“The world is our home," Pope Francis told the 36th General Congregation of the Society of Jesus this morning. The first Jesuit pope addressed the supreme governing body of the order now meeting in Rome and spoke about what he considers the most important work Jesuits are called to do in the 21st century.
After being welcomed by the newly elected superior general, Arturo Sosa, S.J., and warmly applauded by the delegates, Francis made clear that the mission of the Jesuits is “to be in the world,” and this means they should take “the paths of consolation, of compassion and of discernment.” (The full text of the pope’s remarks is available here.) He spelled out what each of these three paths requires them to do.
Francis spent the whole morning with the 212 delegates from 62 countries, greeting each individually. In his talk, he drew heavily on the tradition and sources of the society as well as on what Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI said to the Jesuits at key moments in the order's history.
“There were two dynamics at work in his talk," Tim Kesicki, S.J., president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, told America afterward. “There was the continuity with the Petrine ministry, and there was the perspective of a Jesuit pope who spoke from his own experience and witness as a Jesuit.”
Francis began by recalling that his predecessors have often told Jesuits that “the church needs you, counts on you and continues to turn to you with confidence, particularly to reach the geographical and spiritual places where others do not reach, or find it difficult to reach.” He said their mission involves “walking together—free and obedient—going to the peripheries where others do not reach, under Jesus’ gaze and looking to the horizon, which is the ever-greater glory of God, who ceaselessly surprises us.” Quoting St. Ignatius, he said, “Our vocation is to travel through the world and to live in any part of it where there is hope of greater service to God and of help of souls.”
He recalled that Nadal, one of Ignatius’ companions, used to say “for the society the whole world is our home.” He then went onto to explain in some depth what he sees as the three paths that Jesuits must walk today.
First is the path of consolation. Here he reminded them that “the true work of the society is to console the faithful people of God and to help them through discernment so that the enemy of human nature does not rob us of our joy: the joy of evangelizing, the joy of the family, the joy of the church, the joy of creation.”
This focus on joy is deeply rooted in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, as Francis reminded the congregation delegates. He recalled that as pope he has constantly focused on “the importance of joy” as “something constitutive of the Gospel message" and said this has featured strongly in his three major documents: “Evangelii Gaudium,” “Laudato Si’” and “Amoris Laetitia.”
“One cannot give good news with a sad face," he stated. “Joy is not only decorative, it is also a clear indicator of grace; it shows that love is active, working and present” and is a sign of “progress” in the spiritual life, he told them. Indeed, St. Ignatius “opens the eyes and wakes us up to the discernment of spirits to discover the difference between long-lasting joys and transient joys.”
The Jesuit is called to be “a servant of the joy of the Gospel," he told them. They are called to give this “service of joy and spiritual consolation” to people, he said. But this is only possible if their lives are rooted in prayer, in which they pray for this consolation and inner joy, so they can share it.
He repeated what he has often said to young people, “Let the enemy of our human nature not rob us of our joy, neither by despair before the magnitude of the evils of the world, and the misunderstandings between those who want to do good, nor let him replace it with foolish joys that are always at hand in all human enterprises.”
Then turning to the second path, he said Jesuits must walk “the path of compassion” in today’s world. They do so by “letting ourselves be moved by the Lord put on the cross, by him in person, by him present in so many of our brothers and sisters who are suffering—the great majority of humankind!” He recalled the words of Father Pedro Arrupe, whom he had met as a young Jesuit in Argentina: “Wherever there is pain, the society is there.”
Noting that this is the Jubilee Year of Mercy, Francis reminded his fellow Jesuits that “mercy is not an abstract word but a lifestyle that places concrete gestures before the word.” These gestures, he said, “touch the flesh of the neighbor and become institutionalized in works of mercy.” He recalled that this focus on mercy—a central theme of his own pontificate—is at the heart of the Spiritual Exercises, too. He reminded them that St. Ignatius “lived from the pure mercy of God even in the smallest details of his life and of his person” and “describing his experience of mercy in these comparative terms—the more he failed the Lord, the more the Lord reached out in giving him his grace.”
Francis told his brother Jesuits, “the Lord who looks at us with mercy and chooses us, sends us out to bring with all its effectiveness, that same mercy to the poorest, to sinners, to those discarded people, and those crucified in the present world, who suffer injustice and violence.” Indeed, he said, “only if we experience this healing power firsthand in our own wounds, as people and as a body, will we lose the fear of allowing ourselves be moved by the immense suffering of our brothers and sisters, and will we hasten to walk patiently with our people, learning from them the best way of helping and serving them.”
In his third and final point, Francis focused on “the path of discernment,” another key theme in his pontificate. He made clear that this is always done with the church, “thinking with the church”—sentire cum ecclesia, as St. Ignatius said—never apart from it.
He explained that “for this grace of discernment, it’s not enough to think, do or organize the good, but do it of the good spirit.” That “is what roots us in the church, in which the spirit works and distributes the diverse charisms for the common good," he stated. He recalled that St. Peter Faber, one of Ignatius’ companions, used to say that “in many things, those who wanted to reform the church were right, but that God did not want to correct it through their means.”
Addressing them as the Successor of Peter, to whom Jesuits have taken a vow of obedience, Francis told them: “It is proper of the society to do things thinking with the church. Doing this without losing peace and with joy, in the context of the sins we see, in us as well as in others, and in the structures, that we have created, involves carrying the cross, experiencing poverty and humiliations, where Ignatius encourages us to choose between bearing them patiently or desiring them.”
He recalled that “where the contradiction was very clear, Ignatius used to advise to recollect oneself, before talking or acting, to work in the good spirit.” Francis added, “We do not read the rule for thinking with the church as precise instructions about controversial points (some rules could be out of date), but as examples where Ignatius was inviting [Jesuits] in his time to ‘act against’ the anti-ecclesial spirit, inclining ourselves totally and decisively towards our Mother, the church, not to justify a debatable position, but to open space so that the spirit could act in its own time.”
Speaking as a brother, Francis told them, “service of the good spirit and of discernment makes us men of the church—not clericalists, but ecclesiastics—men ‘for others,’ with nothing of our own which cuts us off from others but rather everything that is ours placed in common and for service.”
Moreover, he said, “We neither walk alone nor comfortably, but we walk with ‘a heart that does not rest, that does not close in on itself but beats to the rhythm of a journey undertaken together with all the people faithful to God.’ We walk becoming all things to all people, with the goal of helping others.”
In actual fact, he said, “this self-emptying makes the society have and always able to have more the face, the accent and the lifestyle of all peoples, of every culture, inserting ourselves in all of them, in the very heart of every people, to become the church, there with every people, inculturating the Gospel and evangelizing every culture.”