Leonardo BOFF, Francis of Rome. Francis of Assisi. A New Springtime For The Church. Maryknoll/New York, Orbis Books, 2014, pp. 160.  Pb ISBN 978-1-62698-083-9. Reviewed by Solange LEFEBVRE, Université de Montréal, C.P. 6128 succursale centre-ville, Montréal Québec Canada H3C 3J7

          Leonardo Boff signs a very dynamic and readable book on the papacy, Pope Francis and Francis of Assisi. Rather deftly, Boff arrives at a synthesis of the realizations and projects of the recently elected pope. Understandably, Boff writes with a great enthusiasm about this ‘first pope coming from the South’ and uses very strong and clear words to show how Francis is changing the papacy, at last, after centuries of a monarchist style and abuse of power by the North. Having been a Franciscan for thirty hears, he goes deeply into the revolutionary choice of the name Francis by the new pope, the first in history. Again, Boff shows what a wonderful writer and storyteller he is.

The book includes three parts and a total of thirty-eight very brief chapters. The first part recalls how the Church acquired “absolutist monarchical power” through history, and why it did not work, the Church being in deep crisis. The second part puts the pope in parallel with Francis of Assisi, in relation with simplicity, humility, ecology and the poor. In one of the chapters in that part, Boff asks, “What Has Pope Francis Brought Us That is New?”—a question the media have asked many times since the beginning of Pope Francis ‘reign.’ The three page chapter answers this question very clearly: 1. From Church Winter to Church Spring; 2. From Fortress to Open House; 3. From Pope to Bishop of Rome; 4. From Papal Apartment to Guesthouse; 5. From Doctrine to Encounter; 6. From Exclusion to Inclusion; 7. From Church to Word; 8. From the World to the Poor (p. 87-89). 

The third part concerns the reform of the papacy. In relation with Saint Francis, Boff asserts that the new pope chose the name of Francis because “he was inspired by the dream” of the saint: to restore the Church to the following of Jesus of Nazareth. And then, very harsh words come up about the North: the new pope comes “far from the influences of the millennial ecclesiastical status quo … not from any episcopal seat famous for its history. He is a son of colonial Christianity, which was always dependent on the great metropolitan and ecclesiastical centers … [and] engendered a surprising vitality and originality.”  European Christianity, writes Boff, is ending: “its death throes.” The time of this “Greco-Roman-Germanic” culture would be over, because it is trapped in a rigid theological framework incapable of any dialogue with modernity, with the poor: “Renewal can only come from outside” (96-97), and most members of the clergy need a deep and fundamental reform, because they “have largely lost the right sense of things; they have forgotten Jesus Christ’s image of God” (112), and its project of the Kingdom of God. In the chapter on the “De-paganization” of the Papacy, Boff addresses the crisis among the conservative groups, especially when Francis received Gustavo Gutiérrez at the Vatican, and also the very harsh words the pope has for ambitious prelates, the sickness of the Curia, etc. The new pope puts the poor before doctrine, including homosexuals and the divorced; he opens dialogue with non-believers. Many  conservatives fiercely contest Francis, accusing him of “desacralizing” the figure of the papacy (118). 

We also learn something interesting. Leonardo Boff states that he wrote a letter to Pope Francis, calling for an “ecumenical council of the whole of Christianity, all the churches, including the presence of atheists, who through their wisdom and ethics can help to analyze the threats weighing on our planet … and first and foremost, women, generators of life, because life itself is being threatened” (130). Having written the book in 2013, he was thinking about John Paul XXIII who died in 1963 and his aggiornamento. About the reform of the Curia, he suggests including the people of God as part of the collegial body, and even suggests that Francis is inaugurating a new period of history, a rupture in the Church history, a refoundation of the Church.

This book has to be put into perspective however. Since its writing, the synod on the family occurred in Rome and showed that any reform would not be easy. We could also mention that the resentment toward the North is regrettable and maintains a Manichean vision of the world and Church history. Several theologians of the North, men and women, paid a heavy price during the last decades, to call for important reforms. Rich and highly educated lay people are at the forefront of the criticism of the Church and are asking for a change. But the book remains a wonderful contribution to the interpretation of Francis’ papacy.