Already in his brief, three-year pontificate Pope Francis has a track record of papal firsts, but in March he will add yet another to his list: authoring a children's book.
“This book could be useful to the entire family. The questions are deep, fresh, sharp — involving desires of understanding, but also tough feelings and experiences to be faced and lived,” Fr. Antonio Spadaro SJ told CNA Feb. 9.
“Ultimately I hope people see that the Pope’s message is universal. Whether his responses are read by children or adults, I hope that his focus on peace, joy, and mercy is understood and felt by all.”
On March 1 Jesuit-run Loyola Press will release the book “Dear Pope Francis: The Pope Answers Letters from Children Around the World,” alongside Jesuit publishing houses in 11 other countries.
A collection of 30 letters and drawings from children around the world aged 6-13, the book contains both head-scratching questions from the youth, as well as Pope Francis' answers.
“This book is the very first book by a Pope for children ever,” Fr. Spadaro said, explaining that it’s not just a collection of things he said before in other settings, but is “something original, thought (of) as a book with answers to questions, but also drawings.”
Spadaro, editor of the Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica, has worked on the book alongside Loyola Press in Chicago, who conceived the idea.
Pope Francis gave the project the official thumbs-up last May, when executives from Loyola Press traveled to Rome to pop the question on whether he would ever consider writing a children’s book.
“What really struck me is that when I asked Pope Francis about this project he immediately said yes,” Fr. Spadaro said.
Once the Pope agreed to participate, things got going, he said. Loyola Press immediately reached out to both priests and lay people around the world in order to put the publisher in contact with children who would write the letters.
The 259 letters that arrived to the Vatican came from across the globe, including countries such as Albania, China, Nigeria, the Philippines and a school for displaced children in Syria.
Fr. Spadaro affirmed that the responses given “are the Pope's words,” and noted that at one point, before his trip to the United States last September, Francis was reading the children’s’ questions, and admitted that “these are tough.”
He recalled that afterward, during the prayer vigil for the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, the Pope had said: “A young person once asked me — you know how young people ask hard questions! — ‘Father, what did God do before he created the world?’ Believe me, I had a hard time answering that one.”
When Pope Francis told the story, “he was referring to the experience of this book,” Fr. Spadaro explained. “This is true. He realized that he wanted to give the kids a deeper answer than something right off the top of his head.”
Due to the Pope’s time constraints, he didn’t have time to respond to all 259 letters, but was advised on which ones to select with the help of a special group of parents, grandparents, teachers, Jesuits, writers and children.
As the Pope read the letters, Fr. Spadaro said that Francis paid special attention to the drawings the children had made.
“He commented to me (on the) details, colors (and) shapes,” the priest said, adding that “sometimes Francis captured, with finesse, the meaning of a question more from images than from words.”
When the book is published March 1, it will be released in 14 languages, including English, Italian, Spanish, Polish, Portuguese, Hungarian and French, though Fr. Spadaro said he expects the number to grow.
On Feb. 22, eight children whose letters appear in the book, plus a few siblings, will meet with Pope Francis in a private audience at the Vatican. They will present him with the finished book, as well as all 259 letters collected for the project.