When Joseph Ratzinger was elected Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, anyone who wanted to gain insight into the man could look for answers in his massive corpus of world-class scholarship, which had already made him the globe’s best known (if not always best understood) churchman. Circumstances were somewhat different in March when Jorge Mario Bergolio appeared on the loggia. While he had clearly made an impression on his fellow cardinals, and lost no time doing so with everyone else, there were precious few written works that might offer a glimpse into his mind.
Now Image Books has published in English translation a series of conversations, entitled On Heaven and Earth, between the now Pope Francis, and the Argentinean rabbi Abraham Skorka. The work is divided into a series of short chapters, each of which deals with a specific topic such as “On God,” “On atheists,” and “On money.”
It is admittedly a little difficult to understand the genesis of the volume in actual conversations. According to Skorka, the two men met periodically to discuss “life itself as seen through the prisms of local society, global concerns and the evidence of villainy and nobility that surround us” (ix). Skorka claims that they never spoke explicitly about God, which is odd considering that the text is full of such references. Eventually, after a particular meeting in the Archbishop’s office (a choice of words that may give some hint of chronology, since Bergoglio was made an archbishop in 1998), the two men decided to write the book. Each chapter begins seemingly in the midst of things, with the thoughts of one or the other interlocutor, and no other prompt than the chapter heading. They are friendly and respectful of one another, so much so as to avoid, in most circumstances, the appearance of mutual disagreement. The book is a window into the Pope’s mind and heart; one finds the themes that have thus far characterized his homilies, public addresses, and other gestures. The first is a firm assertion of the Catholic faith as conserved and handed down through the witness and testimony of the Fathers. Whatever is at odds with this inheritance, he says, is heresy (25). He conveys an acute concern for the spiritual life and formation of priests, with a particular emphasis on integrity, proximity to the poor, and the shunning of careerism. The Pope’s four pillars of priestly formation (spiritual life, community life, intellectual life, and apostolic life) show his Jesuit influence on the training of diocesan priests in Buenos Aires, and there are references here and there to the Society and its men (41-42, 149).
Speaking on the matter of clerical dress, Bergoglio quotes a “wise priest” who says, “The problem is not if you wear a cassock or not, but rather if you roll up its sleeves when you have to work for the good of others”.
Quoting Henri de Lubac, Pope Francis notes the scandal of those who are anointed and called to service, but then live with the criteria of the world instead of the criteria that the Lord commands from the tablets of the law and the Gospel (45). In a similar vein, he says that the worst thing that can happen to such a person is to live a double life (164). These are his gems of advice to future priests.