To research his new book on Pope Francis, author Mark Shriver retraced the pope’s life in Argentina and Rome.
To research his new book on Pope Francis, author Mark Shriver retraced the pope’s life in Argentina and Rome.
When Pope Francis first stepped onto the balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square in Rome, Mark Shriver like millions of other people around the world was captivated by this man who humbly bowed his head after asking the people there to pray for him, before he would offer his first blessing to them.

Shriver wondered, who was this man from Argentina, who joked that the cardinals had gone to the ends of the earth to choose a new pope? Who was this man who rode back on the bus with the cardinals, later paid his own hotel bill, and would move into a Vatican guesthouse rather than the papal apartments? Who was this first pope to choose the name of Francis, after St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of caring for the poor, protecting the environment and working for peace? Who was this man who washed the feet of juvenile offenders at a detention center, who embraced a man who had a disfigured face, who made his first trip outside Rome to an island where migrants sought safe harbor?

And then a book publisher invited Shriver to write a book about this new pope. Shriver had written a best-selling biography about his dad – A Good Man: Rediscovering My Father, Sargent Shriver – but he felt ill-equipped to take on such assignment. He had just begun a new job, as president of Save the Children Action Network in Washington, and he had an active family life with his wife and their three school-aged children.

Plus, Shriver didn’t speak Spanish and had never been to Argentina, and didn’t know much about that South American country, besides having seen the musical Evita, based on its charismatic former first lady. But Shriver, who knew that in the political world some figures were different in private than their public personas, was drawn to Pope Francis, and over the next two and one-half years, he would extensively research the pope’s life, his writings and speeches, interview close to a hundred people who knew Jorge Mario Bergoglio before he became pope, and retrace the pope’s life, from his childhood in Argentina to his papacy in Rome.

The result is Shriver’s new Random House book, Pilgrimage: My Search for the Real Pope Francis, which goes on sale Nov. 29.

“I wanted to find out who this guy is. I was trying to figure out if what he was doing is real,” Shriver said in an interview with the Catholic Standard newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington.

For Shriver, the pilgrimage was not a journey to a sacred destination, but to a holy man, and it was not only a spiritual quest, but a personal one. He had grown up in a devout Catholic family, the son of Sargent Shriver, the founder of the Peace Corps; and Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the founder of Special Olympics. His parents attended daily Mass, and their faith shaped their lives and work, which was a key theme of Mark Shriver’s biography of his father. But the author, while inspired by his parent’s faith and by the witness of priests and women religious working in the community, was disillusioned by the actions of some in the Church hierarchy on issues like the sexual abuse crisis.

Mark Shriver had graduated from a Jesuit high school and college, Georgetown Preparatory School in North Bethesda and the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, and he was curious about the first Jesuit pope’s background.

 “Pope Francis seemed like the right messenger with the right message, a man of substance with an endearing style. His public humility, austerity, the smile, the joy all seemed to emanate from a deep reservoir of peace and self-knowledge. I wanted to dig in and learn more,” Shriver writes in the book.

So Shriver set off on a nine-hour flight from Miami to Buenos Aires for a two-week visit. During an interview with a Jewish rabbi there who had known and worked with the future Pope Francis, he explained, “I am just an American trying to understand Bergoglio and what I can learn from him. I am in search of stories that tell who the man really is.”

The pope’s home city Buenos Aires is a city of contrasts, Shriver points out in the book, noting that its grand boulevards resemble those of Paris, but they are not far from teeming slums, where priests supported and inspired by the future pope continue to serve and bring hope to the poor. And on the streets of that vibrant port city, Shriver witnessed clues to the pope’s demeanor: the warmth and affection people demonstrated to each other, and the statues of Mary at subway stations, a sign of how the Catholic faith has been intertwined in Argentina’s culture.

With the help of a driver and translator, Shriver navigated the city’s streets and alley ways and interviewed those who knew Jorge Bergoglio as a priest, bishop, cardinal and friend. He visited the humble home where the future pope grew up, and learned about how Pope Francis’ grandmother Rosa – a peasant woman who immigrated with her husband and son from Italy – taught him to pray and respect people from other faiths. He prayed at her bedside when she died at the age of 90.

“She had an incredible influence on him and wrote a beautiful note he keeps in his breviary today,” Shriver said.

The author also visited the simple confessional at the Basilica of San José de Flores where Jorge Bergoglio felt called to be a priest

The other great influence on the future pope’s life was St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus, a soldier who had a conversion experience while recovering from his battle wounds, and began an order that some call “God’s army.” Bergoglio mirrored the order’s founder in surviving a life-threatening lung inflammation as a young man, and later like other Jesuits, he would go through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, a 30-day retreat that Shriver likens to a spiritual boot camp, in which members of the society prayerfully commit their lives totally to loving and serving Christ.

Shriver visited the Colegio Máximo de San José, where the future pope lived off and on for nearly 30 years, as a Jesuit student, provincial, rector and teacher, and he saw his spartan room that reflected the military-like discipline of the order, and Bergoglio’s humility and simplicity.

In the book, Shriver writes, “For Bergoglio, because of Rosa and St. Ignatius, faith in God was the consuming love of his life.”

Even as a young Jesuit, Bergoglio was a man of surprises. When he was teaching at a high school run by the order, he convinced one of the century’s most revered writers, Jorge Luis Borges, to take a six-hour coach ride from Buenos Aires and to be a guest lecturer for his literature class, and the Nobel Prize nominated author even wrote a preface to a book compiling the students’ writings.

Bergoglio was a rising star in his religious order, and at a young age was named its provincial. But he later acknowledged in an America magazine interview that his authoritarian style of leadership and quick decisions were personal faults. Later he was transferred to the city of Córdoba, where his ministries included caring for elderly priests.

“How a person changes has always been the narrative that most interests me,” Shriver writes, noting that spiritual exile for the future pope offered him an important period of reflection for his vocation and on how to be a servant and a leader in the Church. Today Pope Francis is known for his leadership style that emphasizes dialogue, listening and collaboration.

The future pope eventually accepted an invitation to become an auxiliary bishop in his beloved home city of Buenos Aires, where he would serve as an archbishop and cardinal.

Shriver’s retracing that aspect of Pope Francis’s life is perhaps the most moving in the book, a story told with humor and poignance. Along the way, he catches a ride with a young woman who volunteers at a parish in a slum area, and is almost the victim of distracted driving, not of someone texting, but of the driver excitedly turning around and saying she is a fan of the pope but explaining that he roots for the wrong soccer team. Then he later has misgivings about sharing a native drink with someone who was coughing, but that’s what it takes to get that part of the story.

Pope Francis’s teaching about the Church being a “field hospital” comes alive to Shriver in the form of a priest nicknamed Father Pepe serving as a “frontline medic” in the city’s slum areas.

“Pepe worked in Villa 21-24 for nearly 14 years, building more than 10 chapels, a kindergarten, a vocational school, a drug addiction recovery center, a drug prevention center for youth, four small shelters, dining halls, and more…” Shriver writes.

The future pope, who encouraged his seminarians and priests to have “muddy shoes” in their service to their people, especially the poor, did just that, catching the bus, even on his vacation days, to visit the priests and people at the parish in the slums, joining processions and taking part in Masses held outside train stations and under a tent in a city plaza, bringing to life what some call a “theology of the people.”

Shriver also meets a man named Sergio Sanchez, the leader of a Buenos Aires cooperative of thousands of workers who make their living by picking up cardboard and plastic bottles for recycling. He said Cardinal Bergoglio first got to know the workers by baptizing their children and later supported them in their organizing efforts. Sanchez sat in a seat of honor at Pope Francis’s inaugural Mass and has attended Vatican conferences on ending poverty.

The author said that the pope has a “belief that the poorest of the poor have insights for all of us and will help us understand (how to make) the world better and make the world more just.”

Throughout the book, Shriver retraces his own spiritual journey and that of his family. In one chapter, he compares a creed written by Jorge Bergoglio right before his ordination, and one written by his father, Sargent Shriver, that was reprinted on the back page of the noted public servant’s Funeral Mass program.

The future Pope Francis’s creed begins with the words, “I want to believe in God the Father, who loves me like a son, and in Jesus, the Lord, who infused my life with His Spirit, to make me smile and, in so doing, lead me to the eternal Kingdom of life.”

Sargent Shriver’s creed includes the words, “I believe that we have a responsibility to God to do whatever we can to do good things for people, especially the poor… I believe in faith, hope and love. I believe that they have power.”

In his pilgrimage to find the real Pope Francis, Shriver said he found a man whose heart is connected to Jesus, and whose life is devoted to “doing what he thinks Jesus wants him to do.”

The book ends with Shriver, his wife and their children having a personal encounter with Pope Francis, who offers them a simple message much like that he first expressed on the balcony of St. Peter’s.

Reflecting on what he learned from Pope Francis during his pilgrimage, Shriver writes, “His answer starts and ends with faith in God, a faith that opens the windows of your soul so that God can enter into you and do great things.”

Like many pilgrimages, the one undertaken by Shriver involved a journey home, to examine his own faith and life.

“That’s the message of the book. Pope Francis is a great teacher. He’s a prophet in our midst. He challenges us to look at ourselves and ask, ‘Is God a priority for me?’” Shriver said. “In that regard, it’s a pilgrimage to who he is, but it also made me think (about) who I am. Do I really belong to Jesus, do I want to get out of my comfort zone, get mud on my shoes?”

For Shriver, and he hopes for the readers of the book, that journey continues.