Question was published over 150 years ago, and is probably still the best book to get the feel of the Vatican, and how clerical government is different than other forms of rule. Written at a time when the pope ruled over three million people, and the Papal States extended across central Italy, it is easy to think the work – written by a Frenchman as part of the effort to make the unification of Italy palatable to Catholics – might be hopelessly out of date. But are you upset that an anti-Catholic intellectual has been invited to a Vatican event?
About still has words of comfort: “Do not imagine, however, that paying respect to Cardinals involves paying respect to religion, or that it is necessary to attend Mass in order to get invited to balls. What is absolutely indispensable is, to believe that everything at Rome is good, to regard the Papacy as an arch, the Cardinals as so many saints, abuses as principles, and to applaud the march of the Government, even though it stand still.” Has the latest Vatican financial scandal left you scratching your head? Again, The Roman Question is there with a quip as relevant today as it was in 1859: “An approach to respect for public opinion has forced the Pontifical Government to publish some sort of accounts. It does not render them to the nation, but to Europe, knowing that Europe is not curious in the matter, and will be easily satisfied.” The book is full of such gems (In fact, John Allen has spoken about the About Doctrine when it comes to trials). I admit many people might find it exasperating that so little has changed over the years, but I find it somewhat comforting.
The book, published in several languages to spread its influence among the world’s Catholics, is in the public domain, and readily found on the internet.
Meanwhile, The Power and The Glory, published in 1940, is probably Graham Greene’s greatest novel, and a good reminder that our priests are complex people. Greene’s whiskey priest is not necessarily a very good man (and in fact, the Vatican at the time objected to the protagonist and his “paradoxical” nature), but he is an instrument of God’s grace. Several readings are necessary to see where a small word, or a slight gesture, greatly impacts those he encounters. The book is also a good reminder of the persecution the Church suffered in Mexico in the middle of the 20th century, a persecution to which many in the United States chose to turn a blind eye.
Near the end of the book, the priest (he is not named in the novel) crosses the border for a time into an area of less persecution and spends a surreal time openly acting out his priesthood, before returning home to his inevitable martyrdom. It calls to mind the current persecution of Christians in places such as Iraq and Syria, where ‘normality’ is often only a short flight away, and the priests and religious who return to the crucible again and again: They too are imperfect, but keep going back knowing death might be in their future.
More staff picks will be published tomorrow.