This is a feature in the special commemorative issue of America celebrating Pope Francis and his five groundbreaking years. Purchase a copy of Pope Francis: Five Groundbreaking Years here.
The weeks following the election of Pope Francis, the first Jesuit elected to that office, saw more people asking questions about Jesuits than at perhaps any other time in the last 25 years. Most readers of America already know what a Jesuit is, but another question bears some reflection: How might Jesuit spirituality influence, and how has it already influenced, our new pope?
Jesuit spirituality is based on the life and teachings of St. Ignatius Loyola, the soldier-turned-mystic who founded the Society of Jesus in 1540. Much of that spirituality flows from his classic text, The Spiritual Exercises, a manual for a four-week retreat inviting a person into imaginative meditations on the life of Christ. The Exercises mean more than simply reading the New Testament. Retreatants are urged to imagine themselves, with as much vividness as possible, in the Gospel scenes. As the spiritual writer Joseph Tetlow, S.J., once wrote, the retreatant is not even observing from a distance but is “standing warm in the Temple or ankle-deep in the water of the Jordan.” Through such intense encounters with the Gospel narratives, the person praying enters into a deep, personal relationship with Jesus.
Each Jesuit “makes” the Exercises at least twice in his life: first as a novice and again, years later, at the end of the formation program during a period of time known as tertianship. Therefore, we know that Pope Francis has done this. Moreover, in the late 1960’s, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, S.J., served as the Jesuit novice director for the Argentine Province, which means that he also guided novices through the Spiritual Exercises. He is therefore deeply familiar with Ignatian spirituality.
Embedded in the Exercises are certain key spiritual themes. Jesuits and all who make the Exercises are invited to be “detached” from whatever would prevent them from following God. We are supposed to be “indifferent,” open toward anything, preferring, in Ignatius’ famous formulation, neither wealth nor poverty, neither health nor sickness, neither a long life nor a short one. It is a tall spiritual order, but a clear goal for Jesuits. Finally, Jesuits are to be disponible, a Spanish word meaning “available,” ready to go wherever God, who works through our superiors, wishes.
This may help explain the surprising accession of Cardinal Bergoglio to the papacy. Many people have wondered: Don’t most Jesuits at the end of their training make promises not to “strive or ambition” for high office in the church and Society of Jesus? In short: Yes. Ignatius was opposed to the clerical careerism that he saw in his day and built into the final vows a safeguard against that kind of climbing. But freedom is also built into Ignatian spirituality. If a Jesuit is asked to do something by the church, he is available. (And to answer a complex question: Yes, technically, Pope Francis is still a Jesuit, according to Canon 705, which states that a religious who is ordained a bishop remains a “member of his institute.”)
Other sources of Ignatian spirituality are found in the saint’s laconic 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 superlative book The First Jesuits, the activities of St. Ignatius and the early Jesuits. As Father O’Malley notes, it is one thing to know that the Jesuits in the 16th century were available enough to take on any kind of ministry that would “help souls,” as Ignatius put it; it is quite another to know that they opened a house for reformed prostitutes in Rome and sent theologians to the Council of Trent.
Some Ignatian Hallmarks
But what are the hallmarks of Ignatian spirituality (the broader term used these days, as a complement to “Jesuit spirituality”), and how might they influence Pope Francis? Let me suggest just a few and point out how we may have already seen them in the first few weeks of his papacy.
First, one of the most popular shorthand phrases to sum up Ignatian spirituality is “finding God in all things.” For Ignatius, God is not confined within the walls of a church. Besides the Mass, the other sacraments and Scripture, God can be found in every moment of the day: in other people, in work, in family life, in nature and in music. This provides Pope Francis with a world-embracing spirituality in which God is met everywhere and in everyone. The pope’s now-famous washing of feet at a juvenile detention center in Rome during the Holy Thursday liturgy underlines this. God is found not only in a church and not only among Catholics, but also in a prison, among non-Catholics and Muslim youth, and among both men and women.
Second, the Jesuit aims to be a “contemplative in action,” a person in a busy world with a listening heart. That quality was evidenced within the first few minutes of this papacy. When Francis stepped onto the balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square, he began not with the customary papal blessing but with a request for the prayers of the people. In the midst of a boisterous crowd, he asked for a moment of silent prayer and bowed his head. Offering quiet in the midst of the tumult, he was the contemplative in action.
Third, like members of nearly all religious orders, Jesuits make a vow of poverty. We do this twice in our lives—at first vows and at final vows. We are, said St. Ignatius, to love poverty “as a mother.” There are three reasons adduced for that: first, as an imitation of Jesus, who lived as a poor man; second, to free ourselves from the need for possessions; and third, to be with the poor, whom Christ loved.
But Ignatius noted that Jesuits should not only accept poverty, we should actively choose to be like “the poor Christ.” So far Pope Francis has eschewed many of the traditional trappings of the papacy. Before stepping onto the balcony, he set aside the elaborate mozzetta, the short cape that popes normally wear; since then his vestments have been simple. He elected to live not in the grand Apostolic Palace but in a small, two-room suite in the Casa Santa Marta, where the cardinals had stayed for the conclave. He is, so far, choosing the poorer option. This is not unique to Jesuits (and many of Ignatius’ ideas on poverty were inspired by St. Francis of Assisi, the pope’s namesake), but it is a constitutive part of our spirituality.
Another hallmark is occasionally downplayed in commentaries on Jesuit spirituality: flexibility. But over and over in the Jesuit Constitutions, flexibility is recommended for Jesuit superiors. Remember that Father Bergoglio, before he became archbishop of Buenos Aires, was not only the novice director and director of studies, but also the Jesuit provincial, or regional superior, for the country—three different assignments as a superior. Those roles in governance would all require knowledge of Ignatius’ understanding of flexibility.
While the Constitutions set down exacting rules for Jesuit life, 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 often add a proviso, knowing that unforeseen circumstances 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 seems to be with Francis also, who seems happy to speak off-the-cuff in his homilies and adapt himself to the needs of the situation—like stopping a papal motorcade to embrace a disabled child in the crowd.
Jesus as Friend
Two more observations about Pope Francis’ Ignatian heritage. His homily for the Easter Vigil Mass seemed, at least to me, suffused with Ignatian themes. (But of course this may be my Jesuit bias!) He began by inviting his listeners to place themselves within the story, one of the key techniques of the Exercises. Imagine yourself, he suggested, as one of the women going to the tomb on Easter Sunday. “We can imagine their feelings as they make their way to the tomb, a certain sadness, sorrow that Jesus had left them, he had died, his life had come to an end,” the pope said. “Life would now go on as before. Yet the women continued to feel love, the love for Jesus which now led them to his tomb.”
Later in the homily the pope asked his listeners to consider Jesus as a friend. “Welcome him as a friend, with trust: He is life! If up till now you have kept him at a distance, step forward. He will receive you with open arms.” It was easy to hear echoes of the Spiritual Exercises, in which Ignatius asks us several times to speak to Jesus “as one friend speaks to another.” It is an especially warm way of looking at the Son of God.
It would be wrong to say that knowledge of the pope’s spiritual traditions makes it possible to predict what he will do. But it would be equally wrong to say that we know nothing about his spirituality or that his spirituality will have no influence on his ministry. Like any Jesuit, especially a former novice director and superior, Pope Francis is deeply grounded in the spirituality of St. Ignatius and the Society of Jesus, whose seal he has placed on his papal coat of arms. I look forward to seeing how Ignatian spirituality may help him in his new office.