An excerpt from Pilgrimage: My Search for the Real Pope Francis

By Mark K. Shriver '86

With an introduction by Thomas Landy, director of the Rev. Michael C. McFarland, S.J. Center for Religion, Ethics and Culture

In a now-famous interview soon after Pope Francis’ election, an interviewer asked the new pope, “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?”  

Pope Francis famously replied, in very Ignatian fashion, “I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.” From the moment he stepped out onto the balcony in front of St. Peter’s Square and asked the people to bless him, and many times more as his papacy unfolded, Pope Francis has given us many reasons to really wonder, “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” Who is this man, and where on earth did he come from?  

Mark Shriver ’86, deeply moved by Pope Francis’ humility and mercy, wondered the same thing, and finally decided to find out. He traveled to Argentina, where he met with people who knew Pope Francis throughout the course of his life: as a child, as a young man discerning his call in life, as a young Jesuit superior during the Argentine Dirty War, as a man sent into exile in mid-life after a polarizing term as Jesuit provincial and as a bishop who lived simply and was at home among the poor and powerless.

Following the ups and downs of Bergoglio’s life led Shriver to reflect on his own life. He shares these reflections openly and honestly as the story develops. Holy Cross and his roommates are integral to Shriver’s account of his own self, as you’ll read in the excerpt printed here. And, as Shriver shared with students when he spoke on campus in November, the five-day Spiritual Exercises retreat he made as a senior, under the direction of the late Rev. Joseph J. LaBran, S.J., had a profound impact on his life. He realizes—and tells powerful stories that make us realize—just how much the person we know as Pope Francis today is the outcome of a long pilgrimage of Bergoglio’s own. In reading Pilgrimage, we see clearly how and why this man Bergoglio rekindled the flame of Shriver’s spiritual life, and how he challenges Shriver to live in new ways with the poor and the marginalized. 

—Thomas Landy

Chapter 9: A Novice

When I was twenty-one years old and starting my senior year at the College of the Holy Cross, I lived with nine buddies in what was called a “triple decker”—a house that had three separate apartments, one atop another. One of my roommates was a fellow named Tim Royston, whom I had known since our senior year of high school.

Tim was a member of the Naval Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) program at Holy Cross. After his sophomore year, he elected the Marine option in ROTC, which involved extra training and prepared him to become a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps after graduation. He ultimately became an F-18 fighter pilot.

When we lived with Tim our senior year, his routine surprised all of us. The rest of the gang and I were used to staying up late, getting up late and being disorganized. But not Tim.

The Marines trained him to be very well organized and extremely disciplined. His clothes were clean and folded in his drawers. He even put his initials on them, afraid that we would “borrow” them—and he was right, we did, a lot. His desk was impeccable; the books were always in their proper place, as were the pens and paper. And he was at physical training (PT) at 6:30 a.m. three days a week, without fail. Every other month, he went on a day-and-a-half-long field exercise, which meant that he was up at 5 a.m. Saturday and gone until Sunday afternoon. By the time I awoke most Saturday afternoons, Tim had already put in a full day of hard work.

It took a while for me to realize it, but the Marines were changing Tim’s approach to school and work—to life, really—and the change was fundamental. Tim was not just going through the motions to get his college scholarship. His body was changing — his five-foot-eight-inch frame was becoming more solid, his hair was now cut “high and tight”—not much more than peach fuzz on his head. As his routine changed, his thinking changed, too. He still played rugby and laughed and had a good time, but he was becoming a full-fledged Marine who knew that war and death were real possibilities.

The Jesuits have long been referred to as God’s army or God’s soldiers, willing to go anywhere at any time for God. Numerous Jesuits have told me that the Jesuits are trained to have “one foot up and a bag ready”—to be prepared to move, in other words, whenever the call comes. This willingness to go to “any frontier” was the vision of Saint Ignatius, who founded the Society of Jesus in 1540, a time when the immensity and variety of the world were just being realized. Ships were traveling the seas; new lands and peoples were being discovered; a rising merchant class was enlivening cities; the Renaissance was reinvigorating learning; and reform movements within the Catholic Church were picking up steam. These times demanded a new, movable kind of religious order, and Ignatius offered the people of his times a practical, down-to-earth spirituality that was open to all, meeting people where they were and committed to addressing needs no one else would. Ignatius wanted his Jesuits to be out and about, not in a monastery but on the road. They would be “contemplatives in action,” as the first Jesuits put it, monks in the midst of the new worldliness that began with Columbus and other explorers and coursed through the Renaissance.

“I ultimately entered the Society of Jesus,” Bergoglio told his biographers, “because I was attracted to its position on, to put it in military terms, the front lines of the Church, grounded in obedience and discipline. It was also due to its focus on missionary work. I later had an urge to become a missionary in Japan, where Jesuits have carried out important work for many years. But due to the severe health issues I’d had since my youth, I wasn’t allowed.”

The Jesuits’ commitment to obedience, discipline and missionary work all attracted Bergoglio, but there was another element: community. While the order nowadays is referred to as the Society of Jesus, the original name was the Company of Jesus—the term “company” signifying companionship. For Jesuits, this “company” means a group of friends living and working together, serving Christ and his people. That sense of togetherness clearly appealed to Bergoglio. In a September 2013 interview for America magazine, he explained, “I was always looking for a community. I did not see myself as a priest on my own. I need a community. And you can tell this by the fact that I am here in Santa Marta [the Vatican guesthouse]...I cannot live without people. I need to live my life with others.”

In 1958, as Bergoglio and his parents approached the door of the imposing Jesuit building called the Novitiate, on the outskirts of Córdoba, surrounded by empty fields, they surely knew the Jesuits’ reputation. As a Jesuit novice, Bergoglio was committing to the first two years of at least a decade-long process of formation, of shaping one’s mind and spirit. But the deeper reality was that he had come to begin a new life—to join the religious equivalent of the Marines—and in so doing, abruptly end his youth.

Jesuit novices knew that Ignatius wanted his followers to be mentally and spiritually disciplined; they needed to be grounded in their tradition, able to think on their feet, and ready to adapt to novel situations. This process began in the novitiate, under the tutelage of a novice master. In a centuries-old tradition, an unvarying routine of prayer, study, housework, local ministry, and living in community were critical to forming the Jesuit novice.

Central to the novitiate was a thirty-day, mostly silent retreat based on the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius that would take place six months in. The Spiritual Exercises are unique to the Jesuit order and distinguish a Jesuit from a Dominican or a Franciscan or a diocesan priest. Guided by the novice master or another spiritual director, the novice exercises his soul in a form of spiritual boot camp. As he confronts the reality of his strengths and limitations, as he reckons with his past and taps into desires for his future, the novice Jesuit discovers how God is calling him to live his life.

If all went well, at the end of two years, Bergoglio would profess vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and then become a “scholastic,” or a student, and enter the next stage of formation, the juniorate. The juniorate, designed for young men who join the Jesuits without university education, is usually two or three years of studies focused on the humanities.

After the juniorate, the scholastic completes three years of philosophy studies and then is sent to work in a Jesuit ministry, usually in a Jesuit high school, to learn how to balance prayer, study and work, like any fully formed Jesuit. After this period of ministry in the “real world,” the scholastic requests permission to study theology for three more years, in preparation for ordination. During his theology studies—more than seven years after setting foot in the Novitiate—Bergoglio would ask the Jesuit provincial to be ordained as a priest. Though the local bishop makes the ultimate decision on whether to ordain, the bishop often defers to the judgment of the Jesuit provincial. Should the answer be yes, Bergoglio would be ordained a priest and then be sent—somewhere.

Maybe it would be to get a Ph.D., or maybe to teach or maybe to work in a parish. Whatever the assignment, after a few years as a priest, Bergoglio would enter tertianship. Tertianship is remarkably like the novitiate in that the wiser, older Jesuit goes back and studies the founding documents of the Jesuits, lives in a community, works with the poor and makes another thirty-day, mostly silent retreat.

At the end of tertianship, which usually lasts about nine months, the Jesuit professes final vows. Some, but not all, Jesuits are called to profess an additional fourth vow prescribed by Ignatius—a vow of obedience to the pope with respect to missions. In Ignatius’s time, this vow meant that the pope could literally send a Jesuit to another land as a missionary. Today, the pope relies on the fourth vow to “mission” the Jesuits to address pressing needs such as revitalizing the Church in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall or leading institutes of higher learning around the world. Wherever and whatever the need is, the Jesuits go. The fourth vow, which also enables a Jesuit to assume positions of leadership within the order, is a reminder of the Jesuits’ vocation to be available, to have one foot up, ready to go to the next frontier where they are needed most.

With such a rigorous and prolonged path ahead of her son, it was no wonder that Regina [Bergoglio’s mother] wept uncontrollably as she said goodbye to him that day, March 28, 1958. Surely Bergoglio and his parents knew that, given the military-like regimen of the Jesuits, he wasn’t just entering adulthood; he was enrolling in an order to which he would offer himself entirely. Bergoglio was joining another family, and Regina, no doubt, grasped it in her core, and so she wept like many a mother of a child stepping across a threshold into a new stage of life that permanently revokes the prior one.

Bergoglio and his superiors would say he was subjecting himself to God’s will for the rest of his life, and yes, that was true. But God’s will would be lived out in a community of men and mediated by men. This is key for a Jesuit—they profess their vows within a community, they share goods, they live and pray together, they work in a common ministry. And once he took the vow of obedience, Bergoglio would have to ask for permission for everything—to continue his studies, to take vacations, to travel. These men were about to train him, discipline him, shape him, and send him to all corners of the continent, or of the world.  ■

Read the rest in Pilgrimage: My Search for the Real Pope Francis, which was released on Nov. 29, 2016. Shriver came to Holy Cross on Nov. 30, 2016, for a book signing and discussion, sponsored by the Rev. Michael C. McFarland, S.J. Center for Religion, Ethics and Culture. You can watch the event at holycross.edu/hcm/shriver.