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Ivereigh’s Pope Francis: a “wounded shepherd” struggling for the conversion of the Church

Catholic author and journalist Austen Ivereigh’s follow-up to his critically acclaimed biography of Pope Francis will be on sale from November 5. As Ivereigh explains, “Wounded Shepherd: Pope Francis and His Struggle to Convert the Catholic Church” takes the reader on a journey though some key issues and episodes that mark this papacy’s reform in Rome and in the wider Church.

By Linda Bordoni

Austen Ivereigh’s soon to be launched book entitled “Wounded Shepherd: Pope Francis and His Struggle to Convert the Catholic Church” is much more than a continuation of his first biographical volume dedicated to the life of Jorge Bergoglio before he became Pope.

Listen to the interview with Austen Ivereigh

This book, he told me, “is about the pontificate, what happened with the reform over the last six years”.

He remarked on how, starting with the very different undertones in the title “which is rather less triumphalist, ” it reflects the problems and the difficulties Pope Francis has faced, but also how he conceives and thinks about his own leadership of the Church, and “that he doesn’t consider himself as being the architect of change”.

“The analogy I use in the book,” he explained, is that he’s much more like a Jesuit spiritual director, and it’s not the spiritual director who changes you when you go on a retreat, it’s God, it’s the Holy Spirit”.

So, Ivereigh said: “he facilitates, he guides, he points out the obstacles, he warns you against the temptations.”

A new kind of leadership

Thus, Ivereigh revealed, the central narrative highlights Francis’s particular brand of leadership: who this man is, how he is guiding the Church, what is he asking of us and what does he see the Holy Spirit asking the Church.

He confirmed that the book starts with a personal conversation he had with the Pope at the Casa Santa Marta which, he said, “was unforgettable for me”.

He told me that the Pope himself had asked to meet him and that he wasn’t sure whether it was an interview or not: “I had the recorder in my pocket but I never brought it out, and we spent a fascinating 45 minutes together”.

During that conversation, Ivereigh said, Pope Francis told him that he had read various things he had written about him and that he just had one criticism: “I froze thinking of the mistakes I had perhaps made,” but Francis smiled and said “I think you are too kind to me”.

“I promised I’d be a bit tougher on him in the future and we had a good laugh, he continued, but he described that remark as a kind of starting point for his belief that “He’s a different kind of a leader: He’s not putting his own authority and prestige above the unity of the institution, or above the institution itself”.

It really is a different kind of leadership, he continued, and people acknowledge and recognize that there is something in Francis that the world can learn from in leadership of institutions or of countries.

“In Wounded Shepherd I hope I draw out a few of those lessons for humanity,” he said.

The title of the book

I mentioned that in the title of the new book there is the suggestion of some controversy and Ivereigh agreed that the point of a good title is that it gives people something to talk about.

He recalled that the previous one was called “The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope” saying stemmed many interviews and  talks about the meanings of radical and reform.

Ivereigh said the reason he chose the title is because during the clerical sexual abuse crisis in 2018, the Pope spoke a lot about the Church having to face its wounds: “about the wounds of the victims and also the wounds of the Church and not being afraid of facing those wounds because that is part of the process of conversion”.

 “We must honestly face our wounds, accept the truth of our situation, and then in shame, invite the mercy of God to transform us: that is how conversion happens and that is how he is inviting the Church to convert,” he said.

A leadership that is not afraid of facing the wounds of the Church

Pope Francis’, he said, is  a leadership which is not afraid of facing the wounds of the Church and allowing God’s grace to transform it.

He also noted that the title may lead some to pick up the book thinking it’s about a man who is being heavily attacked – which is also true – but the ‘woundedness’ of which he speaks is much deeper, and has a theological resonance.

I asked him whether he thinks Pope Francis feels like a wounded shepherd

“I think he’s wounded in the sense he is carrying the wounds of the church: he’s carrying the wounds of humanity”, he answered pointing out that this is “a Pope who goes to a refugee camp and cries with the refugees, he goes around Myanmar doing everything he can for the Rohingya and then saying ‘the name of God is Rohingya’ and again, being prepared to cry.”

In carrying the problems of the world, Ivereigh said,  he is not afraid of the “woundedness of the world because he knows that we have a healer that can heal those wounds”.

And again, “The courage of allowing that brokenness to come forward is one of the marks of his pontificate: there is a boldness and a willingness to face what for most people is too uncomfortable to face.”

A pontificate in permanent motion

Ivereigh told me the structure of this book is more complex than that of the previous one that evolves according to chronological order. This one, he said, is about “a pontificate in permanent motion.”

“Sometimes it’s like trying to jump on  a train and then just as you get to look round, it gets to the next station!” he said.

Basically, he said, he has asked himself what are the most important stories of this pontificate? What will people remember about it? What will they still be talking about in 10 years’ time?

Ivereigh revealed that the themes he analyses include the financial reform in the Vatican, the curial reform, the Pope’s  battle with the Knights of Malta, the clerical sexual abuse issue.

And then, he said, “there is a chapter I’ve called Close and Concrete which is about the pastoral conversion that is the Latin American Church’s discernment of modernity and how to evangelize the modern world and how this has governed many of his choices.

There are also parts dedicated to Laudato Sì and to the Synod.

“The book ends with a chapter on Mercy,  on “Amoris Letitia” and on some of the controversies around that because I think that is really the heart of the pontificate and where it all comes together,” he said.

I asked him whether Pope Francis’ papacy had changed his own vision of the Church and of the world.

“Tremendously,” he replied, noting that he started to work on the biography shortly after the election and has been writing about him and giving talks about him ever since.

 “Inevitably I find myself constantly going to things that he said and has written as Pope, but also as Jesuit and as Cardinal Archbishop, and they have deeply shaped my own thinking, to the extent I sometimes find myself viewing the world a bit through his eyes,” he said.

That’s almost inevitable, he continued,  “if you really try to enter the skin of a really great person”.

“I have no doubt about his greatness. I think he is an extraordinary, brilliant man, intellectually in a way that people don’t see because his intelligence is such that he knows how to communicate as a pastor,” and his spiritual depth is also extraordinary as is his ability to read history: “to detect the motions of the Spirit in the events and how the Spirit is inviting the Church to respond”.

All this, he concluded “takes us to a depth of leadership which is very, very unusual in the world. Certainly he will be seen as one of the great Popes of this era.”

22 October 2019, 14:32