If you’re looking for personal retreat inspiration this Lent, you’ll be excited to hear journalist and papal biographer Austen Ivereigh discuss his new book, “First Belong to God: On Retreat with Pope Francis” with Father Dave. Austen is the author of two biographies of Pope Francis, and he and the pope co-wrote a book called, “Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future.”
Austen details how his studies of Argentina first connected him to Pope Francis. “Many years ago, I did my PhD about the Church in Argentina. I’m proof that sometimes PhDs can be useful; you have to wait 20 years to find out,” he laughs. “I was commentating for British TV at the [Papal] Conclave in March 2013 and out [Pope Francis] walked. I did know a little bit about him, and I was fascinated by him because I did know Argentina and I speak Spanish, but I didn’t meet him until 2018.”
Pope Francis penned the forward for Austen’s latest book, which draws upon wisdom from Pope Francis as well as St. Ignatius. “I’ve drawn on [Pope Francis’] retreat talks that he gave us as a Jesuit, and I’ve also drawn on the hundreds of homilies from his pontificate,” Austen explains.
“So Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, the classic Jesuit retreat, is classically given over four weeks. Most people can’t give a whole month to it, so particularly in the Spanish-speaking world, the popular thing is to go on an eight-day retreat which has all the major exercises and contemplation. I’ve done that a number of times, and it’s done a lot of good for me,” he continues. “I thought it would be wonderful to bottle the pontificate, the gospel of Jesus Christ according to Pope Francis, in the format of an eight-day retreat with Ignatian Spiritual Exercises using the Pope’s insights.”
Austen explains that belonging is one central theme of the book and Pope Francis’ papacy so far. “[The Pope] says, the three most important ways of belonging are to God, to creation, and to our fellow creatures, both human and non-human,” Austen says, and connects this thought with select papal writings. “Evangelii Gaudium [discusses] our issues with God; Laudato Si, with creation, and Fratelli Tutti, with our fellow human creatures. So very explicitly, he set out to address the contemporary crisis of belonging.”
“‘First belong to God’ comes from his 2018 document on holiness called Gaudete et Exsultate, rejoice and be glad, which is a short document that’s not well-known. I think it’s stunning, and I’ve used it in this retreat because it illuminates the others so well,” Austen says. “Fundamentally, belonging to God comes from embracing everything we have in our lives as gift, rather than seeking to anxiously possess it, or to believe that we are masters of our own destiny and creation…We have a creator, we are created beings. In acknowledging that and everything that comes out of love, then boy, we can relax.”
Austen also discusses his work at the recent Synod on Synodality where he helped write the final synthesis of the meetings. “The thing that really struck me was that this is no longer a western Church…Africans were saying to the Europeans and the Americans, ‘look, your priorities are not our priorities,” he says. “Just that honesty was amazing, and the wonderful thing about it is that we’re learning how to have these conversations how to really begin to understand what the Holy Spirit is calling the Church to over very complex questions…We might all agree on doctrine, but the culture is so different that we need to understand where the other is coming from.”
“We need to learn how to do this, otherwise, we’re going to get as fragmented as the world,” he continues. “I think this is vital stuff, and synodality is the vehicle that will take us into the future, because we know that the Church is changing and the world is changing.”