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  • Writer's pictureRachel Sherlock

Papal Seal of Approval: 10 Books Recommended by Pope Francis

Updated: Oct 26, 2018

Image courtesy of Catholic Church England and Wales Flickr

Pope Francis, as the leader of the Catholic Church, holds a position that throughout history has been both revered and contested. However, Pope Francis himself has been widely embraced, not just by Catholics, but people of all creeds and none. His simplicity and earnest desire to improve the world has earned him many fans. His writings, such as Laudato Si’, which focuses on the need to preserve the world and its resources, appeals to a wide audience, while his affability and effort to reach young people have made him very approachable. There’s certainly plenty to be gleaned from his insight and learning. With a background in chemistry, a degree in theology and philosophy, and as a lecturer in literature and psychology, no surprise then, that Pope Francis has some excellent reading recommendations. These recommendations have been largely curated from a list of books selected by Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera. From this list the newspaper produced new editions of the books under the name ‘The Library of Pope Francis’ which can be found here, and were carefully selected with the help of the pope himself. We have chosen a number of these as well as some other books that Pope Francis has recommended, to provide a list of ten books which range from religious writings, to poetry, to novels.

The Lord by Romano Guardini

In terms of authors who had an impact on Pope Francis, there are few who can claim the influence of Romano Guardini on the pontiff’s thinking. When Pope Francis, then Jorge Mario Bergoglio, began his doctoral studies in 1986, his focus was on the work of Guardini and he has since praised the 20th century theologian saying “a thinker who has much to say to the people of our time.” The book recommended in the The Library of Pope Francis, L’opposizione

polar, is unfortunately unavailable in English. Fortunately, Guardini’s influence on Pope Francis extends far beyond a single book. This book, The Lord, has been a feature of Pope Francis’ life since his time in seminary. In The Lord, Guardini attempts to present a biography of Christ that is as precise as possible, approaching his life through the Gospels and placing it in historical context. The book doesn’t present his life in a chronological account of every known detail, but instead selects particular moments, teachings, traits, and miracles, and offers commentary and reflections on them. These aspects are drawn out to show how they are related to the whole body of church teaching, practice, and doctrine. While the four Gospel accounts form the basis for the work, other important philosophical works are brought in, included those of Socrates and Buddha. This Christological investigation is considered a theological masterpiece and has been a favourite of both Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis.

Lord of the World by Msgr Robert Hugh Benson

In a discussion with journalists, Pope Francis was asked about the meaning of the term ideological colonization. In response he recommended Lord of the World by Robert Hugh Benson: ‘It is a book that at the time, the writer had seen this drama of ideological colonization and wrote in that book... I advise you read it.’ It doesn’t come much clearer as a recommendation than that. Benson, himself a priest, wrote the book in 1907, and it is now considered one of the earliest dystopian fiction novels.

The novel presents a world where belief of God has fallen by the wayside in favour of secular humanism. Only a small number of faithful remain, when the enigmatic Julian Felsenburgh enters the scene. He offers an ultimatum to everyone: by swearing their blind obedience to Felsenburgh they will have peace, but anyone who rejects him will be subjected to torture and execution. It doesn’t take long for Felsenburgh to become the supreme being in the world, but a small number will stand against him, including the redoubtable Father Percy Franklin. These two opposing men will enter into the final apocalyptic conflict. Benson’s imagination rivals that of H.G. Wells while his theological insight resembles that of G.K Chesterton. The book was groundbreaking in its genre and in its theological exploration of society.

Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Where Benson’s novel is an example of early dystopian fiction, Fyodor Dostoevsky's novella Notes from Underground, is considered one of the first works of existentialism. Dostoevsky is a favourite in the lists of recommended reading from Christian leaders, however the work mentioned most often is his novel The Brothers Karamazov. Despite this, when asked, Pope Francis specified that his favourite of Dostoevsky’s work is his less known novella, Notes from Underground. Here the story is centred on the intellectual struggles of an unnamed narrator, a resentful former civil servant secluded from the rest of the world in a tenement basement in St. Petersburg. He vents his frustrations in wild and rambling sentences, he attacks the idea of social utopianism at the same time as he expresses his desire to join the society that disgusts him. His contradictory and irrational nature becomes the voice of a generation as he wrestles with the idea of free will, and challenges the increasing popularity of Western philosophies of egoism. The Underground Man is an icon among unreliable narrators and antiheroes, but his irrationalism and his inner conflict strikes a chord with many readers, and his explorations of ideology and society still resound today.

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius by Louis J. Puhl

St. Ignatius of Loyola was one of the pivotal figures of the Catholic Church’s history, a spearhead of the Counter-Reformation and a formidable intellectual. If this were not enough to merit his inclusion in Pope Francis’ reading recommendations, Ignatius was also a founding member of the Jesuits, the religious order that the pope himself belongs to. It’s not surprising then that the pontiff would recommendation his most famous work. In fact The Spiritual Exercises is one of the most famous texts in all of the history of the Church. St. Ignatius was a renowned spiritual director in his time and these exercise for a four week ‘retreat’ of Christian contemplation, meditation, and prayers that aim to help a person discern the will of God in their lives, and opening them to a commitment to follow Jesus whatever the cost. These exercises have been found to be of enormous benefit to Catholics, and Christians more broadly. Saint Ignatius wrote that:

The Exercises are certainly the best I can conceive, know and understand in this life, both for the personal progress of a man, and for the fruits, the help and the profit that he can provide to others.

Gerard Manley Hopkins: The Major Works by Gerard Manley Hopkins

From one Jesuit priest to another, this time in a very different time and genre. Gerard Manley Hopkins was a English priest and poet who lived in the second half of the nineteenth century. His life was tragically short, he died aged 44, but when his poetry was published posthumously, he came to be recognised as one of the foremost Victorian poets. His poetry primarily deals with nature and religion. His language and imagery conjure up an awestruck appreciation of nature and all its splendour, and his poetry is intertwined throughout with his struggles in his vocation but also his immense love and faithfulness to God and the Catholic Church. He is famous for his innovations in the form, he often harked back to Old English poetry, replicating the Sprung Rhythm, alliteration and kenning-like constructions. His skill in form and imagery have led him to be called "the most original poet of the Victorian age." Pope Francis has specifically recommended Hopkin’s collection titled ‘God’s Grandeur,’ but here we’re recommending an edition that contains all of Hopkins poetry as well as a selection of his prose writing, to get the most rounded view of Hopkins and his work.

Selected Poems and Fragments by Friedrich Holderlin

Staying with poetry, Friedrich Holderlin, a German Romantic writer at the turn of the 18th century, has in more recent times come to be recognised as one of the highest points of German literature, and even as one of the best poets in Europe. This is despite the fact that most of his poetry was little known or appreciated in his lifetime, and slipped into obscurity soon after his death. His work was written in the same time that saw rejoicing in the collapse of religion during the French Revolution, Holderlin however was exploring Classic mythology and profound Christian veneration in his poetry. His hymns incorporate cosmology, mythology, and history and yet while at the same time as he is looking to the past, his style is looking forward, anticipating the words of the Symbolists and the Surrealists. His search for meaning in uncertainty delivers some of the most complex work in German Romanticism. His reflections on faith and Christ are also deeply complex and moving, as he explores the duality of Jesus as the One among all, as well as the unapproachable Other. When interviewed by Antonio Spadaro for the Library collection, Pope Francis said:

"I very much love Dostoevsky and Holderlin. I remember Holderlin for that poem written for the birthday of his grandmother that is very beautiful and was very spiritually enriching for me."

The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni

Another stalwart of great European literature, The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni, is widely recognised as one of the greatest European historical novels. In the mesmeric setting of 17th century Lombardy during the Spanish occupation. In the tradition of Romeo and Juliet, The Betrothed centres on a pair of star-crossed lovers. Renzo and Lucia are prevented from marrying by a petty tyrant called Don Rodrigo who wants to keep Lucia for himself. The lovers attempt to escape but are separated and must face many hardships alone. There is famine, disease and imprisonment. Perhaps, most notably, they meet a slew of strange and unusual characters, the mysterious Nun of Monza, the fiery Father Cristoforo and the sinister 'Unnamed'. They are both determined in their attempt to be reunited, and the story hinges on their enduring love for each other. The book clearly made an impact on Pope Francis as commented that,

"I have read The Betrothed, by Alessandro Manzoni, three times, and I have it now on my table because I want to read it again. Manzoni gave me so much. When I was a child, my grandmother taught me by heart the beginning of The Betrothed: ‘That branch of Lake Como that turns of to the south between two unbroken chains of mountains..."

The Diary of a Country Priest by Georges Bernanos

For Pope Francis' next recommendation we take a look at The Diary of a Country Priest, the 1936 novel by Georges Bernanos. The story was loosely based on the life of St. John Vianney and follows a young priest in Ambricourt in northern France as he is newly assigned to a parish. It describes his struggles with stomach pains and the lack of faith within his parish. As he grows in understanding of his new provincial surroundings he also grows in humility. The book received the Grand Prix du roman de l'Académie Française, and Pope Francis has extolled its “beautiful paragraphs describing the [narrator’s] reflections” on the many trials life.

The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri

Dante’s Divine Comedy is one of the most important masterpieces of literature in all history, it is also one of the most important Catholic and Christian texts. The poem chronicles Dante’s imagined journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven guided by the Roman poet Virgil, and through this, Dante explores the soul’s journey towards God. While this is perhaps a rather obvious choice for this list, nevertheless it came with a very particular recommendation from Pope Francis. In 2015 Pope Francis called for a Jubilee Year of Mercy to highlight to Catholics the forgiveness and mercy of God. In commencing this year, Pope Francis urged all to read the story, calling it vital reading. He says it invites us “to rediscover the lost or obscured meaning of our human path and to hope to see again the glowing horizon on which the dignity of the human person shines in its fullness.” While Dante had Virgil to guide him, Pope Francis hoped that we in turn might turn to Dante for spiritual direction, calling him 'a prophet of hope' and 'herald of the possibility of redemption.'

Adam Buenosayres by Leopoldo Marechal

Finally, it would be a shame not to include a modern Argentine writer recommended by an modern Argentine pope, however the one found on the list by Corriere della Sera, Megafón, o, La guerra by Leopoldo Marechal may have now reached Italian audiences but it has sadly not yet been translated into English. However, another earlier novel of Marechal’s has been translated, and so, in the interest in showcasing the talent of Argentina's authors, we’ve included it. Published in 1948 but written in the 1920s Adam Buenosayres is a modernist novel in the tradition of James Joyce's Ulysses, and the story inhabits the city in which it is set. From the highest to the lowest echelons, Marechal speaks through a multitude of voices, including some of Argentina’s brightest stars such as Jorge Luis Borges. The story follows Adam Buenosayres over three eventful days as he goes through a kind of metaphysical awakening. Travelling through a picaresque version on Dante’s Inferno, the battle for his soul is in full swing. Marechal’s breathtaking complexity of language is captured in Norman Cheadle’s translation which was longlisted for the 2015 Best Translated Book Award. With its Christian imagery, its use of iconic Catholic literature, and its embodiment of Pope Francis’ home city of Buenos Aires, this novel is a fitting place to close out this list of Pope Francis’ recommended reading.

This article was originally written for and published in April 2018.

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