What is the Francis Effect? Recent surveys show that despite all the hype since Jorge Mario Bergoglio first became pope in March 2013, there has been little change in how often Roman Catholics in America attend Mass. This is not to say, though, that the pope has not deeply changed the lives of many disaffected American Catholics. Here, Mark Shriver sets out to understand more about Pope Francis, and in the process, he experiences a personal Francis effect.
Shriver, son of Sargent Shriver and Eunice Kennedy Shriver—both devout and prominent members of the church—has something of a personal crisis of faith after his parents die. Things are not helped by the words and policies coming out of the Vatican: "With each pedophilia scandal," he writes, "with each corruption scandal, with each fumbling statement on homosexuality or the role of women or the status of Islam, I started to think that my father might have been mistaken, or at least too blindly loyal to the Catholic Church, if not the Catholic faith."
Shriver's grouping together of pedophilia scandals with the church's views on Islam may seem an odd juxtaposition, but he is representative of a certain kind of American Catholic, who objects not only to the deep problems that have plagued the church in recent years but who also wants the stamp of approval for his liberal political views, and is getting tired of waiting for it. Fortunately, Pope Francis came along at just the right time. Intrigued with his who-am-I-to-judge attitude toward gay people and his decision not to live in the Apostolic Palace but, instead, alongside his fellow priests in the Vatican guesthouse, Shriver sets out to learn about how Bergoglio became Pope Francis.
The grandson of Italian immigrants who came to Argentina between the wars, Bergoglio grew up with extended family in a world where family, neighborhood, and church all seem deeply intertwined. He was particularly close to his maternal grandmother Rosa, who fully embraced his decision to go to seminary, even when his parents weren't so sure. Shriver cites Bergoglio's recollections about Rosa, suggesting that she was responsible for the tolerant attitude toward those of other faiths that he has maintained. Upon seeing two women from the Salvation Army, Rosa told a young Bergoglio, "They are Protestants, but they are good." Bergoglio writes: "That was the wisdom of true religion. They were good women who did good things."
But her ecumenism was not a sign of weak faith. A letter she wrote to Francis in case she died before his ordination reads, in part:
May my grandchildren, to whom I gave the best of my heart, have a long and happy life. But if one day pain, illness, or the loss of someone they love should afflict them, let them remember that one sigh before the Tabernacle, where the greatest and most venerable of the martyrs is kept, and one glance at Mary at the foot of the Cross, will cause a drop of balm to fall on the deepest and most painful wounds.
Shriver marvels at the faith of this woman, but one suspects throughout Pilgrimage that it is his own sheltered life that is unusual. When interviewing one of the priests who works in an area rife with drug dealers wanting to kill him, Shriver writes, "I had never spent time with someone who gave his whole life to God at such risk." He still hasn't gotten past how his college buddy gave up sex to become a priest. Perhaps this is merely a matter of spending too much time in the United States and not enough time in places like Argentina. But here's a news flash: The whole world over there are people who sacrifice their own safety in the name of God every day. Shriver's endless interviews with every priest, cardinal, and taxi driver who had ever met Bergoglio prompt so many of Shriver's naïve musings.
Without taking anything away from the honorable and faithful work of Pope Francis—who lived a life mostly among the poor and downtrodden, who made attempts to sow peace across religious and political lines in a country that seems to know only discord, who tried to protect his colleagues from the dangerous power struggles of their time—it is worth noting that there are holy men and women living throughout South America, Africa, and the Middle East who do the same thing. Ultimately, what Shriver finds is a man of his time and place. Having been born and raised under Argentine governments that have run the gamut from socialism to fascism and back again, Bergoglio could hardly be anything else. He is a witness to the suffering of his fellow countrymen. But nothing ever seems to improve in his country.
Not surprisingly, Shriver is most touched by Bergoglio's statements on behalf of "social justice." It is time to stop being individualists, he has said, to stop studying the problems and start doing something about them. He decries the structural causes of poverty. Shriver is in thrall when the pope tells an audience of workers, "You are social poets: creators of work, builders of housing, producers of food, above all for people left behind by the world market." Never mind that they have no access to the world market—or any market since they live under oppressive regimes.
Shriver concludes that Pope Francis is "the real deal." But more important, perhaps, Shriver gets what he has been missing from his faith: confirmation that Catholicism is liberalism dressed up in nice robes.
Naomi Schaefer Riley, a senior fellow at the Independent Women's Forum, is the author of The New Trail of Tears: How Washington Is Destroying American Indians.