pope francis

Interesting times: an interview with Austen Ivereigh

Austen Ivereigh is a writer, commentator and author of The Great Reformer: Francis and the making of a radical Pope, a biography profoundly informed by his understanding of Jesuit spirituality and institutions. He kindly agreed to speak to me about his connection with the Society of Jesus and his short but eventful time as a Jesuit novice.

Photo courtesy of Austen Ivereigh

Photo courtesy of Austen Ivereigh

How did you first come into contact with the Society of Jesus?

It was really through my studies above all. It was while I was doing my DPhil at Oxford, which was on the subject of the Church in Argentina. I was generally looking at late nineteenth and early twentieth century history, and the Jesuits just kept coming up. And so I became very interested in them.

I think the first real contact I had with the Society was just after writing my DPhil thesis, when I felt the stirrings of a vocation. I remember rather boldly phoning up the Jesuit vocations director saying: I think I’ve got a vocation, and he—he’s actually now the Provincial—very patiently said: Well, come and spend a weekend up in Loyola Hall, near Preston. And there he gave me what I now realise is the Exercises—at least a very basic form of the First Week, getting me to do an Examen over my whole life. That was a great revelation to me, a huge opening-up for me spiritually. The whole question of vocation was put on hold, but I then embarked on what would be a couple of years of spiritual growth and spiritual development. I owe to the Jesuits my spiritual awakening. By doing the Examen of my life, I grasped that God had been there with me all the time, even though I had treated other people badly and so on; that there was unconditional love and mercy and forgiveness. In The Great Reformer I make a big deal of the fact that this, for Francis, is key to mission and evangelisation. It is that primary experience of God’s merciful love that opens the heart and mind to conversion, rather than doctrines and ideas.

When you say that you felt you had a vocation, can you take apart how that felt? What was the sensation of feeling that you were being called?

Well, I think it was excitement. I had experienced through my DPhil a kind of intellectual awakening, which wasn’t a spiritual awakening exactly, but it was a huge realisation that I was a Catholic, that I believed, that what I’d been struggling with intellectually over the many years in the university context was…I’m trying not to use the word “resolved”, because of course these things are never resolved, but they were completely reframed in terms of the Gospel and in terms of revelation. And then, I suppose, just a natural admiration for and identification with the Society, partly because of the life of St Ignatius, but I think mostly because of the role of Jesuits in the vanguard of politics and culture. And so I just had this enormous admiration for them. I didn’t at that stage know many Jesuits; they hadn’t been part of my upbringing—I was educated by Benedictine monks. And so that first weekend with Father Dermot Preston was the catalyst, really.

So where did you go from there?

That was in 1993-94. I then spent a few years spiritually searching. Soon after that weekend with the Jesuits, I went back to Worth Abbey, where I had been at school, and felt drawn to be in the monastery for some “desert” time. The monks were wonderful with me and gave me a berth for a few months to try and sort myself out, and just to explore spiritually. I was still trying to work out what I was supposed to do with my life. I applied for a couple of academic jobs, and then, while I was waiting for those to come through, I went off to Peru—the monks sent me to report on some projects they were funding—which was wonderful. Then I came back and I started at Leeds University but just before then I had a tropical disease which I had picked up in the Peruvian Amazon. It kept me in hospital in London for five weeks and I nearly lost my eye. Weakened by the treatment, I then started in Leeds as a lecturer in Latin American history. I lectured for three years at Leeds.

During that time, I went back to Peru and I did an eight-day retreat with a wonderful Spanish Jesuit whom I met in Peru in a place called Ayacucho. That was a phenomenal, revelatory eight-day retreat. It’s what left me convinced that I wanted to be a Jesuit, or at least wanting to explore the possibility. So, when I got back I then spoke to the then vocations director, who was different; and I was accepted for the following year. I entered the Jesuit novitiate in 1998. I entered in the autumn of 1998 and I left the following May 1999, having done the thirty-day retreat at St Beuno’s.

What did you experience in your short time in the novitiate?

It was a very gruelling experience of what I would now recognise as “descent”, which of course is exactly what the novitiate is designed to do. I just wasn’t psychologically prepared for it. I’ve realised this recently—it’s been a wonderful few years, these last few years, and one of the great things about the book is that I’ve fallen back into contact with the Jesuits. I recently did an eight-day retreat in Loyola, Spain, and reflected back on that time, and realised that I just wasn’t capable of it psychologically back then, because my ego was still too fragile. I realise now that—and this, by the way, is true of love in general—in order to be able to love you have to be willing to sacrifice; you have to sublimate the ego and so on. And I think I wasn’t capable of entering the Jesuits then. I wasn’t capable of marrying, either. I wasn’t capable of that kind of commitment, and I think I wasn’t for many years.

What happened on the novitiate was that I did the usual things that novices do, in the sense that I had to learn sign language, and then I did a couple of what are called Experiments; one of them was in Northern Ireland, in Portadown on the Garvaghy Road, where there was a lot of sectarian tension. But my memory of the novitiate was never feeling like I could do anything: always feeling like I was standing around and never really being any good at anything, or being effective at anything. And of course that was immensely frustrating for me, because I had joined with the excitement and hope of being a successful Jesuit. I now realise that that was the problem: that a person who thinks he can be a good Jesuit is going to be a bad Jesuit. Only the crucifixion of the ego can bring about any real adult spiritual growth—but I found it really really hard. I mean, there were things that I enjoyed about the novitiate, and I felt enormous affection for my novice master, who was a wonderful man, but it was gruelling. So much so that by the time the thirty-day retreat came about I was already strongly doubting whether I could do it, and I think I was relying on the thirty-day retreat to tell me.

Oh dear. (more…)

Walking with the saints: an interview with the Revd Richard Coles

fathomlessIn his riveting autobiography Fathomless Riches (review here), pop star turned Catholic convert turned Anglican priest Richard Coles happens to mention, briefly and in the midst of it all, the fact that he once attended a vocations weekend with the Jesuits at Campion House, Osterley Park. Naturally, I couldn’t let this pass unexamined. I wrote off to Fr Richard with a plea to hear more of the story, and he kindly set aside time to meet with me in London and tell me all about it.

Perhaps you could start by telling me more about that vocations weekend at Osterley Park?

Like most people of my temperament and background, if you’re floating around the Roman Catholic Church, I think that sooner or later the call of the Jesuits will sound. Quite a lot of the stuff I read, I found I was reading Jesuits. And there’s a particular affinity between certain kinds of Anglicans and Jesuits, so I kept meeting Jesuits who were floating around in Anglican circles, in a way which is rather atypical. You didn’t meet that so much with the secular church and didn’t so much with the religious orders. Also, because I was at King’s College London, and there was an overlap in academic fields. There were people like Frederick Copleston at Farm Street; people working around there.

And also, part of the reason, when I converted to Roman Catholicism, was that I was very much bedazzled by the glamorous qualities of the English literature of the nineteen-thirties and forties and fifties. You think of Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene and Ronald Knox and people like that, and I thought…oh, I get that. I love the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. And there’s a sort of toughness, and a rigour, and a commitment—and a track record—about the Jesuits that I continue to find very attractive. I thought the commitment particularly to the gospel for the poor in Latin America was very powerful.

And they were always slightly surprising, and counterintuitive, so that was good. And they do good things. I remember going to Castel Gandolfo and seeing the socking great observatory there, which is a Jesuit thing. So from this point of view I was fascinated. And I met some Jesuits, who were very nice; and so I went to Osterley Park to see if that might be for me. I can remember staying and talking to a very nice Jesuit in his house which was flown over by a 747 about every fifteen seconds from five in the morning until midnight, and they seemed, rather amazingly, completely inured to the sound of these aircraft that were going across about twenty feet over our heads.

Discipline!

Discipline. But I found it rather distracting. They had a lovely wisteria, and I liked the wisteria—that was good. But I got into the nitty-gritty of talking about my vocation and who I was, and I began to see that it was not for me. I think I was rather romantic and dazzled in those days, and thought that Roman Catholicism was rather glamorous and you realise that, while it is indeed all those things, that ain’t enough to keep you…That ain’t enough to keep you. It was a wake-up, actually. A beautiful wake-up. And I did not become a Jesuit. I’d have been terrible at it—an awful Jesuit.

And was this the beginning of the end for your Catholicism, in a way? Was it on that path?

I think it helped something to come into focus. I don’t think I’ve ever reached the end of my Catholicism.

Your Roman Catholicism, I should say.

Well, I’m not sure I’ve reached the end of that! Well, no, I have to now—I suppose I’ve made too emphatic a departure to ever come back. But, you know, I think that where I am most at home is with the Benedictine monks. I was at Quarr Abbey a few weeks ago, making a documentary about chant [listen to it here], and when I was there I thought that if God would be more biddable to my sense of my own needs and delights and comforts, I’d be a Benedictine. That’s more of the vocation—well, not the vocation, but community and form of life that suits me best, I think. I’d be a terrible liberation theologian. I’d have been too tired. Also, I wouldn’t be brave, so if the army came round with guns I’d have said: “Oh, I repudiate everything. Whatever you want me to say, I’ll say, so long as I stay alive!”

It’s a very Jesuit thing, isn’t it, that commitment unto death—and on the margins.

Yes. I’m not a hero. I don’t do heroics.

Are you still in touch with the Jesuits?

Oh, yes. I’ve been reading Francis, yes. He’s rather fascinating, I think. Not just delightful—and I think he’s wonderful—but fascinating. It’s very odd how un-Jesuit he is in the world’s eyes. You start off as a Jesuit and you become The Pope, and it’s like being a monarch—well, he is being a monarch, isn’t he? So I think what’s lost is the CV. It seems to me that with John Paul II you had more sense of his CV, of his being Polish, and coming from a place and a time; while you get the sense with Pope Francis that his Latin Americanness and his Jesuitness, in particular, is a bit more obscure.

I wonder if that reflects a bit on popular misconceptions about the Jesuits—and the Latin Americans.

The wily Jesuit.

The wily cunning Jesuit. Which he is, a little bit—he’s canny.

He’s canny. You don’t get to be Pope without being a bit canny, I think. And I love the sort of…there’s a little simplicity about him, which is slightly—well, calculated sounds wrong. I don’t mean it’s fake at all, but I mean that yes, he thinks it through, and I think he’s conscious that he sends a message.

It’s meant.

Yes, exactly, it’s meant. He reminds me of that President of Uruguay—José Mujica—whom I adore. I think that he’s really embracing the world and making that connection, rather than retreating into the fortress. I mean, he’s the Pope, and Popes have certain jobs to do. It would be foolish to imagine that he’d be the good cop, and Benedict XVI would be the bad cop, and I wouldn’t fall for that for a second. But it’s a change of mood, a change of atmosphere, which feels like an aggiornamento.

How did you feel when Francis was elected?

Well, the first thing I thought was: “Who the hell is he?”. The second thing I thought was: “He looks like Ted Berry”. And then the third thing I thought was “Oh, the Holy Spirit might be surprising us”. I thought he was fascinating. Lots of friends of mine who are much more conservative than I am were rather expecting it to be business as usual, if you see what I mean: a papacy that would be continuously a conservative entity like that of Benedict XVI, and when he said “Francis” they all assumed it meant Francis Xavier. I remember that realisation spreading on Facebook: no, it’s Francis of Assisi, not Francis Xavier. That was just so fascinating, to have made such an interesting choice of name and tradition. And then they said that he was a Jesuit, and I thought: “Ooh, Jesuit pope, that’s a new one!”

Well, it was supposed to be an impossibility, or that was the received wisdom.

You can be Patriarch of Venice, can’t you, but that’s as high as you get. So he’s surprised people; and he seems to be making a serious effort at engaging with the more problematic aspects of the papacy of Benedict XVI, although I’m fascinated by Benedict XVI, too, and find him endlessly captivating.

Do you have a favourite Jesuit saint?

I’d have to say my favourite Jesuit would be Gerard Manley Hopkins. Well, I say he’s not a saint—not formally. I think it may be a while! I don’t think he was a happy Jesuit—I think he was rather a wretchedly miserable Jesuit. That’s a bit unfair, perhaps, but I don’t think he was ever someone who was easily going to be absorbed into a culture like that. One of the stories—quite a heartbreaking story, actually—is of him in community, being rather ignored or overlooked because they all thought he was a bit thick, because he used to just stand sometimes stock still, staring at a wasp or a blade of grass. He did have this intense focus.

Also, I have a parish connection, because Gerard Manley Hopkins’ great unfulfilled passion—I think it was unfulfilled—was with the extraordinarily vivid character Digby Dolben. He was the son of the Lord of the Manor of Finedon, and he’s buried in my church. He was an extraordinary figure and rather eccentric. He started wearing a habit and calling himself Brother Dominic and wandering around in that, which in the Victorian Middle English circles that he lived in was quite surprising. And then, I think when he was at Eton, he disliked having his hair cut and used to singe the ends off with a candle. What’s that about? And then he wrote a rather arch and very passionate series of poems, which are quite wonderful, actually—as juvenilia, I guess—and inspired the passion of Gerard Manley Hopkins, who adored him. And then he drowned at the age of nineteen. He was swimming in the river Welland with the son of his tutor, and the boy got into trouble, and he went in after him and just drowned. Prefigured in one of his poems in which he writes about drowning in a river—an extraordinarily prophetic thing. Anyway, that’s the end of Digby Dolben, as a teenager. A tragic loss.

And he’s buried at your parish church.

He’s buried in my churchyard, yes. And also, I have a connection with Gerard Manley Hopkins because my point of entry to the church as an adult was St Alban’s, Holborn, where Hopkins used to worship before he converted to Roman Catholicism and became a Jesuit. I don’t know, it’s not an entirely rational thing, but we can feel that we walk with the saints.

 

The Incomplete Pope Francis: My Door is Always Open

imageGod manifests himself in historical revelation, in history. Time initiates processes, and space crystallises them. God is in history, in the processes under way. We must not focus on occupying the spaces where power is exercised, but rather on starting long-run [long-term] historical processes. This gives priority to actions that give birth to new historical dynamics. And it requires patience, waiting. (Ch III: “Seeking and Finding God in All Things”, p. 96)

In last week’s post, I mentioned something that struck me while reading My Door is Always Open, the conversation between Pope Francis and Antonio Spadaro SJ, editor of La Civiltà Cattolica. Namely, this line from page 24:

The Jesuit must be a person whose thought is incomplete, in the sense of open-ended thinking.

This line appealed to me immediately. Partly because I have a tendency to scrupulosity, and find this Ignatian open-mindedness both challenging and deeply therapeutic, so the reminder of it is always welcome. (For a sympathetic but detached perspective on scrupulosity, listen to Fr Thomas Santa on This American Life here.) But mostly because, of all the things I’ve read by and about Francis since his election, this is the single phrase that has cast most light on the way he works. Jorge Mario Bergoglio is not simply a conservative or a radical. He is not a hardline essentialist, nor is he a Po-Mo (Pope-Mo?) relativist. He is a Jesuit, and a Jesuit by his own standards. He is an open-ended thinker.

And this is a conversation primarily about thinking; about approaches rather than actions. Readers looking for a manifesto of reform, or a promise of preservation, will leave disappointed. The primary value of this interview is the opportunity to see inside what Spadaro calls “the Bergoglian vision of the world”: on one hand, the transcendental certainty of redemption, the utter conviction of faith; on the other, the innate limitations of human perception, the impossibility of knowing.

Reading it properly requires several passes, although Spadaro’s commentary goes a long way towards entrenching the cardinal points, and without editorialising too much. The conversation is wide-ranging and touches on a number of topics, including collegiality, the role of women, sexuality and Church doctrine, the history of the Jesuit order and the Pope’s taste in literature. By the time I picked it up, many of the more topical statements had already been singled out for extensive discussion in the media, and had lost their impact. This was no bad thing. It allowed me a much clearer view of the whole, and released me from my usual habit of scrabbling through the Papal interview for signs that Francis and I agree: another kind of scrupulosity.

Bloomsbury, paperback,  224 pp. ISBN: 9781472909763