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WORLD | 15-03-2024 12:46

Girls, rivalries, football in Pope Francis's first memoir

Pope Francis' new autobiography, which will be released next week, sees the 87-year-old is storytelling mode, joking around about his past. But he also addresses serious aspects, like his role during Argentina's 1976-1983 dictatorship.

From being "dazzled" by a beautiful girl to his role during Argentina's 1976-1983 dictatorship, Pope Francis reviews his long life in his first autobiography – and makes clear he is going nowhere.

In Life: My Story Through History, to be published next week, the 87-year-old is in storytelling mode, joking around while also sharing personal anecdotes that have affected him deeply.

The Catholic Church nearly missed out on its first South American pope after a young Jorge Bergoglio was bowled over by a girl.

A first girlfriend, who worked in cinema, had not stopped Bergoglio from signing up to a seminary.

But the trainee priest was at an uncle's wedding when he was "dazzled" by a girl "so beautiful and intelligent she turned my head," Francis told Italian journalist Fabio Marchese Ragona, who conducted the interviews for the short book.

"For a whole week I had an image of her in my head and I found it difficult to pray! Then fortunately it passed, and I dedicated soul and body to my vocation," he said.

Francis also talks about another big love: football. 

There is an entire chapter devoted to the flamboyant striker Diego Maradona, whose infamous "hand of God" goal against England helped Argentina to World Cup victory in 1986.

"When I received him at the Vatican a few years ago, I asked him, jokingly, 'So, which is the guilty hand?'" he said.

From the early days of his papacy, Francis has called for the Church to become a more welcoming place, including for "traditional sinners" – a stance which has riled staunch conservatives within the centuries-old institution.

Three months after sparking an outcry by authorising the blessing of homosexual couples, the pope shrugs off accusations he is "destroying the papacy" and says he his deaf to the worst insults.

 

Not slowing down

"If I had to follow everything that people say about me, I would need to consult a psychologist once a week!" he quipped.

He touches on the challenges of governing from the Vatican, which he describes as "one of the last absolute monarchies in Europe," where there are often "court ways of thinking and manoeuvres, but these tactics need to be abandoned and overcome once and for all."

And there is no point in his severest critics hoping Francis will follow his predecessor Benedict XVI's lead and resign. Despite his increasingly poor health, Francis insists he has "no serious reason" to step down.

Resignation is a "remote hypothesis" that would be justified only in the event of a "serious physical impediment", he said.

There is no sign he is slowing down either: despite undergoing an abdominal operation in 2023 and suffering from repeated cases of bronchitis in recent months, Francis's schedule is packed, with a long trip to Asia set for the end of the summer.

Marchese Ragona told AFP the interviews, which touch on key moments in history from the Cold War to the September 11 attacks, allowed Francis to set some things straight.

"Some people have said things that aren't true, so it was a pleasure to hear his history told in his voice," he said.

 

 'I was innocent'

Francis talked about his role as head of the Jesuit order in Argentina from 1973 to 1979, during the country's brutal military dictatorship.

On his election to pope in March 2013, he was accused of not having done enough to help two Jesuit missionaries who were imprisoned, tortured and released during his leadership – claims he rejected.

"The accusations against me continued until recently – the revenge of certain leftists who knew that I opposed these atrocities," the former Archbishop of Buenos Aires said.

"Subsequently, some people told me that the Argentine government at the time had tried everything to put a noose around my neck, but that they had found no proof: obviously I was innocent," he said.

Marchese Ragona said Francis had "never given such details about that period" before, but the memoir had a wider purpose.

The pope wants it to be "useful in particular for young people, so that they can benefit from the stories of an elderly person," he said.

The memoir will be published in Italian, English, German and French editions next week. 

by Clément Melki, AFP

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