When Jorge Bergoglio stepped onto the balcony at the Vatican on March 13, 2013, as the newly elected leader of the 1.2 billion Catholics around the world, he made history as the first pope from Latin America and as the first Jesuit pope.
But on that day the first-ever Pope Francis also made history in a wholly unexpected manner: instead of blessing the enthusiastic crowd of 150,000 men, women and kids overflowing St. Peter’s Square, he first asked them to pray for him.
“Let us say this prayer — your prayer for me — in silence,” he said.
For Mark Kennedy Shriver, son of the late Eunice Kennedy Shriver and nephew of the late President John F. Kennedy, that moment — and the many similarly humble words and gestures expressed by the then-new pope in the ensuing weeks and months — were both eye-opening and deeply inspirational.
Shriver, a former legislator who served two terms as a member of the Maryland House of Delegates and is the current president of Save the Children Action Network, the advocacy arm for the charitable organization Save the Children, recounts those lasting and powerful first impressions and much more in his newly released book, titled “Pilgrimage: My Search for the Real Pope Francis.”
Despite being a lifelong Catholic, Shriver acknowledges that he went through a period of disillusionment regarding his personal faith, spurred in part by various problematic actions discovered within certain segments of Church hierarchy that he felt were not in keeping with the true tenets of Catholicism.
“I think the issue for me was I have huge respect for priests and nuns all around the country, but what I had seen going on in the Vatican, in the Curia, in the higher echelons didn’t mesh with my experiences,” he explained. “The sexual abuse scandal here, the financial issues in Vatican Bank, misstatements about Islam treatment of women — that was not what I thought the Church represented.
“But when Pope Francis got elected and he asked the people to bless him,” Shriver continued, “when he paid his hotel room the next day, when he washed those kids’ feet, including a Muslim girl, and then when he went to Lampedusa a couple of months later to be with the refugees — those were all gestures that spoke to a different type of behavior coming out of Rome.”
Nearly a year after Pope Francis was elected — after a year of observing and being inspired by his words and deeds — the idea of writing a book crystallized. By November of 2014, Shriver was on his way to Argentina to attempt to retrace the spiritual journey of the man who had helped breathe life back into his faith.
“So the book was really a journey to try to answer the questions, ‘Who is this guy? Are these publicity stunts or is he the real deal? And how does the first Jesuit pope get elected?’” he said. “So that’s why I wrote the book. It was an attempt to try and answer some of these questions … because he was so different, in what he wore and how he acted, from the other popes in my lifetime.”
Upon embarking on his pilgrimage, Shriver set out to discover where Pope Francis — then Father Jorge — had grown up, where he had lived and to “talk to as many of his friends, colleagues and detractors as I could … to get a full picture.”
“How does a 76-year-old guy want to bend down and wash and kiss kids’ feet in a juvenile jail, really?” mused Shriver. “Something is going on there that makes him a little different, so this was a chance for me to try to tap into that joy. … It was a chance to see how he was seemingly so joy-filled in everything he did.
“I’m sure he’s not happy every day, but … I think he is joy-filled,” said Shriver. “I think Pope Francis challenges us to live that kind of a life, but not just with your family and friends, but … to go to the frontiers, to accompany people, to get out of your comfort zone. … I think he believes that if you leave comfort and security on the side then you’ll really live life.”
According to Shriver’s observations, the pope leads by example, and his lessons have “helped me in my faith, in discerning my faith, in that regard.”
“He is a great teacher,” he added. “During [my] two-and-a-half years of studying him, he’s made me reflect on the ways I interact with people, the way I run my nonprofit, the way I interact with my family — all from a place of joy. He doesn’t talk about it, but it’s the joy of the Gospel, it’s not the guilt of the Gospel.”
For Shriver, one of the most fascinating aspects of Pope Francis’ life was his life-altering “period of desolation.” At the age of 36, “Father Jorge” became “the most important Jesuit in Argentina and Paraguay,” and as a leader he came to be deemed as very strict, authoritarian and prone to unilateral decision-making. Eventually, 16 years later, he was forced out of power and essentially exiled.
His newly reduced responsibilities consisted of caring for old and dying Jesuits and listening to confessions. He had fallen from power “to exile.”
“He was in a period of desolation for two years. And then he came back — as a bishop,” noted Shriver. “The evolvement of who he is today started in 1992. … I think it’s interesting; how does a guy go from a lot of power, to no power, then to come back to be a totally different leader than he was the first time?”
Shriver believes the answer was two-fold: by focusing on both humility and mercy, because “he realized God’s mercy had called him into the priesthood, and God’s mercy had forgiven him after he had committed sins and misjudgments.”
“That’s a good lesson for all of us, because we all have struggles, but then you’ve got to come back up,” he said.
Shriver’s lengthy pilgrimage, extensive inquiries and continuing exploration about the spiritual path of Pope Francis have more than solidified his positive initial impressions — only now his overall impression has more depth, details and clarity.
“He is more interesting than what the public sees,” he claimed. For example, he is very disciplined — he is up every day at 4:30 in the morning, says Mass at 7 a.m., lives very frugally, in rooms the size of a small office, with a double bed in the corner, a place to kneel, a place to sit and a bureau with three drawers.
“There’s no flat-screen TV, there’s no cable, there’s no refrigerator in the corner, there’s no La-Z-Boy easy chair,” he explained with a smile. “Pope Francis is very frugal, very disciplined and very, very committed — he’s committed to his boss, and his boss is Jesus Christ. And he’s committed 100 percent.”