A Jesuit Pope with an Ignatian Formation – What might that mean for the Church and the World? (Part 1)
As a Jesuit, Pope Francis will have been strongly formed by the spirituality of St Ignatius, founder of the Jesuits. One of his first actions was to pray privately at the Chapel at Maria Maggiore where Ignatius himself prayed. I am convinced that being steeped in Ignatian Spirituality will have a significant impact on how he sees the world and on the way he engages in the mission of leading our Church.
Like other Christian spiritualities (such as Franciscan, Dominican, Carmelite and Benedictine), Ignatian Spirituality provides a distinctive way of helping people to connect with God. Ask most Jesuits and lay people who live Ignatian spirituality seriously for a one-liner on what it is and they are likely to answer with one of two phrases. “Finding God in all things” or “being a contemplative in action.”
‘Finding God in all things’ is the conviction that God is not remote, but actively and dynamically engaged with us. God is not only communicating with us when we are in church or at prayer but is to be found in every aspect of our human experience if we stop long enough to notice and reflect on our experience. This stance, which sees God as concerned with every aspect of our lives, may make it easier for the Pope to engage with secular society, not with fear or judgement, but with a real openness to seeing where and how God is at work beyond the Church itself. Ignatian spirituality invites the Pope and us to engage with economics, politics, education: every aspect of our society that needs to be transformed.
To be ‘contemplative in action’ is also about a way of engaging that seeks to bring a depth of intimacy with God and a developed sense of sifting through the experiences of one’s daily life to discover God’s invitation in this particular situation. It is also an outward-looking focus of seeking to respond in generous and wholehearted service to the needs of our world. Fundamentally, it is action that flows from and is integrated with prayer. This quality is developed in Jesuits in two ways. First, as all Jesuits do, Pope Francis will have made the Spiritual Exercises twice, once as a young man and later in mid-life. This is an intensive process given to us by St Ignatius. Jesuits who make this retreat usually do it over 30 days of silence with the help of a retreat director. The retreat helps the person to come to a deeper sense of what God is calling them to do and be in the world. This becomes an anchoring place of reference against which one may be helped in the making of daily decisions.
The second way in which Jesuits are helped to be contemplative in action is through a process called the Examen of Consciousness. This is a powerful means of helping people discern the invitation of God through a prayerful reflection on their daily experience. This intensive practice of sensing the movement and invitation of the Holy Spirit is likely to enable Pope Francis to be keenly attuned to what God might be saying with regard to the challenges faced by our Church, but also within wider society. Inevitably there will be times when his actions or decisions might not lead to an increase in faith, hope and love; the daily Examen will help him to recognise this more quickly and so enable him to adjust course.