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13 best reads for understanding Pope Francis

"Francis: Life and Revolution," by Elisabetta Pique. Photo courtesy of Loyola Press
"The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope," by Austen Ivereigh. Photo courtesy of Picador Publicity

“The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope,” by Austen Ivereigh. Photo courtesy of Picador Publicity

(RNS) The pope has drawn international acclaim with his simple acts of kindness and insistent outreach to those at the margins of society. But he is also a publishing phenomenon.

Yes, there are the glossy magazine covers featuring Pope Francis, from Rolling Stone to Vanity Fair. But there are also several biographies and collections of the pontiff’s own words that can give a deeper understanding of Francis’ background and thinking as he prepares to make his first-ever visit to the United States:

1. “The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope”

Austen Ivereigh is a veteran Catholic journalist who also has a detailed knowledge of Argentine politics, which positioned him perfectly to write one of the best in-depth looks at the life of Jorge Mario Bergoglio before he became Pope Francis. Ivereigh’s account also details the ins and outs of Francis’ career as a Jesuit, which are key to understanding the pontiff.

2. “Pope Francis: The Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism”

"Pope Francis: The Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism," by Paul Vallely. Photo courtesy of Paul Vallely

“Pope Francis: The Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism,” by Paul Vallely. Photo courtesy of Paul Vallely

One of the first biographies, and still one of the finest, on Francis is by Paul Vallely, a Catholic writer. Originally titled “Pope Francis: Untying the Knots,” after one of Francis’ favorite images of the Virgin Mary, Vallely has revised the book ahead of the pope’s U.S. trip and added many fascinating stories about the pope’s first years in office.

3. “Francis: Life and Revolution: A Biography of Jorge Bergoglio” 

Elisabetta Pique is an Argentine journalist who has known Francis since 2001, and that breadth of knowledge informs her unparalleled account of Bergoglio’s Latin American upbringing and experiences.

4. “The Francis Miracle: Inside the Transformation of the Pope and the Church”

John Allen is the most prominent Vatican-watcher in the English-speaking world, and in 10 concise chapters he looks at Francis’ character and life experiences, and analyzes how they relate to some of the most urgent challenges facing the pope and the church today.

"The Francis Miracle: Inside the Transformation of the Pope and the Church," by John L. Allen, Jr. Photo courtesy of Time Inc. Books

“The Francis Miracle: Inside the Transformation of the Pope and the Church,” by John L. Allen, Jr. Photo courtesy of Time Inc. Books

5.  “Pope Francis: Why He Leads the Way He Leads”

Francis has wowed not only the public but also politicians and institutional chiefs who are understandably asking themselves: “How does he do it?” Every leader would like to inspire and get results the way this pope has, and Chris Lowney gives insights using the lens of Francis’ Jesuit spirituality.

6. “On Heaven and Earth: Pope Francis on Faith, Family and the Church in the Twenty-First Century”

Francis is more of a conversationalist than a systematic thinker and writer, and this dialogue with his longtime friend, Argentine Rabbi Abraham Skorka, provides a wealth of insights into the future pope’s thinking and his personal history. Originally published in Argentina in 2010, it has been translated into English and republished.

7. “A Big Heart Open to God: A Conversation With Pope Francis”

The pope is best in his own words, and he has been unusually generous in giving interviews that are easy and insightful and enjoyable to read — and often disconcerting to his Vatican “handlers.” His first major interview was with the Rev. Antonio Spadaro, a fellow Jesuit. Titled “A Big Heart Open to God,” the interview was published online in August 2013 in Jesuit periodicals such as America magazine. It was later published as a book. It’s a gold mine of anecdotes and quips, all from the pontiff’s own lips.

"The Church of Mercy," by Pope Francis. Photo courtesy of Loyola Press

“The Church of Mercy,” by Pope Francis. Photo courtesy of Loyola Press

8. “The Church of Mercy”

If you wanted to sum up Francis’ pontificate in three words, they would be: mercy, mercy and mercy. That was one of the first teachings he stressed to the public after his election, and it has continued to be the theme of his papacy and the root of his project of reform. Loyola Press has collected some of the Jesuit pope’s key statements on this central Christian teaching.

9. “Pope Francis: A Guide to God’s Time”

Another great source of pope quotes and wisdom is Francis’ daily homilies. One of his priorities is to serve as a model pastor for priests and bishops, and that includes showing them how to be a good preacher. The pope delivers a pithy sermon at morning Mass in the chapel of his communal residence almost every day. The Vatican bureau chief for Catholic News Service, Cindy Wooden, has collected many of his eminently quotable reflections in this meditation on prayer and the liturgical year.

10. “The Joy of the Gospel: Evangelii Gaudium”

In the first papal letter dedicated to the environment, Pope Francis uses a tone of prophetic urgency to describe climate change as “a global problem with grave implications” and one that requires a “bold cultural revolution” in mankind’s thinking. Photo courtesy of Carmel Communications

In the first papal letter dedicated to the environment, Pope Francis uses a tone of prophetic urgency to describe climate change as “a global problem with grave implications” and one that requires a “bold cultural revolution” in mankind’s thinking. Photo courtesy of Carmel Communications

Better preaching was also a theme of one of the pope’s first major documents from his own hand, an “apostolic exhortation,” as it is formally known, called “The Joy of the Gospel.” It is a wide-ranging but remarkably interesting and important overview of many of Francis’ top issues. The common thread is the joy and hope that Francis exudes and that has proved so attractive to so many. Several publishers have produced book versions, or you can read it on the Vatican’s website at www.vatican.va.

11. “Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home”

Say the words “papal encyclical,” and readers are likely to turn the page, or risk falling asleep. But Pope Francis has been able to upend tradition here, too. “Laudato Si’,” an Italian phrase from a song of praise to creation by St. Francis of Assisi, is the pope’s encyclical on the environment. It is a landmark in papal teaching, and it has sparked much controversy. But it is fascinating, challenging reading, on science and faith and morality, and is probably not what you expected. Read it on the Vatican’s website, or get a hard copy from various publishers.

12. Address to World Meeting of Popular Movements

"The Tweetable Pope: A Spiritual Revolution in 140 Characters," by Michael J. O'Loughlin.". Photo courtesy of HarperOne

“The Tweetable Pope: A Spiritual Revolution in 140 Characters,” by Michael J. O’Loughlin.”. Photo courtesy of HarperOne

Speaking of controversial, the pope’s address to workers and activists during his visit to Bolivia in July was a barn burner about the global economy, income inequality and other hot-button social justice issues. Yes, it was one among many papal speeches. But it had such force, and such resonance, that the editor of the Vatican’s semiofficial newspaper called it “a mini-encyclical.” It’s available in English on the Vatican website and is a reference point for Francis’ thinking — and critiques of his thinking — on poverty and capitalism.

13. “The Tweetable Pope: A Spiritual Revolution in 140 Characters”

Biographies too long? Encyclicals too daunting? Speeches too boring? Pope Francis is nothing if not short and sweet and to the point, and so is his Twitter feed, via @pontifex, where he has a huge number of followers in multiple languages. The pope usually tweets every day, but Michael O’Loughlin, who writes for The Boston Globe’s Catholic news site, Crux, has collected many of the best ones and provides valuable context.

(This story is part of a series on the papal visit produced in collaboration with USA Today.)

Religion News Service graphic by T.J. Thomson

Religion News Service graphic by T.J. Thomson

YS/MG END GIBSON

This story is available for republication.

About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.

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