Francis, the Ignatian Pope
Pope Francis has been the focus of much commentary for his Franciscan spirit, his simplicity, love of the poor and concern for nature. There is also much in our new pope’s style that demonstrates his Jesuit spirituality, above all his freedom with respect to the traditional trappings of the papacy.
Like Pope John Paul II, Pope Francis is clearly a man of certain character. Whether it is living in Santa Marta guesthouse or traveling in compact vehicles, he knows what he wants. Beginning with his rejection of the regal red mozzetta for his introduction to the world from Saint Peter’s balcony and minutes later giving away the heavily embroidered papal stole to an attendant monsignor, he showed he was in charge. But in doing so he also showed his freedom from all the pressures that have made previous popes prisoners of the Vatican.
Interior Freedom. As I witnessed his day by day abandonment of centuries-old custom, I marveled at his joyful, spiritual freedom. I soon realized it manifested his appropriation of the Ignatian value of “indifference.” It is an old-fashioned, philosophical term, borrowed from the Stoics, but what indifference means is freedom from distracting and degrading attachments, so as to be free to do what is more conducive to the good of souls. As Pope Francis has made his daily changes, it has become clear that his aim is to make the church the church of Christ, welcoming to all, and appealing because it shows its care for all people.
One maxim that comes from the Spiritual Exercises, tantum quantum, summarizes the principle for using all created things: Use them insofar as they contribute to the glory of God and the salvation of souls. Discard and reject them, when they lead away from that goal. Francis has done much to further the supervision and reform of the Vatican Bank, but he has also made it clear the Holy See may not need its own bank. His basic choices follow the rule: tantum quantum. If there is a genuine apostolic purpose for running a bank, it is run in accord with that purpose and does not distract from the church’s evangelizing mission, then it has a place. If not, then it is wholly dispensable.
The paramount importance Ignatius put on the good of souls is what distinguishes his spirituality from that of Francis. The first Jesuits, as John O’Malley reminds his readers, were “a holiness movement,” inviting everyone to lead a holy life. Saint Francis was committed to a literal imitation of Christ poor. Ignatius was inspired by that poverty and originally planned that Jesuits would follow the same route. But just as he learned to set aside his early austerities to make himself more approachable, he later moderated the Society’s poverty to make it possible to evangelize more people (through schools). Even evangelical poverty was a relative value in relation to the good of souls and their progress in holiness. We see that same apostolic reasoning in Pope Francis’s concession that priests own cars to help them reach people in their ministries.
An Inclusive Church. The spirit of openness is foundational to the Jesuit way of proceeding. Jesuit churches are known for their inclusiveness and Jesuit confessors for their understanding and compassion. (This is Pope Francis’s church in the street aware that accidents will happen.) The Presupposition at the head of the book of Spiritual Exercises is a presumption in favor of the goodness of everyone we encounter, and a prescription for a style of encounter that makes condemnation of those in error a last resort.
At a time of religious controversy, Saint Ignatius Loyola, the Jesuit founder, urged retreatants to listen attentively to others, to give a positive interpretation to their statements, and when there was apparent error, to question them closely, and only when the interlocutors were steadfast in their error to regard them as heretics. At the time of the Reformation, that was a remarkable point of departure for retreatants preparing to make life decisions. The cultural disposition in the 16th century, by contrast, would have identified piety with hostility to heresy. When Pope Francis made his controversial statement about even atheists having a chance to get into heaven, he was following the teaching of Vatican II, but he was also following a very Ignatian approach to the good of souls.
Having been hauled before the Inquisition a number of times, Ignatius was reluctant to thrust Jesuits into controversy. When he deputed James Lainez and Alfonso Salmeron to serve as papal theologians at the Council of Trent, he advised them not to engage in polemics and whenever possible to urge virtue, especially charity, on their listeners.
Care of the Neediest. In addition, the legate theologians were to keep close to the people, teaching catechism, preaching and caring for the sick. Again, Ignatius’s preferred style anticipates the positive pastoral approach Pope Francis has taken to evangelization. The pope’s attention to refugees, the abandoned elderly and unemployed youth exhibit the same concern as the first Jesuits for the lowliest and most needy people in society.
Ignatius’s twin criteria for choice of ministries were serving those in greatest need and advancing the more universal good. The Jesuit Refugee Service and Jesuit experiments in education, like the Nativity and Cristo Rey schools, are contemporary embodiments of the same spirit of evangelical care for the neediest. These apostolates are part of the post-conciliar renewal of the Society of Jesus, but they have deep, formative roots in Jesuit history and spirituality as well.
The recent statement of U.S. Catholic university presidents, including most Jesuit presidents, on immigration illustrates how even elite institutions can combine the intellectual apostolate with service to the poor in the spirit of Ignatius. The assistance several Jesuit universities provide for undocumented students is another way in which the schools have ministered to the lowliest and neediest in American society.
How universities can be of and for the poor, as the late Dean Brackley, S. J., and our former superior general Hans-Peter Kolvenbach urged more than a decade ago, is still an open question. It is certainly a question Francis will put to higher education, but many Jesuit and other Catholic colleges and universities are finding ways to meet the opportunities to realize that commitment.
Humility and Clerical Reform. Pope Francis’s humility has impressed many people. It is the most radically evangelical aspect of his spiritual reform of the papacy, and he has invited all Catholics, but especially the clergy, to reject success, wealth and power. He has told cardinals and priests not to behave as princes, counseled priests to abandon their pricey cars for smaller, more economical ones, and given them example by returning the Vatican Mercedes and riding in a Ford Focus himself.
An aversion to careerism and ecclesial preferment was part of Ignatius’s own approach to reform. In Paris, he had absorbed the ethos of the reforming scholar-priests of the day, and in Rome he associated with Philip Neri and other advocates of clerical reform. The Jesuit commitment not to seek ecclesiastical office, even in the Society, is an outgrowth of that experience. What is surprising is that Francis has so interiorized those values that without hesitation he applies it to clerical and curial reform today.
Humility is a key virtue in the Spiritual Exercises. One of its key meditations focuses on the Three Degrees of Humility. In Ignatius’s eyes, humility is the virtue that brings us closest to Christ, and Pope Francis appears to be guiding the church and educating the clergy in that fundamental truth. Reform through spiritual renewal begins with the rejection of wealth, honors and power, and it reaches its apex in the willingness to suffer humiliation with Christ.
Humility is the most difficult part of the Ignatian papal reform, but it is essential for the church’s purification from clericalism, the source of so many ills in the contemporary church. Undoubtedly, it is here that Francis’s reform will receive the most resistance from beneficiaries of the millennial-old system and from recent acolytes who have invested themselves in a post-Tridentine model of the Church Triumphant. But as Michael Sean Winters proposed in his National Catholic Reporter column yesterday, reform through spiritual renewal is essential to make the New Evangelization real and effective both within the church and in her encounter with the world.
UPDATE: Pope Francis spoke about his Jesuit spirituality on July 29 on the plane home from World Youth Day.
Drew Christiansen, S. J., a visiting scholar during in the theology department of Boston College, he is a former editor in chief of America and a frequent contributor.