Pope Francis’ keynote talk to the 36th General Congregation of the Society of Jesus is “a tremendous affirmation of Jesuit vocation,” said Tim Kesicki, S.J., to America.
“The voice of the spirit, the spirit of St. Ignatius lives in the vocation of the society and in Pope Francis,” he added.
Father Kesicki, who is the president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States and one of the 36 delegates at GC 36, observed “two dynamics at work” in Francis’ talk, “the continuity with the Petrine ministry” and “the perspective of a Jesuit pope.” This was a historic moment: it is the first time that a Jesuit pope had addressed a general congregation.
He considered it significant that Francis quotes “with affection” what Paul VI said at the end of the 32nd General Congregation when he told delegates, “This is the way, this is the way, Brothers and Sons. Forward, in nomine Domini. Let us walk together, free, obedient, united to each other in the love of Christ, for the greater glory of God.”
The 32nd General Congregation was called to implement the Second Vatican Council’s document “Perfectae Caritatis,” which told religious orders to “go back to your charism.” For the Jesuits “the charism of the order is found in the Formula of the Institute,” Kesicki stated. This is the text that laid out Saint Ignatius’ vision for his new religious order. John O’Malley, S.J., describes it as “the fundamental charter of the order, of which all subsequent official documents were elaborations and to which they had to conform.”
In his 30-minute talk delivered in Spanish, Francis referred several times this Formula, describing it as “what is necessary and substantial.” Father Kesicki underlined that “we can’t change the Formula of the Institute, it’s the closest thing the Jesuits have to a rule.” He added that the words of the formula, however, “can lose their luster” but “when you hear them from Pope Francis, who has himself lived the Formula of the Institute, and hear him speak about the prophetic beauty of what Ignatius and his first companions did and advocated, you really appreciate their grandeur.”
The most striking thing in Francis’s talk for Kesicki “was the beauty of going to our primary sources, our primary charism, and highlighting in a very pastoral way the fundamental vocation and call of every Jesuit.”
He disagreed with those who assert that Francis has given “the marching orders” to delegates at the GC 36 and said, “that’s not true, he simply tells us be men of the Spiritual Exercises, be men of the Formula, be men of the Spirit, follow that through.” He underlined the fact that “Francis in no way interferes in the general congregation,” but rather, he “arrives as one of the society.”
Francis reminded the Jesuits that they are called “to be men of the frontiers” and, moreover, “he tells us don’t be afraid of risk, don’t be afraid of suffering, and he recalls that St. Ignatius said that the more he suffers the more the Lord blesses him.” Father Kesicki confided that this last remark struck him in a very personal way because “I remember when I was provincial, and was experiencing some hardships and I talked about it to a senior Jesuit and he told me, ‘The Lord must really love you to bless you with all these hardships. He’s blessing you by placing you with his Son on the cross.’”
The Argentine pope also reminded them that “one cannot give a good piece of news with a sad face” and that “the Jesuit is a servant of the joy of the Gospel.” Then, departing from his text, he insisted that joy “must always be accompanied by humor,” and with a big smile on his face, he remarked, “as I see it, the human attitude that is closest to divine grace is a sense of humor.”
Father Kesicki noted that Francis “is leery of ideology, so when he talks about the tensions between contemplation (faith) and action, charity and justice, charism and institution” he emphasizes that “these have to be resolved in action.”
At the end of his talk, in which the word “discernment” appears frequently, Pope Francis speaks about rules and “thinking with the church.” Here, Father Kesicki said, the pope recalls how Ignatius insisted on the need to avoid an “anti-ecclesial spirit” and “to open space so the Spirit could act in its own time.” Moreover, Francis tells Jesuits that “Service of the good spirit and of discernment make us men of the church.”
The focus on the rules and the thinking with the church comes at the end of the Spiritual Exercises, Father Kesicki noted. He added that Ignatius underlines that a Jesuit is “never to have an anti-ecclesial spirit, but always be open to how the spirit of God is working.” Kesicki liked especially Francis’s emphasis that Jesuits are not to be “clericalists but ecclesiastics” because, he said, “there’s an ecclesial dimension to our work that is not clerical, there is no privilege, there’s absolutely no privilege and he’s been very clear on this, and he has spoken out strongly against clericalism.”
At the end of the interview, Father Kesicki confided that he particularly “loves” the line where Pope Francis says “being on the road is not only coming and going, but it translates into something qualitative: It is drawing profit, and progress, is going forward, to do something for others” because “the world is our home, the world is our cloister, you don’t move about the world just to come and go, but to draw profit for souls.”
Father Kesicki, along with the 211 other delegates from the six Jesuit provinces across the world, is now engaged in discussing two themes of great importance to the order: “the Renewal of Jesuit Life and Mission” and “Renewed Governance for a Renewed Mission.” That could take many more weeks, the end is not yet in sight.