Alicia von Stamwitz is an award-winning freelance author and editor. She has interviewed 2015 Templeton Prize winner Jean Vanier, Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister, Quaker activist Parker Palmer, art historian Sister Wendy Beckett, and essayist Kathleen Norris. In cooperation with the Vatican, she recently compiled and edited two books of the writings of Pope Francis: THE SPIRIT OF SAINT FRANCIS: Inspiring Words from Pope Francis and THE BLESSING OF FAMILY: Inspiring Words From Pope Francis.
Tell us about the first book you worked on with the Vatican Publishing House: THE SPIRIT OF SAINT FRANCIS: Inspiring Words from Pope Francis. How did this project come about?
Alicia von Stamwitz: After his March 2013 election, Jorge Bergoglio chose the name “Francis” in honor of one of the most beloved figures in Christendom, Francis of Assisi. Within the first year of his papacy, many books were published on the Pope’s life and words, but none focused on the intersection of the Pope’s message vis-à-vis his chosen namesake. So one morning I decided to phone the Vatican to pitch the idea… a compilation of the Pope’s words on Franciscan themes like simplicity, joy, love for creation, the poor, peace, and so on. I thought we would have to jump through a million hoops to get permission to do this, but they liked the idea and said yes right away.
It must be daunting to be the editor for Pope Francis, or any Pope. Were you at all nervous about this project?
I’d say I was anxious to get this word-portrait right. On the micro level, the more closely I looked at the official Vatican texts of his writings and speeches — reviewing something like half a million words — the more often I saw that writers quoting the Pope sometimes ignored the context or misinterpreted his words. Often, I could trace the problem to a poor translation. So I checked and rechecked the context of every quote, and I often went back to the original Spanish or Italian texts when the English text appeared to have an omission or error.
On the macro level, I was anxious to reflect as accurately as possible Pope Francis’ core message and unique spiritual “accent.”
You had to arrange and select the readings. What was your plan? How did you arrange items so that the whole collection would have a larger impact than the parts?
I began by reading practically everything Pope Francis has said or written since his election, which took me several months. I clipped the most compelling quotes and began arranging them on the floor of my office, color-coding the strips of papers and index cards thematically… I had no idea when I started if I’d end up with 5 chapters or 15. Then I paired these piles with the primary themes associated with the life and legacy of Francis of Assisi. I ended up with 10 chapters that both trace the spiritual path and mirror the Pope’s keynote: A real encounter with the Divine (chapters 1-3) leads to personal transformation (4-6) and positive action that makes the world a better place (7-10).
Can you tell us a little about the second book, THE BLESSING OF FAMILY: Inspiring Words From Pope Francis?
This, too, is a compilation. The process was the same, but it was not as intense because by this time I had a better grasp of the Pope’s body of writings and speeches. This book gathers his nuggets on love, marriage, raising children, and caring for elderly parents. He obviously gets the struggles many modern couples and families face, so it’s not all pious stuff. For example, he says, “I always give this advice to newlyweds: ‘Argue as much as you like. If the plates fly, let them! But never end the day without making peace! Never!’” He also talks a lot about the importance of cherishing and caring for frail and sick family members, probably because he had first-hand experience with that. His own mother was paralyzed after giving birth to her fifth child, so 12-year-old Jorge stepped up to help run the household.
Outside of Francis, who are your favorite authors?
Ach, an impossible question! But here are a handful that spring to mind, old favorites and new: Walker Percy, Graham Greene, Katherine Mansfield, Jim Shepard, Salvatore Scibona, Scott Russell Sanders, Brian Doyle, Bruce Lawrie, Naomi Shihab Nye, Wendell Berry.