Mark Kennedy Shriver, whose deeply Catholic family has been enjoying private audiences with popes for decades, pulled every string he could think of, including enlisting the help of two cardinals, in order to land an interview with the subject of his new book, Pilgrimage: My Search for the Real Pope Francis.
“He turned me down,” Shriver told The Daily Beast. “And as I thought about it, I realized that he should have turned me down.”
He explained: “Because of my family, I know people. As a reporter, you’re a person on a quest, and you use your contacts. If you’re a member of the Kennedy family, of course you have connections. But despite all these phone calls, the pope did the right thing…He’s not focused on himself. He’s focused on messages of mercy and Jesus Christ.”
Shriver’s book—the result of three years’ labor, including dozens of interviews in Argentina with admirers and detractors of the cleric born nearly 80 years ago with the name Jorge Mario Bergoglio—is being published at a moment when the pope’s polar-opposite, a shamelessly self-celebrating reality television tycoon, is preparing to take the oath of office as president of the United States.
Speaking to reporters on the papal plane flying back to Rome after a visit to Mexico, where he pointedly conducted a mass on the U.S. border, Francis excoriated Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric.
“A person who only thinks about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian,” the Holy Father declared, without mentioning Trump by name. “That is not in the Gospel…Whether I would advise to vote or not to vote, I am not going to get involved in that. I say only that this man is not Christian if he has said things like that.”
Throwing caution to the winds, as usual, the eventual GOP nominee fired back: “For a religious leader to question a person’s faith is disgraceful…If and when the Vatican is attacked by ISIS, which, as everyone knows, is ISIS’s ultimate trophy, I can promise you that the pope would have only wished and prayed that Donald Trump would have been president.”
The pope doubled down on his criticisms mere days before the general election, telling an audience of social justice activists: “Walls that enclose some and banish others. Walled citizens, terrified on one side, excluded, exiled, and still more terrified on the other—is that the life that our Father God wants for their children? Dear brothers and sisters—all walls fall. All of them. Do not be fooled.”
Needless to say, media speculation that Trump’s tangle with the pontiff would damage him with American Catholics and thus hurt his chances to become Leader of the Free World came to naught, and he will soon assume the office that Shriver’s martyred uncle, Jack Kennedy, once held; two other Kennedy uncles, Bobby and Teddy, also ran for president, with Bobby, like Jack, dying from an assassin’s bullet.
The 52-year-old Shriver is a longtime proponent of early childhood education and maternal healthcare who these days runs a generously-funded Washington-based advocacy organization, Save the Children Action Network, which he hopes will become “the NRA for kids”—by which he means bringing the influence to children’s issues that the powerful gun lobby brings to the 2nd Amendment.
Shriver disputes the notion that Francis has been meddling in U.S. politics.
“He’s teaching. He is also challenging,” Shriver said. “He’s not against Trump, he’s not for Clinton. He’s not clearly in one box or another. He was pretty clear about not being for building walls. But if Trump is pro-life, he’s in favor of that. He is challenging on all fronts.”
Shriver’s three-year-old advocacy group, which boasts an annual budget of around $10 million, has a bipartisan focus on its issues agenda, and has backed both Republicans and Democrats in statewide and local contests during the 2014, 2015, and 2016 election cycles.
Indeed, after the Nov. 8 election, Save the Children Action Network—the political arm of the nearly century-old Save the Children nonprofit charity—warmly congratulated Trump on his victory, adding, “We look forward to working with the new administration,” although Trump has said little to nothing about early childhood education and related matters.
Shriver, a diehard Democrat who served in Maryland’s state legislature and ran unsuccessfully in 2002 for Congress, no doubt would have preferred Hillary Clinton, who has her own history of advocacy with the Children’s Defense Fund.
“Good God!” he exclaimed repeatedly concerning the prospect of the Trump presidency. The last line of his recent New York Times Op-Ed article on the pope’s declaration of an “extraordinary jubilee year of mercy,” is: “I hope it never ends.”
“I meant the year of mercy, not the year of Trump,” Shriver said with a laugh. Of course, if 2016 didn’t actually end, there could be no Inauguration Day on Jan. 20, 2017.
“That would be good as well,” Shriver joked.
“I think in Washington right now, there’s a lot of utter confusion,” he added. “There was a lot of confusing talk on the issues during [Trump’s] campaign, and the policy positions are confusing on the issues we care about…If you’re poor in this country, you’re at a distinct disadvantage. There are the budget issues: What is he going to do to defeat ISIS, while his administration wants to spend a trillion dollars on infrastructure, while they also want to give a tax break? What happens to the focus on the poor and the vulnerable? That is a concern for me.”
Pope Francis would agree.
Shriver—whose first book, A Good Man was an emotionally raw and deeply personal chronicle of his late father, Peace Corps founder Sargent Shriver, who died at 95 of Alzheimer’s disease—said he was becoming disillusioned with his Church when Cardinal Bergoglio, a warm and charismatic South American, replaced the fastidiously aloof German theologian, Pope Benedict XVI (aka Joseph Ratzinger), in March 2013.
“He caught my attention at the very beginning of his papacy, when he asked the crowd to bless him before he blessed the crowd,” Shriver said about his attraction to Francis, “when he paid for his own hotel room bill, when he washed those juvenile delinquents’ feet, including the feet of a Muslim woman. I worked at a juvenile facility for five years in Baltimore, and I would not have gotten on my knees and washed those kids’ feet. And when he went to the [Sicilian] island of Lampedusa to be with those migrants [many of them Muslim refugees from war-torn Libya]—all those gestures caught my eye.”
Shriver continued: “I’d become discouraged by mistakes under Pope Benedict—the comments about Islam [in which Benedict appeared to blame the religion itself for inciting ‘evil and inhuman’ violence], the comments about Vatican leaks [in which private correspondence between highly-placed clergy portrayed Benedict’s Vatican as something akin to snake pit]…I don’t know any ‘Benedicts.’ Francis seemed like such a more modern name than Benedict—more modern and more relatable.
“When Bergoglio took the name Francis, it was just much more accessible. St. Francis of Assisi is so well-known and so connected with the environment, connected with the care of animals and nature, and care for the poor. There had never been a Pope Francis.”
Another innovation: Francis is the very first Jesuit out of 266 pontiffs—a decidedly worldly priestly order that stresses intellectual rigor, humility, poverty, obedience to the pope, and rolling up one’s sleeves to engage with society and the powers that be as well as the ordinary people of everyday life.
Paradoxically, given Francis’s ascendance to the top of ziggurat, the Jesuits also have a policy of spurning personal ambition.
“I think he’s incredibly smart, he’s incredibly driven, and he’s very, very disciplined,” Shriver said about Francis. “But the Jesuits take an oath that they cannot aspire to ecclesiastical office. They cannot aspire to be a bishop or a cardinal. If you feel that another Jesuit is trying to get a promotion, you’re supposed to report him.”
As the cardinal of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio had not only championed the poor and challenged the economic policies of two of Argentina’s modern presidents, Néstor Kirchner, and his widow Cristina Fernández de Kirchner—who considered him a dangerous political rival—he also lived a humble lifestyle in which he rode the bus, cooked his own food and rejected the perks of high office. Indeed, he lives today not in the papal palace, but in modest communal lodgings with other priests on the Vatican grounds.
“I wanted to dig in and find out whether he was the real deal or whether these were just PR gestures,” Shriver said, noting that as he rose in the Church hierarchy and became an increasingly public person, Bergoglio studied the communication techniques of Juan and Eva Perón, two captivating populists who initially were allied with the Church, only to lapse into a terrifying reign of fascist demagoguery and violence.
After interviewing colleagues, friends, and even enemies of Bergoglio, Shriver has concluded that the pope has always lived simply, close to the ground, long before he became one of the most celebrated humans on the planet.
Not that Pilgrimage—which is less a standard biography than an account of Shriver’s personal journey to better understand the leader of his Church—is a hagiography. Shriver writes about Bergoglio’s error-filled leadership of the Jesuits in Argentina, a post he took at the tender age of 36, in which he ruled by stiff-necked fiat, issuing edicts from on high, instead of by consensus and compromise.
The outrage generated by his authoritarian style over several years earned him the abrupt loss of his position and an exile of sorts from bright lights of Buenos Aires to the much smaller town of Córdoba in Argentina’s sleepy interior.
“He caused big dissention in the Jesuit order and essentially was banished for two years to the middle of Argentina,” Shriver said. “And two years later he was asked to be an auxiliary bishop. So it’s the story of a rise and a fall, and then a slow and steady rise. But the second rise was a rise of a different sort. He was much more merciful, much more forgiving, much more inclusive—not only of different religions but also different points of view.”
Shriver also devotes a chapter to Bergoglio’s controversial and ambiguous role during Argentina’s “Dirty War,” in which the right-wing military junta killed and tortured many thousands of citizens in a reign of anti-Communist hysteria from 1976 to 1983. Some have accused Bergoglio, who was leading the country’s Jesuits at the time, of being at worst complicit, and at best passive, regarding the government’s political violence.
Shriver concludes, however, that Bergoglio quietly worked to protect his flock behind the scenes and saved lives. “Who am I to judge?” he asks in the book—an echo of Pope Francis’s apparently tolerant attitude concerning Catholic LGBTQ people.
“All I know is that not one Jesuit died,” Shriver told The Daily Beast.
Meanwhile, the author finally did get his audience with his subject, but it was after the book had been largely completed and the encounter was exceedingly brief.
“My wife Jeannie and I, and our three kids, were invited to attend a mass with 20 other people in the little chapel in the Casa Santa Marta, where Pope Francis lives,” Shriver recounted. “After the mass, we exchanged a few words. A priest introduced us, and the pope told my kids, ‘Don’t forget to pray for me,’ and they said, ‘Ok, don’t worry, we will.’ It was over in a minute.”