by Professor J. Patrick Hornbeck II

Since the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope Francis, many have been puzzled, confused, or even scandalized by the ways in which he has led the Catholic Church. Certainly there is room for disagreement about Francis’s papacy. Has he moved too fast, or not fast enough; has he focused on the right issues; what have his personnel decisions communicated about his vision of the church? But no small amount of the puzzlement and confusion that Francis has generated has occurred among those who have not been able to appreciate how being a Jesuit has molded him as a person and a leader. Indeed, Francis is showing the world a striking example of Ignatian leadership.

At least once a year since his election, the pope has celebrated Mass with members of the Society of Jesus; in addition, he has joined his Jesuit brothers for events such as the 2016 general congregation that elected Fr. Arturo Sosa as superior general. His words on these occasions offer a window into Francis’s understanding of the Jesuit charism and of the gifts that Ignatian spirituality continues to offer the church.

When Francis presided at the Eucharist in the Church of the Gesù, the Jesuit mother-church, for the first time as pope, he articulated a series of themes that have recurred in his subsequent remarks. He urged the Jesuits gathered for the feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola on July 31, 2013, to be “guided by three concepts: putting Christ and the Church at the center; letting ourselves be won over by him in order to serve; feeling ashamed of our shortcomings and sins so as to be humble in his eyes and in those of our brethren.” We might think about these concepts as Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises in reverse: first, the Christocentrism that marks the Third and Fourth Weeks of the Exercises, then the decision to stand with Christ that occurs in the Second Week, and finally the awareness of sin that characterizes the First Week. It is also important to notice that here at the beginning of Francis’s dialogue with the Society of Jesus, he does not place only Christ, but “Christ and the Church,” at the center. This pairing is reminiscent of Ignatius’ famous (or infamous) “Rules for Thinking with the Church,” which Francis has importantly gone on to reinterpret as rules for “feeling” with the church. For Francis, as for Ignatius, an attitude of solidarity with the church is central to one’s identity as a Jesuit and a follower of Christ.

Half a year later, when Francis returned to the Gesù for the Feast of the Most Holy Name of Jesus (January 2014), he reiterated and amplified upon these themes by calling his Jesuit brothers “[t]o be men who are not centered on themselves because the center of the Society is Christ and his Church. And God is the Deus semper maior [literally, the God who is always greater], the God who always surprises us.” Francis’s characterization of the divine as the God of surprises echoes another theme that we find throughout his public remarks: an emphasis on the newness that comes through the God the Spirit. When he celebrated Pentecost for the first time as pope in May 2013, Francis had remarked that “throughout the history of salvation, whenever God reveals himself, he brings newness,” and in speaking to his confreres at the Gesù, Francis emphasized that we are called to open ourselves up to God’s newness through our own restlessness. The two are call and response, invitation and acceptance. “It is the restlessness that prepares us to receive the gift of apostolic fruitfulness. Without restlessness we are sterile.”

Another theme on which Francis has focused in his remarks to Jesuits is an explicitly Ignatian one: discernment. When the pope delivered a homily marking the bicentennial of the restoration of the Society of Jesus in September 2014, he drew heavily upon the example of Fr. Lorenzo Ricci, the superior general in office at the time of the order’s suppression. Ricci and his fellow Jesuits, Francis said, must have been beset by temptations: “to allow oneself to be carried away by the desolation, to focus on the fact of being persecuted, and not to see anything else.” But they did not succumb, instead opting “to live out the discernment of God’s will, without seeking a way out of the conflict in a seemingly quiet manner… Only discernment saves us from real uprooting, from the real ‘suppression’ of the heart, which is selfishness, worldliness, the loss of our horizon.” What Francis means by discernment here goes back to the First Principle and Foundation of the Spiritual Exercises, namely, Ignatius’s insistence that “we must make ourselves indifferent to created things.” At the time of the suppression, Fr. Ricci did not cling tightly to the Society, but rather asked how God’s will might best be served.

All three of these sets of papal remarks bear the distinctive imprint of Francis’s identity as a Jesuit. His conduct in office also reveals him to be deeply influenced by the Ignatian charism, particularly in its emphasis on discernment, on seeking God in all things, and on being attentive to suffering.

For Ignatius, and now for Francis, discernment is not simply discussion; nor is it simply decision-making. Rather, as Francis put it in an interview with the Jesuit publication La Civiltà Cattolica, discernment is a “narrative form. Only in narrative form do you discern, not in a philosophical or theological explanation, which allows you rather to discuss. The style of the Society is not shaped by discussion, but by discernment, which of course presupposes discussion as part of the process.” Rigorous methods of discernment have prevailed throughout the history of the Society of Jesus, going back to the very earliest days, when Ignatius and his first companions undertook an extended process of prayer and dialogue to reach the decision that they should seek to form a new religious order. Contrary to the stereotype that the Jesuits are a military order that practices so-called blind obedience, Ignatian discernment has always entailed two equal obligations: that of a subordinate candidly and fully to represent to a superior the movement of the spirits within him, and that of a superior to listen and prayerfully consider all that subordinates bring forward. Close observers of Francis’s papacy have watched these methods at work in many of its most important initiatives, especially the synods of bishops on the topic of marriage and family life, on the one hand, and the work of the Council of Cardinals on the other. Speaking to synod delegates in 2014, for instance, Francis insisted that “One general and basic condition is this: speaking honestly…. [I]t is necessary to say all that, in the Lord, one feels the need to say, without polite deference, without hesitation. And, at the same time, one must listen with humility and welcome, with an open heart, [to] what your brothers say.” The pope’s decisions to include potential opponents among the members of the Council of Cardinals, and to permit a far greater degree of public criticism of his papacy than his predecessors tolerated, likewise bespeak a willingness to be shaped by others’ experience of the Spirit.

The conviction that God might be working through one’s opponent, or especially through an outsider or a member of a marginalized group, makes it possible (indeed necessary) to follow Ignatius in seeking God in all things. This does not, of course, entail accepting everything that we find in the world just as it is: Ignatius was far too aware of the realities of sin and brokenness for that. But it does mean being willing to look for signs of God’s presence in places that we might otherwise be tempted to dismiss as secular, profane, or even hostile to the church and the mind of Christ. In a particular way, as we will see below, this search demands special attention to those who are suffering and oppressed, those who thereby image Christ in a distinctive way. Francis’s much quoted (and much misunderstood) aphorism about gay priests, “Who am I to judge?”, reflects his willingness to seek the activity of God broadly. And in his treatment of divorced-and-remarried Catholics, same-sex couples, and LGBTQI individuals more broadly, Francis appears willing to ask the question: how is God working in the lives of those whose marriages have been broken, or in the lives and loves of same-sex couples and the families they create? Unlike those who he criticizes as being of a more “rigorist” or “legalist” bent, Francis does not reject the possibility that God’s grace is active in these contexts, but rather searches for God and seeks to respond to the fact of God’s presence through the church’s pastoral practice. (We must add, of course, that there is ample room for disagreement as to whether Francis’s approach goes far enough. Without doctrinal change, even the best pastoral practice may not fully be able to lift up the working of God in these so-called “irregular situations.”)

In perhaps Francis’s most groundbreaking document, his encyclical Laudato si’ on the environment and care for our common home, his commitment to seek God in all things moves beyond our human context and begins to take in all of creation. Francis urges us to take seriously God’s presence in every facet of creation—and in doing so, he demands that we take equally seriously our collective responsibility for cooperating with God in the preservation of the natural world. But Laudato si’ reflects more than an attentiveness to the working of God; it also articulates the wildly disproportionate impact that climate change and resource scarcity have had on the poorest of human beings. Francis’s attentiveness to suffering, and to the possibility of consolation in the midst of suffering, is a reflection of forms of structural analysis that have been especially popular in Jesuit theological and social science research in the second half of the twentieth century. Throughout the pope’s writings, we find him returning time and again to the plight of those who are the most disadvantaged, but he is not satisfied with providing for their healing. Instead, Francis is interested in the global movements—economic factors, social structures, modes of thinking—that he identifies as the root causes of the evils and disasters that befall individuals.

Francis’s attention to the root causes of suffering could well lead to despair: certainly, it is not easy to contemplate how any individual might work for the renovation of social structures that are so much broader than any individual. That may be why Francis, like Ignatius, pairs his analysis of suffering with a constant prayer for consolation. Speaking to the recent Jesuit general congregation, he urged: “In the Exercises, Ignatius asks his companions to contemplate ‘the task of consolation’ as something specific to the Resurrected Christ. It is the specific task of the Society to console the Christian faithful and to help them in their discernment so that the enemy of human nature does not distract us from joy.” Indeed, here too Francis is deeply Ignatian. It is almost impossible to read the Jesuit founder’s writings, especially his late Spiritual Diary, without coming away with a persistent sense of his deep gratitude to God. Francis’s, too, has been a ministry of joy and humility: traits which have endeared him to people around the world. In this, and in his instinctive embrace of discernment, the search for God in all things, and the situation of the suffering, Francis is a student of St. Ignatius.

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Professor J. Patrick Hornbeck II is the Chair of Theology at Fordham University, New York. He gave this address at the Jesuit Institute South Africa’s 10th anniversary celebration on 1 August 2017 in Johannesburg.