VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI has called on members of the Church’s largest religious order, the Society of Jesus, to be faithful to the legacy of their founder, St. Ignatius of Loyola, and to their apostolate as teachers and missionaries in dialogue with the modern world.

Speaking after a Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica April 22 that marked five centuries since the births of the Society’s St. Francis Xavier and Blessed Peter Faber, and 450 years since the death of St. Ignatius, the Holy Father reminded the Jesuits of their vow of loyalty to the pope and encouraged them in their dialogue with modern culture through teaching, research, theology and philosophy.

“[St. Ignatius] left his followers a precious spiritual legacy that must not be lost or forgotten,” the Pope said, adding that St. Ignatius was “a faithful servant of the Church” whose desire to serve the Church effectively resulted in the “vow of special obedience to the Pope, whom he classified as ‘our first and principal foundation.’”

Benedict praised the “cultural commitment” of Jesuits and said dialogue with modern culture possesses “wonderful progress in the scientific field.” But, he warned, contemporary culture is also “strongly marked by the positivist and materialist scientific spirit.”

Cultural Formation

To respond to this culture with the values of the Gospel, the order must have “an intense spiritual and cultural formation,” the Pope said. He reminded those in attendance, including the Jesuits’ superior general, Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, that this was why St. Ignatius wanted young Jesuits to be formed for many years in the spiritual life and in their academic studies.

“It is good that this tradition be maintained and reinforced, given the growing complexities and vastness of modern culture,” the Holy Father said.

Benedict also urged the order to continue the key tasks of Christian education and the cultural formation of youth — also central objectives of St. Ignatius –– and to do so “without altering the spirit of your founder.”

Referring to the three men being commemorated, Pope Benedict drew attention to their “extraordinary holiness and exceptional apostolic zeal.”

Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican’s secretary of state who celebrated the commemoration Mass, offered his own thanks for the work of the Society of Jesus, but also called on those present to seek forgiveness for the times they have not lived up to their calling.

Said Cardinal Sodano, “Today, we want to ask forgiveness for our infidelities.”

The words of encouragement from Benedict, who for many years has worked closely with members of the order, were widely welcomed.

“It was clear to me, as I saw him deliver his address, that he knows the Society and has much affection for its members,” said Jesuit Father Robert Araujo, a law professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, “an affection strengthened by our fourth vow to him.”

The Jesuits’ fourth vow — along with their vows of poverty, celibacy, and obedience — is loyalty to the pope.

Benedict’s address came at a time when the Jesuits are coping with many contemporary challenges. In the developing world, the order is taking a lead role in dealing with the HIV/AIDS pandemic and with increasing numbers of migrants and refugees. In the West, it is struggling to come up with evangelizing techniques through which to engage modern culture.

Meanwhile, the positivist and materialist scientific spirit highlighted by Benedict has taken its toll on the Jesuits themselves. In 1965, there were 3,559 Jesuits in formation in the United States; by 2002, that number had dropped to just 389.

Another problem confronting the order is the widespread criticism that many Jesuit priests are dissenters. Although few Jesuits will openly agree with that assessment, many acknowledge that the society has lost much of its reputation as a trustworthy source of sound teaching and solid doctrine.

However, Father Kolvenbach, in recent comments to the Register, denied that dissent was on the increase.

“In the spirit of serving the Church and the faithful, some Jesuits are tackling difficult issues in Christian life the answers of which are not clear,” he said. “There are, for the most part, new questions which demand new answers and it is a service to the Church to examine them and look for answers even if the novelty of the issues involves some risks.”

Still, many Jesuits would like to see more obvious loyalty to the Pope and Church teachings, in accordance with their unique fourth vow of loyalty to the Pope. That’s an issue expected to be high up on the agenda of the Society’s next general congregation in 2008.

Ignatius’ Example

“Benedict needs his thinking, perceptive, wise, selfless, and faithful sons, who are filled with the zeal of Ignatius, Xavier and Faber, to encounter but not succumb to the charm of the positivistic and materialistic world,” said Father Araujo. “For his work to continue with Jesuit support, our training must be rigorous, both intellectually and spiritually, in order to assist Pope Benedict in his responsibilities for the care of souls that has the fundamental objective of leading them to God and his promise of salvation for all.”

For the future, Pope Benedict’s advice was simple: Follow the example of your founder. And emulating him, the Pope suggested, is the secret to the order’s future well-being and the fulfillment of its role in bringing souls to salvation.

“St. Ignatius of Loyola was above all a man of God, who put God in the first place in his life,” the Pope recalled. “He was a man of profound prayer, which found its center and its culmination in the daily Celebration of the Eucharist.”

Edward Pentin

writes from Rome.