Mark Shriver, a Catholic in a funk, seeks out Francis

At left: Mark Shriver (CNS/Laurence L. Levin)
At left: Mark Shriver (CNS/Laurence L. Levin)

by Colman McCarthy

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Call them Pope Francis refugees: Catholics raised in the church who for one bleakness or another bolted but are now back in the pews, drawn by the humble and merciful Jesuit from Argentina.

It's a short stampede, though. According to a 2015 report by the Pew Research Center, 77 percent of American Catholics who forsook the church said they won't be back, while only 19 percent reported they might.

Most Who Have Left Catholic Church Say They Will Not Return


Include Mark Shriver in the latter, smaller group. But he confesses to being "skeptical, disillusioned, and uncertain whether the church remained a force for good in the world." He laments, "I just couldn't snap out of my funk."

The acedia didn't lead to his skipping Sunday Mass or becoming a Buddhist or Wiccan, only that he realized his heart wasn't in it. "I kept up my Catholic routine simply because my father and mother's faith had had such a strong influence on me," he recalls in the opening lines of the gracefully written and introspective account of his faith journey, Pilgrimage: My Search for the Real Pope Francis, published recently by Random House.

The parents to whom he refers are the late Sargent and Eunice Shriver, whose unwavering, beatitude-driven Catholicism moved them to lead Christ-centered lives that uplifted millions and millions, maybe more. Were they with us, it's a surety they would be as heartened and inspired by the refreshing leadership of Francis as is their son. But it's doubtful they would have gone beyond that, devouring the writings, homilies and interviews of Francis and then joining Mark, who headed south to Argentina to learn who and what shaped Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now in his fourth year in the papacy.

Taking time from his work in Washington, D.C., as president of the Save the Children Action Network, Mark's reportorial legwork won him a bounty of memorable stories. It took him to the Flores barrio where Jorge and his five siblings were raised by devout parents whose grace before meals included reciting the rosary; to his childhood schools; to his Jesuit novitiate in Cordoba; and to the Colegio Maximo for more studies and eventual ordination in December 1969. Fellow Jesuits were located, grilled for memories of Bergoglio as he rose in the ranks of his order and on the way up to hierarchical appointments as a bishop, cardinal and pope.

In an impoverished, dangerous and drug-infested neighborhood, Mark spent time with two parish priests assigned by Francis to minister to the poor. He writes that they and Bergoglio "were challenging my very concept of what it means to be a good Catholic. The [local] church was more than a place for worship or other sacraments — it was the center of the community. Their behavior and views were very different from what I was accustomed to, yet there was a sense of solidarity in their parishes that I had rarely seen or experienced in a Catholic parish in the United States."

He learns that the future pope would say Mass in a shed or let "dogs lap water at the foot of the altar."

"This was not the Catholic Church that I knew," he writes.

Mark's narrative about Francis is buffed with candid reflections and questionings about his own spiritual life and the vocational choices he has made. "Yes," he says, "I am trying to create systemic change for kids, but I am doing it from a comfortable office in Washington with a comfortable salary. I try to get children and parents involved with our work, but I am not living with them. ... My life isn't threatened by drug dealers, nor am I living in a bare room, sleeping in a single bed. I am pretty darn comfortable and content in my job, pretty darn comfortable and content in my life.

"Am I doing enough?"

By chance, Mark found something of an answer in a speech Francis gave in Philadelphia, Sept. 26, 2015, to a gathering of families: "Love is shown by little things, by attention to small daily signs which make us feel at home. Faith grows when it is lived and shaped by love. That is why our families, our homes, are true domestic churches. They are the right place for faith to become life, and life to become faith."

To his disappointment, and after nearly three years of researching for the book, Mark's request to interview Francis was declined. Not even a 15-minute quickie. As a consolation prize, a Vatican insider finagled an invitation for the Shriver family to attend a 7 a.m. papal Mass in June 2016, along with about 40 others.

I've been privileged to know Mark for decades. The honest and heartfelt prose in Pilgrimage confirms my long-held feelings that he is ably carrying on the idealism of his saintly parents.

[Colman McCarthy directs the Center for Teaching Peace in Washington, D.C. His books include Teaching Peace: Students Exchange Letters With Their Teacher.]

A version of this story appeared in the Feb 10-23, 2017 print issue.

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