When it comes to the papacy, you might say Matthew Bunson wrote the book.
Actually, he’s written several.
Back in the mid-1990s, Bunson was tapped to author what would become The Pope Encyclopedia: An A to Z of the Holy See, a fat volume of papal history designed to appeal to both the devout and trivia-obsessed.
In more recent years, the Fort Wayne resident has penned books on Pope John Paul II’s quotable quotes and practice of canonizing saints and a biography of Pope Benedict XVI.
So, when Jorge Mario Bergoglio set foot on a Vatican balcony in March as head of the worldwide Roman Catholic Church, it wasn’t entirely surprising that Bunson would become an area Catholic publisher’s go-to guy for a new papal biography.
But what might be eyebrow-raising is that Bunson turned the book around for the Huntington-based Our Sunday Visitor in two weeks.
His simply titled Pope Francis became the first English-language biography to hit the shelves, where it remained among the top Catholic titles on Amazon.com last week, Bunson said.
I think it has less to do with my prose and as much as it is that people are just fascinated with this pope, Bunson says, adding that some in the church are calling the phenomenon the Francis effect.
There really is one, he says. I’ve been struck by how many non-Catholic friends are interested in him, his style, his story, his sermons, his preaching. And I know quite a few Catholics who have come back to the church because of (his election).
Bunson recalls that the time immediately after Francis’ elevation was a very, very intense week.
He says he finished doing commentary for Redeemer Radio, the area’s Catholic AM radio station, went home and started putting the book together.
I started work, submitted my manuscript on Wednesday or Thursday the following week, and the week after that, the book was published, he says.
Intense also might describe Bunson’s interest in the workings of the Vatican. Although northeast Indiana might seem a strange place to find what media folk call a Vatican watcher, that’s more or less Bunson’s job description.
A trained historian with a ministry doctorate from the Graduate Theological Foundation, Bunson has written encyclopedic works on the history of Catholicism and served as a consultant and analyst for major TV networks and news organizations during major papal events
He also hosts a radio program, has been a guest on shows on the Catholic cable channel EWTN, serves as a correspondent for Our Sunday Visitor’s weekly nationwide newspaper and teaches college-level distance-learning Catholic religion classes.
Bunson gets official Vatican news releases. He travels to Rome for important meetings once or twice a year. He’s scoured Vatican documents as primary source material. He regularly interviews American bishops and even cardinals.
And, unlike many in the church who expressed surprise at the Argentine cardinal’s selection as pope, Bunson says he saw it coming.
Bergoglio wasn’t on Bunson’s A list of papabile, or papal candidates. He was on my C list, he acknowledges somewhat sheepishly.
But he says he felt pretty certain that a non-European or Latin American might be selected – at least five Latin American cardinals, he says, had a good shot.
Like many other observers, Bunson thought Bergoglio’s age, 76, might work against him. But when his name surfaced a day or two before the cardinals went into the conclave, Bunson felt that Bergoglio might emerge at the top of the balloting.
From researching his biography of Pope Benedict XVI, including his election, Bunson says, he knew it had been widely rumored that Bergoglio had been the runner-up candidate.
I was very familiar with him and his life and ministerial career because, after the (previous) conclave, he had remained a very prominent figure in Latin America, Bunson says. In 2007, he helped draft a very important document, which was widely seen as a blueprint for the church’s future in Latin America, and he was most revered by bishops. So I had already collected a lot of background.
Since the papal election, Bunson says, the work of the hour is trying to foresee what Pope Francis holds for the church’s future.
Clues already have been scattered, Bunson says – from the rapid publication of Bergoglio’s conversations with an Argentine rabbi, which seem to signal continued reparative rapprochement with Judaism, to the new pope’s gestures to the poor and oppressed, such as visiting prisoners in the first days after his election and his reputation for living simply in Buenos Aires when he was archbishop..
Bunson’s take is that Pope Francis has definitely signaled reform.
One (signal) is his choice of the name Francis, Bunson says, noting that this pope is the first in history to honor St. Francis of Assisi, who espoused a simple, mendicant life as a means of prodding consciences at a time in the church’s history now seen as rife with hierarchical corruption.
(St. Francis) loved the poor, and also the poor in spirit, Bunson says. Francis of Assisi was also one of the great reformers of the church, but he said that any reform had to be tied to spiritual reform, spiritual renewal. And I think you will see that in Pope Francis.
A member of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church, Bunson has great faith in the institutional durability of the church and its Gospel.
I see him (Francis) as taking (the faith) outward, to the world, and calling on Catholics to live their faith out in the world. I see that as a very important component of Francis, he says.
Francis is completely authentic and transparent. You see him absolutely comfortable in himself and what he is doing. He’s very similar in that way to John Paul II, Bunson adds.
I think he’ll continue to be a prophetic witness and serve the poor and deliver some very pointed homilies. I think we have a lot to look forward to.