Papal biographer Austen Ivereigh speaks to Catholic Outlook (Part One)

By Adrian Middeldorp, 11 June 2019
Austen Ivereigh. Image: Diocese of Parramatta.


Austen Ivereigh is a British writer, papal biographer, journalist, and commentator on religious and political affairs. He gave Adrian Middeldorp from Catholic Outlook the privilege of a wide-ranging two-part interview on Pope Francis, the Catholic Church and the Australian Plenary Council 2020.

Dr Ivereigh holds a PhD from Oxford University. His work appears regularly in the Jesuit magazine America and in other periodicals. He is well known on British media, especially on the BBC, Sky, ITV and Al-Jazeera, as a Catholic commentator. Dr Ivereigh is also a Fellow in Contemporary Church History at Campion Hall, Oxford. 

Part Two of this interview will be published tomorrow.



Catholic Outlook: Who is Pope Francis?

Austen Ivereigh: Well, he himself says that he’s a forgiven sinner. That’s how he defines himself. He’s an Argentine Jesuit who found himself as the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, elected as the Bishop of Rome in 2013. I suppose an attempt to restore the church of having Christ at its centre.

I called him in my biography the ‘great reformer’. I think the problem with that title is it implies he’s the one that’s bringing about the change. I think he would like to say that he’s opening up a process that allows Christ and the Holy Spirit to bring about the necessary changes.


CO: We’ve always been told ‘never to judge a book by its cover’ or by the title. Your first biography on Pope Francis you called Pope Francis the great reformer, and you have a new book coming out ‘Wounded Shepard, Pope Francis and The Struggle To Convert the Catholic Church’.

The latter has a much more sombre title to it. The former is more optimistic. In the passage of time what have you learned about Pope Francis and has your perspective changed at all and what sort of challenges is he facing, was that title change intentional?

AI: I think the title change does reflect my maturing view of him.

You can argue that the great reformer is much more positive, but you can also say that it’s more triumphalist, and I think ‘wounded shepherd’ reflects really what I’ve just said, he’s not in charge of the reform. He’s enabling the process, which allows the Holy Spirit to carry out that reform.

The reason I’ve chosen the title wounded shepherd is that he, through the sex abuse crisis, has been saying that the church needs to be a church of wounds. We need to embrace our wounds. So part of what got us into trouble was a belief in ourselves rather than a belief in the power of God. So that self-referentiality, that, illusion that the church exists of its own power, rather than the grace of God, is in many ways the key challenge to the church’s conversion and so he’s inviting the church into that conversion.

I think he himself sees himself as wounded, imperfect. He’s made bad decisions. He apologises. I mean this is a pope who issued one of the most historic apologies for what he got wrong. He’s not infallible and he’s not trying to be. I think the humility is actually key to the reform that he wants to suggest, and that’s really I suppose much more the argument of this second book, which is looking back on the pontificate. The first one I wrote within months actually of his election.

This one is looking back on the six years of the pontificate. Of course what he’s encountered along the way has been a huge resistance, and the resistance to the papacy has, I think, become part of the story of the papacy in a way that I hadn’t anticipated when I first started writing the book back in 2015.


CO: Just talk me through that course obviously you had some idea from knowing him quite well with writing biographies on him. Has Pope Francis’ pontificate panned out exactly how you thought it might or were there more curve balls than you expected?

AI: I think what nobody foresaw, including him, was last year, was the annus horribilis as its been come known. Where you get this whole series of revelations about the past coming together in the most astonishing way, in a way that really suggests that God is at work, the spirit is at work in history, and that I think is how the pope has come to see the crisis. I think he had to learn that in a way through Chile.

When I first started the book, which was, 2015-2016, Laudato Si’ had come out, and before that Evangelii Gaudium. The direction of the papacy was really quite clear in what he was trying to do in terms of introducing synodality.

There was a reform agenda there that was quite clear and so the task initially seemed to go well. Here’s the reform that Pope Francis was seeking to bring about. I think last year became a time of tribulation, a time of deep distress for the church, in which his own discernment from the reforms to which I think he had been summoning the church, have been accelerated and intensified by this crisis. But also in a way that, which have also highlighted the resistance.

I think in a way the Church’s conversion has become much more of a bit like our own journey of personal conversion. Just at the moment where the crisis is at its greatest and our mechanism seems to have failed, is the moment of course when God’s grace is offered to us, but it’s also the moment where we encounter the greatest temptation and resistance. So I think that’s much more the drama now of the church that we’re living in right now. And I think that’s what he’s aware of.


CO: Pope Francis is incredibly popular, even though in the media the honeymoon is well and truly over with the resistance he has encountered, do you think he is a lonely Pope?

AI: No, I don’t.

I mean he’s first of all in terms of his popularity, we can be easily distracted by the resistance to this papacy which is very noisy, and vociferous, but it’s actually confined, above all, to certain American middle class, and in other English-speaking countries.

But if you take the Catholic Church as being the holy place for people of God as he likes to call the church, that totally with it, and the vast majority of the Bishops are with him, and clergy, there’s huge love and support for this pope. And all the popularity, the opinion polls and so on, continue to show, even after this extraordinary year in which the entire church leadership has been called into question, he remains extremely popular now. With the Americans, you know, it’s down from 90% to 70%, but he still gets the kind of popularity ratings that most politicians would just dream about.

You know, it’s not about popularity and he, himself isn’t looking for popularity. That’s why one of the advantages of the papacy is that, having been elected, they don’t have to justify themselves in elections. So Pope Francis is really doing what he believes is the will of God, whether or not it’s popular, and of course it’s deeply unpopular in certain quarters, but I think the people of God are with him.


CO: In a recent Commonweal Podcast recorded before the Vatican’s recent meeting  “The protection of Minors in the Church”, you made a prediction about Pope Francis going to give one of his most important speeches of his pontificate. Was the speech what you expected?  

AI: It was a very important speech, it was however not well received.

I think, part of the reason it wasn’t well received was that the expectations of what he would say were wrong. I thought it was a very important speech. The first third of it he broadened out the whole question of abuse to the wider, the issue of exploitation of minors in general. I think what he was doing there was saying above all to those parts of the church which are in denial about the clerical sex abuse of minors issue, particularly in Africa where they say ‘well look this is a Western problem’, our issue is child poverty.

The Pope was saying well actually if you care about them, if you care about the exploitation of children soldiers, you need to care about the sexual exploitation of minors as well because it’s part of the same evil. Now I thought that was a very important thing to do. To locate abuse of minors, as you’d expect the pope to do, within a broader and deeper context of evil, a particular kind of evil which has taken root in the church through clericalism.

Partly, I think as a way of saying, when the church deals with the clerical sex abuse of minors issue it’s not doing it just for its own sake. It’s also launching a campaign against an evil. The church doesn’t exist for itself, it exists for humanity. So I think that was what he was trying to do there. I thought, actually, the rest of his speech was very much actually in line with a lot of what he’s been saying to Chile, to the people of God in the letter of all this last year, and his message to the U.S. bishops, for example. Most of it didn’t surprise me, and I thought it was actually extremely good.

But I guess if what I meant was this will be a speech that would command, you know, the respect of the world, I think I got that wrong.


CO: You’re quoted in The Washington Post saying the defrocking or laicisation of Cardinal McCarrick was a signal moment. What made it a signal moment?

AI: It was signal moment because he was a Cardinal.

This was the first ever Cardinal laicised for sex with seminarians. That’s why it was sending a message that offenders will face the justice. If they can’t face the justice of the civil courts, like in the McCarrick case because of the statutes of limitations, they will face justice in the church’s own courts. Nobody is beyond the reach of the law of the church.


CO: The Church in Australia has been embarking on a process of a plenary council. Is there any attention in other parts of the world to what church is doing in this regard.

AI: I can’t say there’s a lot.

I personally have been very aware of it, because I can remember back in October the 17th of 2015 when the pope gave his, famous speech on the synodality. Archbishop [Mark] Coleridge [Archdiocese of Brisbane], of course, was there and spoke afterwards of how moved he had been. I think it was pretty soon after that he said this is what we now need to do.

I think it is brilliant that the Australian church is responding to a crisis brought about by clericalism. They’re responding to it with a mechanism of synodality. Now that’s exactly what Francis has been saying over the last year. That you can’t resolve the sex abuse crisis without healing the very roots of the evil, which are in, you know, this attitude of superiority, this aristocratic mentality as he calls it of clericalism.

Which by the way isn’t just of clergy, right? I mean lay people and religious can also have the same mentality. The church has to be purified, it has to be purged of that, and it can only do that by opening itself to a different way of being. Which I think is summed up in synodality, which is what? Which is listening. Which is participation, which is consultation, which is discernment of the Holy Spirit, which I present already in his people.

Francis’ great discernment is that if the church in the West has been shrinking, it’s not because God is abandoned these people, it’s because the church has. The institutional church in focusing in on itself, and existing for itself has, as it were, abandoned the people.

For the church to grow through this crisis and to begin evangelising again, it has to reconnect with God already present in the people. How do you do that? By inviting them in and listening. So without knowing a huge amount about the process here, I personally am admiring it from afar.


CO: Can you see the other bishops conferences following suit?

AI: I would actually love to have done some monitoring of which cishop’s conferences or which dioceses around the world have embarked on synodal process as a result of the 2015 speech.

The short answer is I don’t know.

What I do know is that anecdotally a number of dioceses, although I’m not aware of bishop’s conferences, but for example the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires for example is doing a three-year synodal process. Portugal, I know that they’ve been doing them as well. These are a couple of examples of it happening.

This is the key to the future, I think synodality needs to take hold at every level of the church, and I think looking back on this pontificate, I think historians will say that it wasn’t his financial reforms, as good as they’ve been, it’s actually the reform of governance and particularly in having revolutionised the bishops and having introduced the culture of synodality. The level of church, I think is, will be seen as one of his great contributions.


CO: Do you think it’s important for ordinary Catholics, and obviously we have a focus on the Catholics in Western Sydney and the Blue Mountains, do you think it’s important for ordinary Catholics to get onboard and support our pope, if so how do you think they can do this?

AI: The pope isn’t interested in being a superstar, we don’t need to go back to a kind of, papolitry or ultramontanism.

I think that’s wrong, and I don’t think he wants that.

What he’s been, in a way, doing in decentralising and delegating, and handing teaching authority back to the bishops conference is trying to reduce, the role of the papacy in that sense. As somebody once said to me there are only two important people in the lives of a Catholic, it’s the pope and your parish priest right?

Actually, a Bishop said that to me once, he’s said it very humbly. For a Catholic, your parish priest matters, and the Pope matters as he is Vicar of Christ. He stands for Christ. He models Christ, and he is the icon of the church in the world. So I think it’s important that people follow the pope, that they read him, that they try to understand him.

My advice, as someone who spends a lot of my time, as you can imagine, answering questions about Pope Francis such as “Why did Francis say this that or the other”, is when you read a report that says Pope Francis just said this outrageous thing, you know, be suspicious.

First of all, it’s probably been misreported. Secondly, it may well have been mistranslated, I can give countless examples of this. He’s very approachable, very pastoral, free-wheeling kind of Pope. He speaks like a pastor, not like a professor, which means he speaks colloquially, which of course is prone to misunderstanding.

Don’t always leap to the first conclusion about what you read and try to understand him. As somebody who’s been immersed in his thought and in his life now for some years, in many ways it’s kind of taken over my life, the depth and richness of his thinking, and his spiritual leadership is astonishing. I think he’s a spiritual genius. I think, he has considerable intellectual without being a formal or professional theologian.

It’s impossible, to read his homilies, and read his teaching documents, and not be brought into contact, in a very direct way with the Gospel.




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