Friday 29 March 2024

Pope biographer: You can tell that Francis lacks energy now

Where do we go from here? Explore Pope Francis' ideas with Austen Ivereigh  - Brentwood Diocese

When people call him a "friend of Francis", he thinks it's an exaggeration. 

Nevertheless, British journalist Austen Ivereigh and the Argentinian Pope have known each other pretty well since 2020, when they wrote the book "Dare to Dream" together

We talk to the papal expert about the revolution that the 2013 papal election was for the Church, why Francis is viewed so differently internationally and whether he could resign in the foreseeable future. 

Also: why Austen Ivereigh breeds sheep alongside his work as a journalist, and what this has to do with a papal encyclical.

Question: You have been following the Vatican and the papacy for many years, you were even in Rome for the conclave for the election of Benedict XVI in 2005. So you have an overview of these last three pontificates. Now we are eleven years on from the election of Pope Francis. Looking back today: How significant was this election back then? Did you realise beforehand that a new kind of pope was coming into office? Some people had already said beforehand that it was time for a pope who didn't come from Europe.

Ivereigh: You just mentioned the election of Benedict XVI in 2005, I can still remember it well. At that time, I worked for the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, who played a major role in the preparations for this conclave. He told me about this archbishop from Buenos Aires and that many people had high hopes for him. I also said somewhere in an interview at the time that I expected the new pope to come from Latin America. Of course, the election turned out differently, we know that. I later became more involved with Bergoglio's life and was fascinated by this person, which is why I was able to publish my biography "The Great Reformer" so soon after his election.

The moment Bergoglio stepped onto the balcony of St Peter's Basilica in March 2013, I knew that this signalled a significant change of direction for the Church. However, it would be presumptuous to claim that I expected everything that then came our way. From the outset, however, I was intrigued by the question of how this pontificate could be traced back to his work in Latin America, as provincial of the Argentinian Jesuits and as archbishop. I already had a certain amount of prior knowledge because I had written my doctoral thesis on the Church in Argentina. I was then able to draw on that. All I had to do for my biography was connect the dots, so to speak. However, my fascination with this person was always at the forefront. From the very beginning, I found him to be a captivating personality, a person of unexpected depth

Question: That was a time when many voices were saying that something had to change in the church. The worldwide abuse scandal was becoming increasingly clear, as was the financial scandal in the Vatican. Would you have thought back then that the Church needed a kind of turning point?

Ivereigh: I think there was a huge hunger for reform in the church in the meetings before the conclave. No matter who was elected, they would have had to tackle these issues. The Curia in particular needed to be reformed, there were so many huge construction sites. Francis himself often mentioned that his reforms were actually only due to the mandate of his brothers, that they had elected him precisely for this purpose.

But the main task here also goes much deeper. I now understand this when it comes to the question of electing a pope. When the cardinals ask themselves who they want to elevate to the papacy, they focus on one question: evangelisation. The big question for the cardinals in 2013 was: Why is this no longer working? Why are we no longer reaching people with our message, especially in the Western world? At the time, Bergoglio gave a short but now very famous speech to his brothers. He delivered a spiritual diagnosis of the state of the Church, not a theological argument. He criticised the fact that the Church was only concerned with itself and no longer with people. This apparently moved his brothers deeply and ultimately led to his election. The cardinals sensed that someone was recognising the signs of the times.

I could say a lot more about this, as this speech in turn refers to an old sermon that he gave at a meeting of Latin American bishops in 2007. So the story goes much deeper than that. But the important thing is to know: As far as the cardinals' expectations for a new approach to church are concerned, he hit the nail on the head with his words.

I recently spoke about this with the Czech theologian Tomas Halik. He said that for him, John Paul II and Benedict XVI completed the Church's long and painful process of coming to terms with the modern world. Francis has now opened a new chapter for this Church. A church of the post-modern, post-secular world, or whatever you want to call it. I think that when we look back on his pontificate decades from now, this will be his great legacy. He has led the Church into a new era.

Question: We can't go through eleven years of his pontificate now, but one thing that always surprises me is how differently Francis is viewed in different cultures. In Germany, he is currently seen as a conservative who stands in the way of necessary reforms, while in the USA he is sometimes labelled a radical left-wing heretic. How is that possible when everyone is hearing the same words and the same message?

Ivereigh: The answer lies in hermeneutics. Through which lens do people view Pope Francis and his pontificate? It is true that in Germany he is currently seen as an obstacle on the necessary path to liberalising the Church. In Eastern Europe and in conservative circles in North America, he is seen as a dangerous leftist. How do you reconcile these two views? Both have to do with fears and hopes in the respective cultures. If you see him as an obstacle to your own hopes, or as an element that feeds your own fears, then you clearly have a negative image of Francis.

Incidentally, the same thing happened with Jesus. The Pharisees were good people. They followed the law, had a passionate faith in the God of Israel, yet they had big problems with Jesus and his message. They saw him as a teacher with important authority, but they also had great reservations. The same can be said of Francis' critics. I don't think I know anyone who doubts his ability to lead. But whether you approve of the direction the Church has taken under him depends on the personal lens through which you view him.

However, after eleven years of following his words and actions closely, I can say one thing with conviction: the people of God understand him and his message. Ordinary people often understand him better than the so-called experts. I also believe that the majority of bishops and cardinals are behind him. The opposition may make big waves and headlines, but in the end they remain a small minority.

Question: So the criticism is not about the facts, but about what people see in him and make of him?

Ivereigh: With his government work, he is completely in the mainstream, in the political centre of the Catholic world. Just like almost all popes before him. The further you move away from this centre, the more problematic you see Francis' pontificate. I see a certain genius in him and his way of leading the Church. I also saw this in Benedict XVI and John Paul II: an ability to navigate the tensions between right and left with the office, to endure these tensions so that they also bear fruit. In a sense, all popes have to do this, but I see a particular talent for it in Francis.

What sets him apart from his predecessors is that he is not afraid of controversy and tension. He even likes it when people bring in different points of view. At the start of the Synod on the Family, he said: "There are only two rules here. Speak with conviction and listen with humility." He wants people to speak the truth as they see it. Only then can we define these tensions and seek the will of the Holy Spirit. What is the greater task we have to face today as a church? I believe this is his core message, which also explains his efforts towards synodality and everything else he has strived for in these eleven years. We need the humility to understand that our point of view may not be the full and only truth. We can only open ourselves to the truth if we come together and see the other side.

Question: We are talking to you not only as biographers, but also because you also have a relatively close personal relationship with Pope Francis. What does that look like?

Ivereigh: I've read in some articles that I'm a friend of the Pope. I wouldn't go that far, friend would be too much. The first time we really sat down and talked was in 2018, when I was already working on my second biography about him. He had asked for this meeting through a mutual acquaintance and he said some really nice things about my books and articles. In fact, he said that I was "too nice" in my reporting on him. But he had also given me an important message about why he leads the church the way he does, and that gave me a deeper understanding of him and his work.

We didn't really have much contact after that. It wasn't until the coronavirus lockdown that this relationship became closer. I contacted him at the time because he had given a series of interviews in the Italian and Spanish media. I asked if something like that would be possible in English. We then recorded a short, 3,000-word interview. I was very, very impressed. At that point, I knew his style and his CV very well.

There is one thing for which he has a very special talent: In Argentina, he was also called the "storm pilot" at the time. Bergoglio is your man in a crisis. He knows how to navigate the stormy seas, he sees where the rocks lie beneath the surface. And he sees the horizon in the distance, towards which we are heading. So when the coronavirus crisis hit, he had an important message for humanity about how we can come out of the crisis better than we went in.

It was precisely this message that I wanted to take out into the world with him, so I suggested that we write a book about it together, which became "Dare to Dream!" and was published at the end of 2020. We weren't physically together during the writing process because we were both in lockdown. But we still had a lot of contact, and that's how this collaborative relationship came about. A certain level of trust then developed. I've seen him again a few times since then.

Question: Now, the Pope is a person you initially have a lot of respect for and perhaps also a little nervousness. How do you get from there to the point where you're writing a book together as colleagues?

Ivereigh: I would describe it as a working relationship first and foremost. I'm not the only one, he has such projects with several journalists from different countries. I would say that on a human level, I was incredibly nervous when we first met. That still happens every time we meet. I can hardly sleep the night before and am constantly thinking about what I want to ask him.

I think it has more to do with the position than with him as a person. As soon as we're sitting opposite each other, everything is fine, he can take away that nervousness very quickly. We laugh, make jokes, he's a very welcoming person. But the office instils this great respect. I have great respect for that. But that has more to do with the spiritual authority he embodies than with him as a person. And with the incredible responsibility that this office entails. That's why any idea of a friendship or relationship on the same level would simply be impossible. I'm not saying this out of politeness, this is really my feeling, I have too much respect for this position of the Pope.

But what I have learnt to understand much better and more closely over these years is what moves him on the human side. His physical weakness, for example, which becomes more and more obvious with age. Let's go back to that first meeting. The title of my first biography of the Pope was "The great Reformer", and I am not ashamed of that, because he is a great reformer. But he had a problem with it because he thought it would suggest the myth of a heroic leader. Of course he is a person who has a talent for leadership, but he said that is a far cry from what the title suggests. He said when he was elected in 2013, he had absolutely no plan on how to approach the office. He thought he'd be back in Buenos Aires after a few days. Since then, he said, he has simply been doing the best he can. You have to keep all that in mind if you want to understand his leadership. And I think I do that better now than I did before. That's why my second biography of 2019 is called "Wounded Shepard".

I see his leadership style as really humble, in the sense that he doesn't try to impose his own opinion on the church. He tries to act decisively, but in a discernment of spirits. In other words: What points of view are there? What tensions? Let's talk openly about this until we find a common path and have clarity about where the Holy Spirit wants to lead us. And he does this with conviction. So there is no contradiction between humility and conviction. But he does not pursue a theological agenda at all, and that is the true humility of his ministry. He governs from the words of the Gospel and follows the words of Jesus: God is love and we are in search of the kingdom of God, that is his conviction and that is what people need to understand. To see Christianity, you have to see Christ first. Only then do you understand the rest, otherwise it doesn't make much sense.

He wants to bring these values into today's world and very specifically onto the streets. When it comes to the church, the first thing people should see and understand is that someone here wants to embody God's love. He talks about this a lot, and I think that's why he is so approachable and open to people. That's why he also works with people like me, I think as Pope he sees the signs of the times in such gestures. And that's why he speaks out against the old days of clericalism, but also, in a wider context, against the logic of the capitalist economy, where people are not at the centre. That is why he is also disturbed by reforms in the church, which mainly want to reform the institution. People should reform themselves and orientate themselves towards Christ.

Question: You mentioned his physical weakness. What do you expect from this Pope in the coming months? Some are already drawing parallels with John Paul II. How is he dealing with old age?

Ivereigh: I don't see these parallels with John Paul II. He really did have a serious illness that characterised the last years of his life. Parkinson's disease had already severely limited him. Francis is far removed from that. He has two problems: his knees and his lungs. I think what frustrates him most is that he can no longer walk properly. The lungs are not so dramatic. He has weak lungs and therefore doesn't get rid of a cold as quickly as other people. He's 87 years old, so what can you expect? The important thing is that he's in a good mental state - and I can absolutely confirm that from our last meetings. I don't think his intelligence and receptiveness are impaired in any way. But you can tell that he somehow lacks energy now. He always had this huge drive and a lot of pressure behind him, but that's no longer the case. He's become much calmer. And he's travelling less and taking shorter trips. He also had to cancel his visit to Dubai last November.

But these are all minor things. I don't believe that this has limited his ability to lead the church. And I think he sees it the same way. If it comes to that, then I think he would also be prepared to relinquish the office. This is the legacy of Benedict XVI, which he has often spoken about, that his predecessor opened this door.

What do the next few months look like? It all depends on how his health develops. At the moment, I don't see any signs of him stepping down in the near future. On the other hand, I also know that the most important thing for him is to make decisions of his own volition and in full freedom. So when the time comes for him to step down, we probably won't see it coming.

Question: You have just published a book in English in which you explain spiritual exercises in the spirit of Pope Francis, called "First belong to God". The Pope even wrote the foreword for it. How did you convince him to do this?

Ivereigh: Our last book "Dare to Dream!" was a collaboration, but it was actually his book, I just helped him write it. But this is really my book now. But it is very much inspired by him, as I dug up many of his old retreat texts from Argentina for it. Many messages from his pontificate have also found their way into the book. The book describes eight days of spiritual exercises and provides reflections and meditations. I have organised the chapters according to the individual days and formulated questions and reflections for each day. The idea of the book is to better understand the spirituality of Francis' pontificate. We cannot understand this Pope through the lens of politics or society, but only through his personal spirituality. In the foreword, he describes very nicely that this book allows for spiritual exercises to better understand his pontificate.

One of the things he mentions in the foreword is that this is not a time when we should hide away and leave the world at the door. This image is a very important part of Francis' message and also an important part of that famous speech to the cardinals that we talked about.

Question: What gives you hope?

Ivereigh: Hope is what this pontificate brings me personally. I am very grateful that we have someone at the head of this church who has a clear view of the signs of the times and can communicate what we need as Christians and people today. And I believe this is also being well received.

Despite all the negative headlines at the moment, I can see that Francis' message is resonating with people. People are awakening and discovering a new love for creation. They are caring for the weak, for marginalised groups. There is a new awareness of these issues, and that gives me hope, because this is the only way we can get a little closer to the kingdom of God. St Francis likes to say: hope is never wasted.