Pope Francis and ‘the contagion of hope’

Pope Francis and ‘the contagion of hope’ Photo: CNS
Church, Interrupted – Havoc & Hope: The Tender Revolt of Pope Francis

by John Cornwell (Chronicle Prism, £21.99/€25.00)

You know you are in the hands of a master author and story-teller when you open a book by John Cornwell.

Readers may be familiar with his best-seller A Thief in the Night: the Death of John Paul I (1989), as well as Hitler’s Pope (1999), a far from flattering account of the war-time papacy of Pius XII.

There followed two highly critical accounts of the Church under the papacy of John Paul II, Breaking Faith (2001) and Pontiff in Winter (2004), and then, in more recent years, testimonials, at times harrowing, of his own Catholic upbringing: Seminary Boy (2006) and The Dark Box: A Secret History of Confession (2014).

These autobiographical works, which record memories of spiritual and psychological abuse as well as the abuse of conscience and of sexual violence Mr Cornwell himself experienced as a young man and seminarian, explain the very personal and distinctive critical lens he has brought to bear upon all his ecclesiastical subjects.

This is, sadly, a lens with which many of his readers will readily recognise and identify with from their own experience of the Church growing up.

In 2010, Mr Cornwell published Newman’s Unquiet Grave: The Reluctant Saint. Though intended as a less academic and more accessible account of the soon-to-be-canonised Cardinal John Henry Newman it was rightly taken to account not only for theological ‘looseness’, for instance in regard to Mr Cornwell’s account of Newman’s understanding of miracles, but also for an unfair and unfounded, gratuitously sensational, portrayal of Newman’s personal life and personality.

So what does Mr Cornwell make of Pope Francis?

Six months after Francis’ election Mr Cornwell wrote confidently in the Guardian newspaper that Pope Francis would restore the moral authority of the Church destroyed by the cases of clerical sexual violence against children and the culture of cover-up.

This is still his hope. In fact, one could say that hopes for Pope Francis and for the Church book-end this thought-provoking interim report on the current pontificate. Indeed, the opening words of Church, Interrupted are “Hoping against hope!”, spoken by Pope Francis on March 19, 2013 – the day of his installation as Bishop of Rome. The book concludes with describing the legacy of Pope Francis as “the contagion of hope”.


Perhaps even more so than his predecessors, Pope Francis has generated a veritable industry of commentary on his pontificate. When it comes to the finer points of Pope Francis’ teaching; for instance, theological underpinnings of and detailed reasoning behind pastoral developments one finds such as in Amoris Laetitia, and so on, there is no substitute for reading the texts themselves and some solid theological commentary.

And for those already familiar with Pope Francis’ own speeches and writings as well as the ever-expanding corpus of secondary literature there will be little new in this book by way of fact or detail, the exception being some unsubstantiated but likely true tittle-tattle in regard to the Roman Curia slipped in along the way along with interesting personal anecdotes.

Nonetheless, Mr Cornwell provides very readable and credible accounts of Francis’ preference for the peripheries, the manner in which he brings the qualities of mercy and tenderness to bear on Church policy and practice, and his courageous words and gestures in the area of inter-faith and ecumenical dialogue and reconciliation.

The section on the Amazon synod seems somewhat rushed and uneven, perhaps explained by the fact that the synod took place shortly before the book went to print.

In regards to the topic of synodality itself the book is already overtaken by subsequent events and publications. One of the best sections is the concluding one, which, tentatively yet persuasively, points to Francis’ legacy in terms of sowing new seeds of hope for the flourishing of Christian faith in a post-pandemic world.


What interested me most was Mr Cornwell’s reasonably fair and forthright account of the many challenges Francis has faced, several of his own making.

These include his mishandling of sexual abuse reports from Chile, and what seems like overly-protracted, stop and start attempts at reform within the Curia. There are also legitimate concerns about his handling of the Church in China, as well as far too many instances of poor communication and miscommunication that continue to dog his pontificate.

While reading the author’s account of Francis’ failings and weaknesses, despite which Mr Cornwell is still betting on him, I was reminded of an extraordinary essay by Karl Rahner published in 1983 not long before his death.

It is composed in the voice of a fictional Pope Paul VII elected sometime in the twenty-first century to an equally fictional Peppino, a friend and classmate from their old days together in the Gregorian University. In case you’re in any doubt, this was a most unusual writing genre for Karl Rahner.

I don’t know if Francis has ever read Fr Rahner’s letter; the fact is that he could have written it.

So, our fictional Pope Paul VII expresses some relief that an Italian (himself) is once again Pope because the Pope is first and foremost Bishop of the Diocese of Rome, something that Pope Francis, of strong Italian heritage, has been at pains to stress.

Paul VII says that his priority will be to reform the Curia including by insisting on every priest working at the Vatican having at least 15 years’ pastoral experience.

He will also insist that there are people working in the Curia from all over the world because “a Church that is no longer the Church of Europe with a few outlying sections, but which has become a world-Church, can no longer be ruled in such a centralised way as before”.

Though Fr Rahner’s Paul VII doesn’t speak of synodality, he commits himself to developing a strategic pastoral plan for the world-Church which has strong synodal overtones (see Theological Investigations, Vol XXII, 191 – 208). The echoes of Pope Francis in this 1983 letter are so strong that they are uncanny.

The section of this letter that came to mind reading Mr Cornwell’s book is where Pope Paul VII discusses the strong likelihood that he will make several serious mistakes while Pope.

He speaks of a Pope’s right to be a struggling Christian and how history demonstrates that there were many “frightful, stupid, narrow-minded, backward things” that Popes did in the past. The likelihood, then, he says, is that he too will commit stupidities despite his good will and honest endeavours. Otherwise, “we would not be poor sinners, finite creatures, who painfully grope along in history’s darkness”.

Recognising, then, the inevitability that Popes will get things – even serious things – wrong, Pope Paul VII asks why should acknowledgment of this wait until later? Why should it not be capable of acknowledgment during a Pope’s lifetime?

It is wrong, he suggests, for Church leaders to have the idea that “their legitimate authority would be jeopardised if they let their ‘subjects’ see that they too were only human beings who committed blunders”.


And so he asks, “If I am convinced that as Pope I remain a human being who will commit faults, perhaps even serious ones, why would I not be allowed to admit this even during my lifetime?”

Finally, he sees that the people who really matter know that authority does not suffer, but rather profits, when its bearer openly admits the limitations of a poor and sinful human being, and is not afraid to acknowledge them.” How often has Francis acknowledged that he is, first and foremost, a sinner in need of God’s mercy?

Would that, as Church leaders, we ourselves realised more that our strength lies in knowing and acknowledging our weaknesses.

Cornwell’s Church, Interrupted: Havoc & Hope – the Tender Revolt of Pope Francis is a useful and timely reminder that we might all have some growing up and maturing to undergo in order to receive and benefit from the pontificate of Pope Francis.

Prof. Eamonn Conway is a priest and theologian.