Francis, Ignatius, and Reform

Pope Francis HomliyThe first indication that the Church had a new Successor of St. Peter came to the Jesuit community at the Gregorian University during its weekly community Mass. As the main celebrant Fr. Javier López was preparing the gifts, a cell phone rang among the concelebrants and within a few seconds the bells of Rome could be heard sounding both nearby (at Santi Apostoli) and farther off. During the Eucharistic Prayer which followed, Fr. Felix Körner, one of the concelebrants, had the presence of mind to pray for “our new Pope,” to whom at that point he could not attach a name. When, a good half hour after the conclusion of the Mass, the community learned that the new Pontiff was a Jesuit, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, and that he had taken the name Francis, there was almost immediate speculation about whether the saint thus invoked was Francis of Assisi or Francis Xavier, the great missionary of the Society of Jesus, one of the original companions of Ignatius of Loyola, the order’s founder.

Eventually it became clear that the Francis intended was Francis of Assisi, which would have struck none of those men as anomalous, for any Jesuit knows that the figure of Francis of Assisi was an important part of Ignatius’s conversion from a worldly to a spiritual vocation while recovering from injuries sustained in battle at Pamplona in 1521. During his convalescence, Ignatius read a work entitled Flos sanctorum, a compilation of lives of the saints. According to his autobiography, narrated towards the end of his life, this reading eventually led Ignatius to say to himself: “St. Dominic did this; therefore, I have to do it. St. Francis did this; therefore, I have to do it.” Ignatius understood well, especially after founding the Society of Jesus and serving as its first General, that Francis of Assisi’s poverty, like Dominic’s preaching, was apostolic: it was a means of evangelization, for it assured those who witnessed it that the person calling them to a more ordered, Christian life did so not for personal gain but for their own spiritual good and happiness.
Pope Francis certainly knew that his own simplicity of life as archbishop of Buenos Aires provided him with evangelical strength. No one can doubt his sincerity in eschewing chauffeured cars for buses and trams—actions speak louder than words, and he performed the actions—but nor, by the same token, ought anyone to doubt that he was aware that in so doing he was disarming the ideologies inimical to the truths he preached. His apostolic simplicity communicated very efficiently, for instance, that one can be a man of the poor without being a Marxist or that one can oppose injustice without advocating gay marriage—in short, that one can be prophetic without allying oneself with the worldly prophets of the day.

St Ignatius Loyola-FounderSaint-uprdtlOn the first full day of his pontificate, Pope Francis rose early and went in a borrowed car to pray before St. Luke’s icon of the Blessed Mother, at the Basilica St. Mary Major. He walked then a few paces to the altar where on Christmas of 1538 Ignatius of Loyola celebrated his first Mass, a few weeks after he and his companions had offered their services to Pope Paul III. Finally, Francis prayed at the tomb of the great Tridentine reformer of Church and clergy, Pope Pius V. There is no dissonance between any of these actions or any of these messages. It was not by chance that Ignatius chose St. Mary Major for his first Mass: soon after his conversion, he had similarly offered his sword to Our Lady of Montserrat, foreswearing pomp and honor, donning rather (as he put it) “the armor of Christ.” Pope Francis performed an analogous action by beginning his pontificate bowed before the image of Our Lady. He doubtless prayed that morning for the strength of both intellect and will that characterized Pius V, since the evangelizing task that lies before him will call for the reformation of recalcitrant sectors of the Church, including some in the very religious order that Ignatius offered to Paul III and his successors. The most recent successor may even have said to himself: “St. Pius V did this; therefore, I have to do it.”

Kevin L. Flannery, S.J.

flanneryEd. Note. We are pleased to offer this commentary by a great friend of the Bellarmine Forum and former Dean of Philosophy of the Pontifical Gregorian University, Fr. Kevin Flannery, S.J. Fr. Flannery is the author of many works on ethics and on the history of logic, including Acts Amid Precepts: The Aristotelian Logical Structure of Thomas Aquinas’s Moral Theory. Fr. Flannery currently teaches courses in ancient philosophy at the Gregorian and serves as a Consultor to the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He lectures widely on philosophy, ethics, and the faith. This commentary originally appeared in the English edition of L’Osservatore Romano (March 20, 2013, p. 14).


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