A fictional forerunner of Pope Francis?

The bishop declines to move into his official residence, which he considers “hopelessly antiquated.” He disdains “velvet and brocade and gilt cherubs with paint peeling off their backsides.” He inveighs against “formalism, feudalism, reaction, old men following old ways because the old ways seem safer and they are unprepared for the new.”

“I believe that the church in this country is in drastic need of reform,” he tells a fellow priest. “I think we have too many saints and not enough sanctity, too many cults and not enough catechism, too many medals and not enough medicine, too many churches and not enough schools .…. Our clergy are undereducated and insecure, yet we rail against anti-clericalism and communists. A tree is known by its fruits — and I believe that it is better to proclaim a new deal in social justice than a new attribute of the Blessed Virgin.”

Are these quotations from a another bombshell interview with Pope Francis? No, they come from an Italian bishop named Aurelio, a character in Morris West’s 1959 novel “The Devil’s Advocate.” The book concerns an inquiry into the possible canonization of a man killed by Italian communists in 1944. I read the novel when I was 12 or so and was captivated  by its humane interpretation of Roman Catholicism, which anticipated the developments of the Second Vatican Council.

SLIDE SHOW: Pope Francis' small steps to lift liberals' hearts

West is better known for a later novel with a prelate as protagonist, “Shoes of the Fisherman,” which features a Slavic pope who had battled communism. (It was later made into a kitschy movie starring Anthony Quinn, whose hammy performance as the Ukrainian Pope Kiril I inspired cracks about “Zorba the Pope.”) When the College of Cardinals elected the Polish Cardinal Karol Wojty¿a as pope in 1978, West was hailed as a prophet.

Pope John Paul II proved to be more of a traditionalist than West’s Pope Kiril. But Pope Francis seems to be a clone of Bishop Aurelio of Valenta, and not just in his embrace of the social gospel.

After dinner with the priest who is in charge of the canonization investigation (the “devil’s advocate” of the title), the bishop says, “We are brothers in a big family. But being bachelors we grow selfish and singular.” Here’s Francis in his interview with a Jesuit journalist: “When I perceive negative behavior in ministers of the church or in consecrated men or women, the first thing that comes to mind is: ‘Here’s an unfruitful bachelor,’ or, ‘Here’s a spinster.’ They are neither fathers nor mothers, in the sense that they have not been able to give spiritual life.”

In that interview, Francis said that he had read and loved “a diverse array of authors.” Maybe Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio took a copy of “The Devil’s Advocate” along on one of his retreats.


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