Before newly elected Pope Francis imparted his first apostolic blessing from the balcony of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome on the evening of March 13, 2013, to a crowd of 200,000 people, he made one request. “Before the Bishop blesses the people, I ask that you pray to the Lord that he bless me — the prayer of the people, asking a benediction for their Bishop,” he said.
Likewise, the Pope’s first tweet, on March 17, 2013, was: “Pray for me.”
Where does the Pope’s spirituality come from? What does spirituality mean to him? What should it mean for us? And why did he start his papacy with a request for prayer for himself?
These are some of the questions Robert Moynihan, the co-founder and editor of Inside the Vatican magazine, tries to answer in his book Pray for Me: The Life and Spiritual Vision of Pope Francis.
Moynihan recounts the Pope’s life story, analyses various aspects of his life and highlights some of his prominent quotes. He tells us who Pope Francis is, what he believes and what he plans to do as the leader of the Catholic Church. The book provides deep insight into the Pope’s thinking and his spiritual vision.
Pray for Me is partly the author’s eyewitness account, partly the story of Pope Francis, born Jorge Mario Bergoglio, in the author’s own words and of those close to him.
According to Moynihan, in order to understand Pope Francis, we need to know his five “spiritual guides.” The first is Prophet Jonah, who was swallowed by a whale. His story teaches Pope Francis that there is a type of religiosity that hardens the heart in self-contentedness and makes it impossible for the spirit to act because all plans have already been made by human beings.
The second is Mary, the mother of Jesus, who is the source of humility the Pope is trying to emulate.
The third is St Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order or the Society of Jesus. At the centre of Jesuit spirituality is a constant preoccupation with the person of Jesus.
The fourth is Don Luigi Giussani. He and Don Giacomo Tantardini were founders and leaders of the Communion and Liberation group in Rome. The Pope ascribes to their teachings about God’s mercy.
The fifth is St Francis of Assisi, a humble man with a burning love for Jesus, whose name he chose.
The author helps us see Pope Francis as a man of traditional Catholic piety, linked to an extraordinary humility and love of simplicity and for the poor.
For example, after Pope John Paul II made Bergoglio a cardinal in February 2011, hundreds of people from his native Argentina began fundraising efforts to fly to Rome to pay homage to him. But he asked them to remain in Argentina and instead give the money they had raised to the poor. In Rome, he celebrated his new honour alone — and with Lenten austerity.
Pope Francis is a man whose words are matched by his actions — he does what he asks others to do.
We also learn from Moynihan’s book that Pope Francis is his own man. He likes to do things differently. On March 23, 2014, he met Pope Emeritus Benedict in Castel Gandolfo outside Rome in what was the first meeting of two popes in history.
One difference between Benedict and his successor became evident. Pope Francis was not wearing the “red shoes” past popes have previously worn as part of a tradition that goes back more than 200 years. Benedict wore red shoes, but Pope Francis wore old black shoes. Reports say before he left Buenos Aires for Rome, Cardinal Bergoglio was wearing shoes so shabby that friends insisted on buying him a new pair.
Pope Francis is seemingly aware of his own frailty, his own imperfection, his own humanity. He knows he needs the prayers of others, as we all do. He knows the prayers of others can support him spiritually to do what he must do.
In calling for prayers for himself, Pope Francis asks us as a community to care for the poor, for those treated unjustly, for the imprisoned and the suffering, for those who have lost hope, and also for him, that he may carry out his tasks with courage and humility.
Moynihan helps us understand that Pope Francis cannot be “captured” by simplistic, irrelevant, political “categories” such as “conservative, people’s pope, pope of the poor, liberal, social revolutionary, liberation pope,” or “one who will perhaps break with conservative Catholic Church teachings on sexual matters,” as many observers and pundits have prophesied.
He writes Pray for Me not only as a journalist, but also as a believer. He clearly explains Catholic terminology and the various facets of the Church he writes about, making the book an easy read for any audience.