Papal Biographer Discusses What Pope Francis Asks of the Catholic Church

November 26, 2019

When British journalist and papal biographer Austen Ivereigh, Ph.D., met with Pope Francis at the Vatican in June 2018, he braced himself when the pontiff remarked, “I just have one criticism,” regarding the book the writer wrote about him five years earlier.

“He said, ‘You are too kind to me,’” recalled Dr. Ivereigh during a lecture, “Close and Concrete: What Pope Francis Asks of the Church,” that he delivered on Thursday, November 21, on the Queens, NY, campus of St. John’s University. He explained the pope was referring to the way the author portrayed his prepapal life in his critically acclaimed volume, The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope (Holt, 2014).

After they shared a laugh, the pope conveyed a gentle bit of caution. “He was trying to say, ‘Do not put me on a pedestal. Do not make me out to be a Superman who is going to change everything about the Catholic Church,’” said Dr. Ivereigh, who has chronicled many of the first Latin American pope’s actions, including his steps to prevent the Vatican from declaring bankruptcy, accepting responsibility for years of sexual abuse and cover-ups by clergy, and his encyclical confronting climate change. “He has said before that he is not a reformer and does not want to be confused with the real power of the Church—Jesus Christ.”

Dr. Ivereigh shared these thoughts while addressing an audience gathered at the University’s St. Thomas More Church as part of a 17-city book tour to promote his second volume on the pope, Wounded Shepherd: Pope Francis and His Struggle to Convert the Catholic Church (Henry Holt, 2019), which was released on November 5. St. John’s Vincentian Center for Church and Society hosted the event in coordination with Campus Ministry

In his welcoming remarks, Rev. Bernard M. Tracey, C.M., M.Div., Executive Vice President for Mission, said of Dr. Ivereigh, “In his best-selling, authoritative biography, Dr. Ivereigh reveals how Francis’s Jesuit training in Argentina and Chile gave him a unique understanding and advocacy for a ‘Church of the Poor.’ At St. John’s, we find this emphasis to be spot-on as it offers a point of view that coincides with our Vincentian foundation and vision.”

“In his second work,” Fr. Tracey continued, “Dr. Ivereigh takes us inside the Vatican’s urgent debate over the future of the church... on issues such as ecology, the abuse crisis, and the need to be a more attentive institution.”

Much of Dr. Ivereigh’s talk was based on Wounded Shepherd, in which he describes Pope Francis’s work during the past six years to reform the Church to create a more welcoming institution that is centered on the needs of humanity—while rejecting power and a tendency to make judgments about others’ morality—and stand in unity with the poor.

He also took questions from the audience, including one regarding the extent of the pope’s commitment to include more women in leadership positions within the Catholic Church hierarchy.

Noting six women now serve in several key positions at the Vatican, Dr. Ivereigh said, “You may say that is not many women in key roles. But I interviewed all of those women for my new book and they all told me there is now a conversation going on about the role of women in the Church that was not happening in the past.”

One of those posing questions was first-year accounting major Anthony Lynch. “I attended this lecture because I want to learn more about who this man is who leads the Catholic Church, and from Dr. Ivereigh, particularly, because he has thoroughly researched, written about, and actually met with Pope Francis.”

Dr. Ivereigh holds a Ph.D. from the University of Oxford for a thesis on the Church in Argentina and is a Fellow in Contemporary Church History at Campion Hall, Oxford.