For Mark K. Shriver, Catholicism was more than a religion—it was inherently linked to his very identity. The "cradle" Catholic is a member of one of the most famously Catholic families in American history: the Kennedys.
The nephew of John F. Kennedy, America's only Catholic president, is the son of parents who attended daily mass. He was an altar server three times a month and observed all the Catholic holidays and traditions. But even after attending a Jesuit high school and college, Shriver started to feel disconnected from the church he'd know his whole life. After the deaths of his parents (his mother, Eunice Shriver was JKF's sister), a close friend, and his last living uncle, that disconnect began to morph into a funk.
"I had been yearning for a Church I could believe in again," says Shriver in his new book, Pilgrimage: My Search for the Real Pope Francis. Try as he might to channel his late father's spiritual fervor, Shriver grew increasingly disgusted with what he felt was a real division between the hierarchy of the Catholic church and the "foot soldiers" he was seeing on the ground: dedicated, honest priests and nuns. Pedophilia scandals within the church, corruption, and fumbles on social issues Shriver held dear drove a wedge between the lifelong Catholic and the only faith he'd ever known. All it would take was one man, a man Shriver now calls a prophet, to energize the church and rejuvenate his soul.
"Jorge Mario Bergoglio's first statement as Pope Francis, delivered from his balcony at St. Peter's square on March 13, 2013, startled me," he says.
From his very first statement, Shriver was hooked. He couldn't get over his name—Francis. The simplicity of a name that was not only easy to say, (Benedict XVI is a bit of a mouthful) but held important meaning behind it. St. Francis, known for his love of the poor and commitment to peace, was familiar and intriguing to Shriver. And finally, Francis's request as he accepted his new position left the author stunned: Francis asked the world to pray for him.
Shriver's search to learn about the real Pope Francis took him to his birthplace in Argentina. There he learned more about the history of the country and how those roots are in the Pope's DNA. In a country with deep national pride, shaped by immigrants, and with very little separation between Catholicism and politics grew a young son of Italian immigrants into the outspoken Pope the world has come to know.
Acts like washing the feet of juvenile delinquents (some of them Muslim and female) on Holy Thursday shocked the world. Francis frequently bucks the tradition of what is expected of a Pope, and Shriver describes him as "the man we met through the media," referring to the many times Francis has gone viral.
Shriver spoke to Esquire.com about how Pope Francis brought him back to the church he'd known all his life and how Francis is "joyfully reforming a 2,000 year old institution."
In the book you discuss your Catholic upbringing and that you attended a Jesuit high school and college. How are Jesuits different from other priestly orders?
Mark Shriver: Jesuits are fantastic teachers. They are extremely well educated and well trained. They are often referred to as "the Pope's Army," because they are always packed and ready to go. They are serious and they will challenge you. They also don't believe in hierarchies. So it's their duty if the see someone trying to climb the ladder to speak out about that.
Since Francis was a Jesuit, that must have made it hard for him to accept the new job.
I think it did. His grandmother was literally a peasant from Italy. He's also not a typical Argentine in many ways. They are proud of their country, and a bit arrogant.
What did you learn about Argentina and how that played such an important role in his upbringing?
Buenos Aires in particular has a very strong sense of national pride. There were many Italian immigrants coming to Buenos Aires, and Bergoglio's family was among that group. They are referred to as "Peronists" because they lived during this sort of Golden Age of Juan and Eva Peron. They really transformed the country and there was no separation between the church and state. The Perons used their Catholicism to influence and better the lives of the citizens. So you had this strong intersection of faith and politics. His grandmother also protested against Mussolini in Italy, so he had this very bold, faithful, Catholic woman guiding him.
You're obviously from a very famously Catholic family. What was your faith like growing up?
My parents went to mass everyday. Catholicism was a serious issue in our home. I was an altar server. We observed all the holidays.
At the time your uncle was President, the discussion around faith and politics was pretty different than it is today. How do you think things have changed?
Kennedy was our first Catholic president. I think people were pretty afraid that a Catholic president would be beholden to the Pope. This was also just after Vatican II, so things were changing in the church. In 1960 in Argentina you had to be Catholic to be president. So I think this idea of separating church and state was unique to America.
The Pope is not a conservative or a liberal. He is who he is, and speaks about things that speak to all of us.
Now a lot of Catholics are aligned with a more conservative, Republican base.
One thing I've learned researching Francis so much is that the Pope is completely non-partisan. He's loyal to his boss, and as cheesy as that sounds, his boss is Jesus Christ. The Pope is pro-life, not pro-choice, but he's also completely against the death penalty. He's not a conservative or a liberal. He is who he is, and speaks about things that speak to all of us. He's just speaking to us from the Gospel.
You talk a lot about how this Pope has changed your life in a lot of ways. Can you discuss how it's made a practical influence in your life?
He's challenged me to look at the way I actually live my life. I remember seeing this one story about him where a prostitute thanked him for calling her "señora." That really hit me. I started thinking about the way I treat and see homeless people. Now I try to ask them their names and treat them with real humanity. Before I might have been annoyed or put off by them.
What made you think this Pope was different?
When he accepted the job, he said, "I'm a sinner, but I accept." Can you even imagine a politician in America saying that? I also came across this writing where he discussed his family. There had been a big falling out and huge financial losses. I think that strife in his family really drove home a sensitivity toward the poor.
You say that Pope Francis is "joyfully reforming a 2,000 year old institution." What does that mean to you and how do you see him making changes?
He wants us to have more intimate relationships with each other. I don't mean that in a sexual way. He means that we are all sinners, we are all poor in our spiritual life. We're all wounded in some way. So the intimacy is how do we enter into the chaos of our neighbor? It's overwhelming to think he could change the world. It's unrealistic. Francis is saying "no." Just change one thing at a time. Connect with one person at a time. It's these beautiful ripples that will change the world. Sometimes I think that he's crazy and that this won't work. But I really do see him as a prophet now.
Yeah, and like, what's the alternative, just give up?
Right. The alternative is just, what? Do whatever we want all the time, make a ton of money, and never care about anyone else?
This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.