Jesuit formation

How Ignatian spirituality can affect the papacy

By Fr. James Martin, S.J.

As the first Jesuit Pope, Francis will have practiced the Spiritual Exercises formulated by the order’s founder, St. Ignatius of Loyola. But what is Ignatian spirituality, and what effect does it have on a person’s formation?

No sooner than the news broke that Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio had been elected pope, my smartphone buzzed with calls and pinged with emails from journalists asking the same question: What’s a Jesuit? In the days following the election of Pope Francis, the first Jesuit in that office, there were more people asking that question than during the past 10 years. So it’s fair to ask: What is Jesuit spirituality, and how could it influence the papacy?

First, a few basics. Jesuit spirituality is based on the life and teachings of St. Ignatius Loyola, the hotheaded-soldier-turned- practical mystic who founded the Society of Jesus in 1540. Much of his spirituality flows from his classic text, the Spiritual Exercises, a manual for a four-week retreat that invites a person into imaginative meditations about the life of Christ. In other words, one uses one’s imagination to enter the life of Jesus
of Nazareth as presented in the gospels. The exercises mean more than just reading the gospels or observing the scenes. As Joseph Tetlow, S.J., wrote, one isn’t even observing from a distance; one is there, ankle deep in the water of the Jordan. Thus, through the exercises, one enters into a deeply personal relationship with the person of Jesus.

PopeFrancis_webEach Jesuit makes the exercises at least twice in his life – during the novitiate and years later at the end of his formation. Pope Francis has done this. But there’s another aspect of his training that might be overlooked. During his Jesuit days, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, S.J., served as the Jesuit novice director in Argentina, which means he also guided the Argentine novices through the Spiritual Exercises. Jesuits often call the novice director the most important job in the province because one is required to have the spiritual depth and a practical mind to help often-confused novices. He’s typically holy and sensible. At the heart of the Ignatian Exercises is a desire to be freed from anything that might keep one from following Christ.

Now for some important Jesuit lingo. Jesuits are asked to be detached from anything that would prevent them from living a full and loving Christian life. We are supposed to be indifferent; open toward anything; and prefer, in Ignatius’ famous formulation, neither wealth nor poverty, health nor sickness, or a long life or a short one. Finally, Jesuits are supposed to be disponible – a Spanish word meaning available – ready enough to go wherever God, who works through our superiors, wishes. In all this, we aim for the magis – the more, the better – all for the greater glory of God.

This helps explain the accession of Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio to the papacy. Don’t Jesuits make promises not to strive or have ambition for high office in the church and the Society of Jesus at the end of their training? Yes, Ignatius was adamantly opposed to the clerical careerism he saw during the Renaissance, so he built a safeguard against that kind
of climbing into the final vows. But there’s freedom built into Ignatian spirituality. If we are asked to do something by the church, we are free, disponible, to do so.

Other sources of Ignatian spirituality are found in the saint’s terse autobiography; the Jesuit Constitutions, written by Ignatius; the lives of the Jesuit saints; and, as John W. O’Malley, S.J., points out in his book, “The First Jesuits,” the activities of St. Ignatius and the early Jesuits. As Ignatius put it, it’s one thing to know the Jesuits were available enough to take on any kind of ministry that would help souls, it’s quite another to read they opened a house for reformed prostitutes in Rome.

But what are the hallmarks of Ignatian spirituality (the broader term used these days, as a complement to Jesuit spirituality), and how might they affect the pope? Let me suggest several, and show how they were seen during the first few days of his papacy.

First, one of the great shorthand phrases for our spirituality is finding God in all things. For Ignatius, God can’t be confined within the walls of a church. Besides the Mass, sacraments, and scripture, God can be found in every moment of the day, other people, our work, our family life, nature, and music. This provides Pope Francis with a world- embracing spirituality, in which God can be met everywhere. During his first meeting with journalists, the pope offered them a touching blessing: “Because many of you do not belong to the Catholic Church and others are nonbelievers, from the bottom of my heart, I give this silent blessing to each and every one of you, respecting the conscience of each one of you but knowing each one of you is a child of God.” God can be found among nonbelieving journalists.

Secondly, the Jesuit aims to be the contemplative in action, a person in a busy world with a listening heart. That characteristic came to the fore in the first few minutes of his papacy. When Francis stepped on to the balcony overlooking St Peter’s Square, he began not with a papal blessing, but with a request for the prayers of the people. He bowed his head and asked for a moment of silent prayer – quiet in the midst of the crowd, the contemplative in action.

Thirdly, poverty. Like members of all religious orders, Jesuits make a vow of poverty. We make it twice in our lives – at first and final vows. We are, said St. Ignatius, to love poverty as a mother. There are three reasons for that: first, in imitation of Jesus, who lived as a poor man; second, to free ourselves from the need for possessions; and third to identify with, as well as help and advocate for, the materially poor. So far, Pope Francis has eschewed many trappings of the papacy. Before stepping on to that balcony, he set aside the elaborate mozzetta popes normally wear and put on the brocaded stole only when he offered a blessing. He rides on the bus with the rest of the cardinals. He walks instead of riding in a limousine. Most Jesuits seeing this would say: “Of course, this is the simple lifestyle that Ignatius asks of us.”

Finally, flexibility. This sometimes isn’t highlighted in commentaries about Jesuit spirituality. (I also could’ve added a life of regular prayer, an emphasis on education, a grounding in social justice, a willingness to live in community and, above all, a devotion to the person of Christ.) But over and over, in the constitutions of the Jesuits, flexibility is recommended. And remember, Fr. Bergoglio, before becoming Archbishop of Buenos Aires, was the Jesuit provincial, or regional superior, for the country.

While the constitutions lay out exacting rules for life in Jesuit communities, Ignatius recognized the need to meet situations as they arise with creativity. After a lengthy description of precisely what was required in a particular aspect of community life, he would add a proviso, knowing unforeseen circumstances always call for flexibility. “If something else is expedient for an individual,” he writes about Jesuits studying a particular course, “the superior will consider the matter with prudence and may grant an exemption.” Flexibility is a hallmark of the document, and it appears to be with Francis, who seems happy to speak off the cuff and adapt himself to the needs of the situation. After his first Sunday Mass at the Church of Sant’Anna, he greeted parishioners one by one on the church steps. I could imagine him saying to his addled handlers, “Why not?”

Needless to say, I’m delighted with the choice of the conclave (not to mention the Holy Spirit). And obviously, I’m quite biased about our new Jesuit pope. We don’t know what he’ll do during his papacy, but we do know something about what has formed his interior life – and that, in particular, fills me with gaudium magnum. JCU

Fr. James Martin, S.J., is editor-at-large of America and author of “The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything.” This article was originally published in The Tablet, a British Catholic weekly newspaper. It is posted here with permission from the author and newspaper.


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