In March 2013, Jorge Mario Bergoglio became the first Jesuit pope and the first non-European to lead the Catholic Church since 741. Bergoglio, who took the pontifical name Francis, immediately differentiated himself from his predecessors. Whether asking the people gathered in St. Peter’s Square to pray for him, announcing that he was opting to live in the Vatican guesthouse instead of the Apostolic Palace, or washing the feet of juvenile prisoners, Francis has become a beloved figure in Catholicism.
Dozens of books have been written on Pope Francis since his election, but Pilgrimage: My Search for the Real Pope Francis by Mark Shriver (Random House, Nov.) provides a distinctly American and intimate perspective. As a member of the Kennedy and Shriver families, Shriver’s very name is synonymous with American Catholicism, and his disillusionment with the Catholic Church following the sexual abuse scandals is in many ways paradigmatic of a generation.
The book is a blend of biography and memoir, and its title alludes both to the Pope’s journey toward the papacy and to Shriver’s own quest to learn more about the man who has reinvigorated the faith of so many Catholics, including his own. Shriver said that learning more about Pope Francis has “challenged me right to my core.”
“When he talks about mercy he’s talking about more than just writing checks,” said Shriver, a former Maryland state legislator. “His idea of serving God is about relationships, understanding other people, and helping them on their life’s journey. He challenges us to get out of our comfort zones and really engage with others.”
Researching the book, Shriver visited the places that shaped Francis’ life, learned about the political and economic contexts for his worldview, and collected personal stories from friends and colleagues. He also explores theological influences that have profoundly shaped the pope’s faith, including the uniquely Argentine teología del pueblo (theology of the people), a theology that emphasized the role of faith in improving the lives of the poor. The result is a portrait of the pope’s life and spiritual development from boyhood through the papacy.
“When you see how he’s lived his life, you realize that he has always tried to help the poor and powerless,” said Shriver. “All the visiting hospitals, holding babies, eating dinners with the homeless—they’re not just photo ops or PR stunts. He was doing them long before anyone was paying attention.”
This humility and authenticity, Shriver said, is what draws people to Francis. “His message is that God’s mercy is for everyone,” he said. “We’re all sinners. When Pope Francis talks about the poor, he’s not just talking about the financially poor, he’s talking about the psychologically poor, the spiritually poor, the physically poor. That’s what we all are, so people relate to his faith because it’s grounded in the idea of being inclusive, non-judgmental, and forgiving.”
Will Murphy, executive editor at Random House, said the book is unique because Shriver is from one of the most important Catholic families in America and he and his family share in common with the pope a passion for building a more just society. “I think it’s both a biography and a journey of discovery of self and other. It’s fascinating to see the result of Shriver’s encounter with Pope Francis on the page.”