by Matthew Sitman
J. Michelle Molina finds the heart of Jesuit formation – St. Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises – to be a revealing, but thus far largely neglected, way to understand Pope Francis:
No matter how we stake our political or religious claims, any effort to understand the man ought to include a sense of the Spiritual Exercises, a Jesuit meditative program of spiritual renewal that connects self-reform to transformative action in the world. These meditations offer a framework with which to interpret Francis’s actions because they have provided the key metaphors with which the Jesuit Bergoglio has sought not only to know himself, but also to engage the world.
One point of emphasis in the Exercises:
[The Jesuit] joins the twin goals of contemplation and action in a world understood in both geographical and existential terms. “Jesus knocks from within so that we will let him come out.” These words echo a very Jesuit notion that personal reform is linked, in the words Bergoglio drew upon to inspire the conclave, to an evangelizing church that is “called to come out of herself and to go to the peripheries, not only geographically, but also the existential peripheries: the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance and indifference to religion, of intellectual currents, and of all misery.” He has eschewed certain liturgical vestments as, quite literally, trappings that would encumber his desire to walk in the world. And this sense of self in the world likely inspires Francis’s controversial symbolics, such as the washing of women prisoner’s feet.
I think this is very perceptive, especially because – as Molina intimates – it allows us to avoid imposing simplistic categories on Francis. Recently we featured a quote from Jody Bottum that made exactly this point, that our usual political labels don’t make much sense when applied to Francis, nor, at its best, historic Christianity more broadly. There’s no reason we should expect a man forged in spiritual practices developed in the 16th century to fit comfortably within any contemporary ideology scheme. And even more, the notion of contemplation joined to action in the world seems particularly fitting when considering Francis, as he appears to be intent on his deeds, from the simplicity of his lifestyle to the washing of a woman’s feet, conveying as much as his words. That style of leadership, that way of living, surely has its roots in the rich tradition of Ignatian spirituality.
There’s one other point worth making here. Molina notes this about Francis’s experiences with the Spiritual Exercises:
Bergoglio has made the full 30-day version of the Spiritual Exercises at least twice and has repeated the shorter, eight-day version every year since he entered the Society of Jesus in 1958.
A 30-day regimen of prayer, meditation, and introspection is an experience most of us probably have trouble fully imagining. One aspect of Ignatian spirituality, as Molina’s article makes clear, is knowing yourself. To overcome or transcend the self one must be acquainted with the darker corners of your soul. The humility and compassion Francis evinces, I suspect, comes at least in part from the rich inner life, the self-critical inward turn, that is a part of the Exercises. A deep awareness of your own faults and failures – a contrite heart – is the precondition for the extension of mercy and love to others. It isn’t surprising, then, that the Jesuit “activism” of Francis has skewed not toward ideological, political ambition, but humble service. Molina’s sketch of the new pope’s Ignatian formation goes as far toward explaining why this is so as any account I have read.
(Photo: Pope Francis prays on the floor as he presides over a Papal Mass with the Celebration of the Lord’s Passion inside St Peter’s Basilica on March 29, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican. By Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)