Pope Francis’ message of mercy and inclusivity has the ability to rekindle faith in the Roman Catholic Church, according to Save the Children Action Network President Mark Shriver in an event hosted by Georgetown University’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life on Dec. 5.
The discussion, attended by about 200 people, was hosted in Copley Formal Lounge and was centered on Shriver’s new book, “Pilgrimage: My Search for the Real Pope Francis.” Shriver spoke with Initiative Founder and Director John Carr about his preparation for the book and the spiritual restoration he achieved by writing it.
The nephew of John F. Kennedy, Shriver served in Maryland’s legislature for eight years before joining senior management at Save the Children, a charity that seeks to promote children’s rights.
Shriver said a disillusionment with the Catholic Church was the impetus for writing a book on Pope Francis.
“I have a huge admiration for [the Church’s] work, but there was a disconnect in what I was seeing going on in the Vatican with leaks about financial problems, sexual abuse scandals, comments about Islam, comments about women and so forth,” Shriver said about the Roman Catholic Church’s work.
For Shriver, the most important thing was whether the remarkable story of Pope Francis, born Jose Bergoglio — a pained boy from a charming Buenos Aires suburb, a once-authoritarian Jesuit leader shunned by his order, and an unforeseen, thoroughly modern pope — could help him out of his “Catholic funk.”
“Honestly, it was a pretty selfish mission because I wanted to have that faith rekindled. I wanted that joy and I wanted to figure out how a 76-year-old man is getting up every morning at 4:30 and is seemingly so joyful in all of these gestures,” Shriver said. “I wanted a little of that energy, a little of that mojo in my life.”
Shriver described Francis’ childhood as a time of both joy and suffering that planted the seed of his mercy.
“He had experienced a lot of pain as a kid. His family had lost a lot of money and he cried himself to sleep a lot because the family was fighting so much,” Shriver said. “It shows, I think, part of his sensitivity, because as a kid he experienced this beautiful sense of Catholicism, and grandparents right around the corner, a close-knit family, a Salesian priest who’s a family member almost, but he also experienced pain. That makes him more sensitive to the pain that we all deal with in our life and that he sees.”
By Shriver’s account, it took time for Francis to master mercy. After becoming one of the most influential Jesuits in Argentina he was demoted and sent to the rural interior of the country.
“Here you have this rise to power at the age of 36 where he was the most influential Jesuit in that region, to 12 years later in his early fifties to being banished,” Shriver said. “He was not prepared for that role. He was authoritarian, he didn’t consult people and he was very tough on his fellow Jesuits.”
Bergoglio would go on to serve as a bishop in Buenos Aires and a cardinal in Rome before being elected pope in 2013. In attendance at his installation Mass was Sergio Sanchez, a cardboard recycler, or cartoneros as they are known locally in Francis’ hometown.
When he got the chance to meet Sanchez, Shriver said he had a hard time believing his story.
“I was there in my cartonero outfit, and after it was over [Francis] invited me back and was giving me a hug. … And he was telling me, ‘Keep the fight alive. Solidarity. Keep fighting for people,’ Shriver remembers hearing Sanchez say.
Shriver was confident this message was powerful enough to transcend political discord.
“I think what he’s trying to do is move us all forward and not worry about ideology,” Shriver said. “He doesn’t look at two- or four-year cycles. He’s going to plant seeds, he’s going to water seeds that were planted by previous generations, and he’s going to continue to water, and he’s going to continue to push. All the people that were opposed to him in Argentina, they’ve come around.”
Macey McCann (SFS ’20) said she was impressed by how open Shriver was, and how he learned by talking to everyday people like Sanchez.
“My biggest impression was definitely the candidness of the speaker and how much he learned about Pope Francis through his constituents,” McCann said.
Carr finished by speaking to the need for mercy here and everywhere.
“We live in a culture that is quick to judge, and often holds grudges and dismisses people quickly and easily. Some of that shows up at Georgetown,” Carr said. “What Pope Francis is calling us to is something much different, which is to recognize that we all fail and that we can be forgiven. We can be forgiven by each other, we can be forgiven by God, and frankly, we can be forgiven by ourselves.”