NEW YORK (RNS) — A member of the nation’s most famous Catholic political clan, Mark Shriver said he had grown “disillusioned” with the church thanks to the clergy abuse scandal and other issues, and for years he had been pouring much of his spiritual energy into his work as head of Save the Children Action Network.
But from the moment Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected Pope Francis in 2013, the pontiff fascinated Shriver. He soon set out to Argentina — Bergoglio’s homeland — and to the Vatican, among other places, for a book that would become Pilgrimage: My Search for the Real Pope Francis.
This volume follows Shriver’s best-selling memoir, A Good Man: Rediscovering My Father, Sargent Shriver. Sargent Shriver was a fixture in Democratic politics who married into the Kennedy family and was named the first director of the Peace Corps by President John F. Kennedy.
Social justice is clearly part of the Shriver DNA as much as Catholicism — Mark’s brother Tim is chair of the Special Olympics. But Mark Shriver found in Francis a leader who helped him reconnect faith and works.
In this interview, conducted during a recent trip he made to New York, Shriver, who is 52 and married with three children, talks about his “search” and how it changed him.
Why did you need to find the “real” Pope Francis? Is there an image of him that doesn’t correspond to reality or our perceptions?
The idea was that he made these gestures as soon as he became pope, from asking the people in St. Peter’s Square to bless him to paying his hotel bill himself to washing the feet of those juvenile delinquents, including a Muslim girl, on Holy Thursday. That was so different from what the previous popes had done. And he was the first Jesuit ever elected pope. I wanted to try to dig in to find out who this guy really was. Were these gestures consistent with the rest of his life or were these publicity gestures to try to garner goodwill for the church?
I wanted to dig in and figure out who this guy really was and what made him tick, what made him so joyful. I wanted to talk to his friends and colleagues and also his detractors. So not necessarily the big shots — the cardinals or the Argentine president. I wanted to find out from the guys who pick up trash in Buenos Aires, from the priests and nuns, from grieving parents who had interacted with him, to figure out who he really was.
And you found out that he is the real deal?
He is the real deal. All these gestures, he’d been doing them for years in Buenos Aires (where he was the cardinal and archbishop). He’s the real deal but he’s more than that. He’s a real challenge, regardless of whether you’re a conservative or a progressive, whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican. He doesn’t fit into any of those ideologies. He’s risen above ideologies. He’s trying to move us forward together.
His whole concept of mercy, when I first thought about it, was maybe to be kinder, or maybe to write a bigger cheque to a non-profit. But he’s talking about it at a whole different level.
He’s trying to get us into more intimate relationships with other human beings — their joys, their pains, their chaos. And he’s trying to get us into a more intimate relationship with God.
He’s like a prophet. He’s challenging everybody, if you take him seriously. The real Pope Francis isn’t the nice uncle who you invite over for Thanksgiving, a nice man who smiles and doesn’t judge you. This guy doesn’t judge but he’s talking about mercy at a level at which I never thought about. Maybe it’s not that way for hard-core Catholics but for me, as an everyday guy in the pew, he’s a real challenge.
Is he so challenging that he could drive you away?
I love it! I mean, what’s the point if you’re not challenged? The unexamined life is not worth living. What he’s saying is, “Are you really alive?” He’s saying, leave security and comfort on the shore. He’s not saying it out of a sense of Catholic guilt, he’s not doing it because he’s mean, because he’s not nice. He’s doing it from a place of joy.
His encyclical isn’t called the “Guilt of the Gospel.” It’s the “Joy of the Gospel.” He’s like a great Jesuit teacher. I love it.
But Catholics are so divided. Can he pull them together?
He’s trying to move us all forward together. Is it hard? Yeah. It’s a huge challenge. But it’s on us to discern what Jesus’ message is. Francis is not picking sides. We all, as Americans, want him to be on our side. I thought he was on my side, because you know he believes in serving the poor. But he’s not on my side — he’s on Jesus’ side!
And he’s trying to move me comprehensively in that direction and he’s trying to move people of other ideologies in that direction. That’s huge.
How did writing this book affect you as a Catholic?
Francis talks about these little movements, what Bobby Kennedy called “these little ripples of hope,” and I think that’s what he’s trying to do, to move us in these small gestures. That’s how I ended the book, with his talk in Philadelphia at the end of his trip to the U.S. (in 2015) when he spoke about these little gestures on behalf of the homeless guy or the annoying person we work with.
They’re not big dramatic things. But that starts to change the world one person at a time. Sometimes I do think that the “one-person-at-a-time” idea, that, well, he’s crazy. It’s never going to make a difference. Then I think, God, he’s a prophet and he’s completely right.
For me, I try to be more merciful with my kids, with my colleagues, with the homeless guy on the street. And hopefully that starts to make me a better human being.
And a better Catholic?
Yes, ultimately that’s what it’s all about. Look, I went to a Jesuit high school and a Jesuit college, and all of our kids go to Catholic schools. The priests and nuns I know do great work. I have great admiration for them.
The disconnect for me was the sexual abuse scandal, the Vatican bank scandal, popes worrying about red shoes and living in palaces, comments about Islam and women that didn’t make sense. This pope has reinvigorated my belief in the work that priests and nuns are doing all over.
You went to the Vatican to try to meet the pope?
He turned me down, which was kind of hard because I thought that’d be the end of the story. So it threw me off for five days. But he should have turned me down. He’s not interested in his own publicity. He’s interested in how you get close to God. He’s interested in the poor and the powerless. He should have turned me down. It took me two years to figure that out.
We did get invited last summer to a mass at Santa Marta (the pope’s residence in the Vatican), after the book was finished. I met him for a minute and wrote it as the afterword.
But he will pick up the phone and call people out of the blue, so you never know.
It’s true, I know this priest, Father Pepe, who’s really close to Francis, and his father got cancer. I was talking to his brother, who lives in Colorado, and he said the pope called up the other day and his mother picked up the phone and the pope said, “Hi, it’s Father Bergoglio.” The mother went, “Pope Francis?” He said, “Yeah, Father Bergoglio.” She told him he must be calling for Jorge, her husband who has cancer. He said, “No, no, I want to talk to you, too.” He talked to her for 20 minutes, she handed the phone to her husband, they talked for 40 minutes. So they talked for an hour. And he placed the call. He didn’t have someone call and say, “Hold for Papa Franceso.”
Most political leaders will only spend an hour on the phone if you’re going to give them a lot of money. But not him.