Austen Ivereigh

Austen Ivereigh: Return to the people

Francis' role today, the Church's journey, and personal conversion in the context of our world in crisis. From June Traces, a (virtual) conversation between Latin America and the British journalist who is one of the foremost experts on Bergoglio.
Veronica Pando

It was so improbable that an Englishman would be chosen in this moment to communicate with an Argentinian pope.” For the British journalist and writer Austen Ivereigh, the opportunity to interview Pope Francis in this epochal moment was “a great gift.” He did not expect that “precious gem”; that is, the pope’s audio-recorded responses to the questions he had proposed. They took him by surprise by arriving when he was quarantining and in his garden, about about to plant a large jasmine in the Hereford countryside near the Welsh border.
Ivereigh is the author of the insightful biography of Bergoglio, The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope, and conducted a recent interview with the pope about the pandemic (published in The Tablet and also in Commonweal, ABC, and La Civiltà Cattolica). “You should lead this webinar: you know the pope better than I do,” he told the ten or so Argentinean bishops who on April 22nd attended the meeting entitled “The Leadership Role of Francis in the Time of Coronavirus,” a long-distance dialogue with five hundred people throughout Latin America, which had its start in the friendship Ivereigh developed with the curators of the exhibit “Gestures and Words” at the 2018 Meeting of Rimini. We offer excerpts from the conversation here.

How do you see Francis’s leadership in this moment? Where is the Holy Spirit leading us?
I think of his prayer in Saint Peter’s Square on the evening of March 27th. The pope spoke of conversion, of the need to trust in God, who is the Lord of history. He used the metaphor of a “storm.” It is an apocalyptic moment, in the sense that it reveals things we must learn. I think that some features of his view of the crisis resemble his writings from the 1980s about tribulation and institutional ruin. In every tribulation, crisis, or loss of control there is an invitation to conversion, a grace that God offers us; we should be open to it and not miss the opportunity given. Francis’s leadership in this time of the coronavirus pandemic is operative: he is like a spiritual director who shows us where the grace of conversion is. But obstacles and temptations can close our mind to this opportunity. “Let’s not miss the opportunity that the crisis offers us,” he told me with insistence during the interview. It is difficult to speak in this way, because the news is shocking; there are so many deaths to mourn and so many people sacrificing themselves, so much uncertainty about work and increasing poverty. Speaking of an “opportunity” can seem truly insensitive. But the pope’s leadership concentrates on the suffering and on how to respond to it: this is what changes us. He is showing us the new horizon, the new society, that can emerge. Above all, I think that we should not transform the experience into a discourse: he is offering the church some indications in this moment about how to be close to each other and not yield to the temptation to turn in on ourselves, even while we pay the necessary attention to the contagion.

In light of your first book, The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope, how do you see the journey of his pontificate? What did you want to say to the church and the world with your new book, Wounded Shepherd?
It has not yet been translated into Spanish, but it would be Pastor Herido. The subtitle–Pope Francis and His Struggle to
Convert the Catholic Church
–is important, a provocation, because it refers to the pope’s struggle to convert the church. It dwells on what I have learned about the central theme of his pontificate, which is not institutional reform, but conversion. I begin the book with a little mea culpa. A few months after his election, when I wrote The Great Reformer, like many others I was deeply impressed by Bergoglio. I studied his life and realized that in key moments of history he has been a great leader. So I believed a bit in the myth of the “superhero” who arrives during a crisis and solves things through his personal gifts and genius. There is no doubt that Francis has the qualities of a leader, but I exaggerated his protagonism. When I met him in 2018, while I was beginning to write the second book, he gently warned me against this temptation, telling me that I should not idealize his protagonism because the protagonist of conversion and change is not him, but the Holy Spirit. As his disciple, I understood that his role is to create the space for conversion and the conditions for the action of the Holy Spirit. The new book is based on the idea that people can learn what I have learned from him. His way of being a leader is not easy to understand from a “political” point of view. The fundamental objective of his pontificate is to put Jesus at the center again, making the Holy Spirit the protagonist and helping us to understand that the true dynamic factor of change is spiritual: every life experience and the historical experience a society goes through is an opportunity to reassess priorities. In my book, I write about the reform of the Vatican mentality, the passage from “dominion” to “service.” Basically, Francis is seeking a hermeneutical conversion: he does not expect people to think the way he does, but to see humanity more through the eyes of the Good Shepherd. This is the gospel, which does not use power to effect change, but changes our approach, and thus changes everything. This is the great theme of the pontificate.

During the emergency, the pope referred to a bishop who corrected him on the “virilization” of the church. Francis said that “familiarity with Christ without community,” without the church and the sacraments, is very dangerous and can become “gnostic familiarity,” separated from the holy people of the faithful. What does this mean?
The church in which we live today, which I call “the home church,” is an opportunity to experience the church as the people of God, similar to the early church, which did not have the support of laws and large institutions. We know from the Acts of the Apostles that the faith was lived at home, in the community, like you of Communion and Liberation. But at the same time, the church can never cease being rooted in the sacramental presence and in the presence of the believing people, of the common people. Any temptation to create a bourgeois church, more intellectual or made up of people with good manners... are all attempts to create a pure or Pelagian church. It is not the church of Christ. As I clumsily hazarded in the interview questions, perhaps this is not the moment to live the church as an institution, but the pope responded, “There is no contradiction. The church is an institution, but the protagonist of the church is the Holy Spirit, who institutionalized and deinstitutionalizes it at the same time.” In other words, today’s situation demands pastoral creativity. We are already receiving daily Mass through virtual liturgies as a great gift from our pastors and we hope to learn to use these means for living communion more deeply. But at the same time, it is not an alternative to the real church: it is only the response to a crisis. Later we will return and recover the corporality and sacramentality of the presence of the people of God around the Eucharistic table, together with its shepherd. This is the church, and it will always be so.

A central question ever since the beginning of his pontificate has been holistic ecology and “the culture of waste.” The pope has dealt with these themes in the midst of the pandemic and he has developed them in the midst of our woundedness. What new elements do they introduce?
Francis speaks about extreme climate change as the consequence of environmental degradation caused by our overconsumption and overspending. For this reason, he stresses that now is the time to reestablish our bond with the environment, to realize that we are co-created with creation. If we are conscious of this gift, we will learn to respect each other. It is the moment to see things we did not see before. In listening to his audio answers, at a certain point his voice became very calm and instead of reading (he had made notes), I had the impression that his speaking was being guided by the Holy Spirit. It struck me. He said, “I want to stop here. This is the moment to see the poor, because we have not seen them. We have behaved as if we were the lords of all of creation.” Regarding holistic ecology and the conversion of our economies, I would like to suggest the pope’s letter to the popular movements ( written during the Easter season. The coronavirus pandemic is teaching us that our life depends on those who serve. Just think of healthcare workers. It is time to reorganize our societies and economies according to this new awareness: it is a moment of conversion that is not only personal but also social and economic. Western governments have put the economies on hold to save lives, but it is clear that the consequences of this will be difficult. We cannot return to the previous model. In his letter to the popular movements, the pope proposed the provision of a universal income because now we have to think of things that were in- conceivable before. We have placed so much hope in the market and the state. Now is the moment to open ourselves to other forms of more humane socioeconomic organization.

What road does Francis propose for Latin America, home to 50 percent of the world’s Catholics, whose numbers are dwindling? How does he view the growth of Evangelicalism?
Francis’s diagnosis was expressed at Aparecida in 2007. In my book, I de- scribed it as the deepest discernment on the topic that the church has ever made. The foundation of his pontificate, the encyclical Evangelii gaudium, extends this discernment from Aparecida to the whole world. It views globalization and technological progress not as something to regret or merely to condemn, but as a fact of reality that has produced profound changes, above all in our relationship with institutions. Technocratic tendencies are undermining family ties and dissolving bonds of trust and brotherhood. In this context, it is impossible for the church to continue to trust itself to institutions as the modality for transmitting the faith from generation to generation. Perhaps it is time to recover the model of the early church, which did not depend on laws or the support of institutions, but had an experience to communicate: its encounter with the merciful love of God. This is an experience, not an idea. As Benedict XVI and Fr. Luigi Giussani said, the experience of an encounter with a person is what changes your horizon. When we communicate this as Christians, the church will grow again. But you have to realize that the church may lose many faithful along the way, those who are faithful for cultural or institutional reasons, more than out of conviction. Secularization is an experience of loss. However, for Francis it is important to see what is growing. The coronavirus pandemic is accelerating this tendency toward loss; for example, because it is impossible to go to Mass. In this crisis, the invitation is to live a deeper interior life in an encounter with Christ through prayer. I think that above all in Latin America, we will see a church acting according to the famous metaphor of the church as a “field hospital” in the midst of poverty and unemployment. Many will ask, as they did during the 2001 crisis in Argentina: Where is the Church? Has it left us? The other day I was thinking that Bergoglio has already faced an extraordinary crisis in Argentina’s economic collapse. He was a helmsman in the storm; he mobilized the church, and Argentineans have not forgotten how he accompanied them. At Saint Peter’s he said, “This is a time of choosing.” Both for the church and for humanity, a dramatic set of choices has been presented. If both open themselves to the Holy Spirit, both will emerge from this crisis much stronger.

Gaudete et exsultate described two grave and subtle dangers facing contemporary Christianity, Pelagianism and gnosticism. How does the pope see the role of the ecclesiastical movements that arose after the Second Vatican Council as we face today’s cultural and historical challenges? Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI recognized the important role of the movements.
Francis appreciates the movements very much. As I noted in the first book, he believes there is a temptation to be self-referential, to a certain Pelagianism, and above all, gnosticism, in the bourgeois and intellectual tendency to believe that you have to “be one of us” to be a good Catholic. A Catholic movement must return to the people, but in the evangelical sense. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, it has a special gift or charism that it must place at the service of the church. We have seen the different ways in which the movements relate to the pontificate, but the future of the movements is certain.

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How does the pope see Europe?
I am convinced that he believes that the Old Continent is no longer capable of renewing itself through its own efforts because its attachment to power is very strong and because the technocracy has developed to the point of asking, Where is the holy, faithful people of God? When I met him in 2018, I asked him why he had so much faith in the people. He told me about pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela and the popular religiosity of Europe, but the idea that the European church can be reinvigorated at the roots by this popular religiosity is a chimera, unless there is a great change (like the one we are experiencing). The pope believes strongly in the enormous influence that migrants from places with a strong popular religiosity can have, and not only in terms of devotion, but as witnesses to an experience of en- counter with Christ in the life of the people. He is very concerned about the lack of solidarity and fraternity in the European institutions that has been become manifest during this crisis. Only by recovering a bond with the people will these institutions be reinvigorated. The coronavirus pandemic and the economic crisis are this opportunity for Europe.

Read the June issue of Traces