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Book review: First Belong to God: On retreat with Pope Francis by Austen Ivereigh

by
23 February 2024

Lavinia Byrne on a way into Jesuit spirituality

AUSTEN IVEREIGH’s reputation as a journalist and Roman Catholic commentator was sealed when he produced two biographies of Pope Francis. His The Great Reformer: Francis and the making of a radical Pope, published in 2014, presented a compelling study of what brought the first Jesuit pope from Argentina to the Vatican. His Wounded Shepherd: Pope Francis and his struggle to convert the Catholic Church followed in 2019. Two strands are constant: Francis himself, but also the influence of Ignatian spirituality on his life and teaching.

These two interests are brought together in Ivereigh’s latest work. The ultimate source for all Jesuit spirituality is the handbook known as The Spiritual Exercises. Ignatius compiled these exercises for use among his earliest followers. They were intended to enable these men to discern their call to follow Christ and lead an apostolic life. Never an end in themselves, they were intended to foster discipleship.

When asked to lead a retreat for present-day Jesuits in 2020, Ivereigh drew on his knowledge of Francis’s writings, including retreat notes, his friendship with the Pope, and also his own exposure to The Spiritual Exercises: a heady mix. First Belong to God is the result.

Written essentially as a “how-to” book, it offers readings, reflections, suggestions for prayer, and a wealth of references. These follow the Four Weeks of the Spiritual Exercises as traditionally conceived and are presented here either for group or individual use as an eight-day programme.

The intention is clear and put in refreshingly simple language by Pope Francis in his foreword to the book: “Jesus comes to meet us, breaking our chains that we might walk with him as his disciples and companions.” The apostolic thrust of this final phrase neatly sums up the whole dynamic of the Exercises.

What Ivereigh has done here is to adapt this quintessential experience of Ignatian spirituality and make it accessible in an attractive format. This is not a book to read, or even to study. It is a book to work with, and will repay judicious use with a renewed sense of calling, based in the firm conviction that the retreatant does indeed belong to God.


Lavinia Byrne is a writer and broadcaster.


First Belong to God: On retreat with Pope Francis
Austen Ivereigh
Messenger Publications £15
(978-1-78812-669-4)
Church Times Bookshop £13.50

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