Francis’ Mystical Light

Recently, a theologian and spiritual director shared an important insight into the spirituality of Pope Francis. Father Raymond Gawronski, like the Pope, is a member of the Society of Jesus. The interview in America magazine had just come out, and I was curious about his take on the Pope’s assertion that St. Ignatius was a mystic.

To Father Gawronski, this assertion finds justification in the very first paragraph of the saint’s Spiritual Exercises, which, paraphrased, could read: “Spiritual exercises indicate every method of examination of conscience, meditation, contemplation, vocal or mental prayer ... any means of preparing and disposing our soul to seek and find God’s will.”

In proposing every method and any means of prayer, the "Mystic of Loyola" opens up a vision of discernment shared by Pope Francis. To the Holy Father’s mind, the founder of his spiritual tradition was open to the mystical encounter with the God that can permeate one’s intellect, affections, memory and entire will.

The Pope suggests this not only in his interview published in America, but also in his recently published conversation with well-known atheist Eugenio Scalfari, founder of the Italian newspaper La Repubblica. In this second interview, the Holy Father offers even more insight into his conviction and connection with the mysticism of St. Ignatius. 

Pope Francis believes that the wisdom of discernment redeems the necessary ambiguities of life so that we can find the most appropriate means to serve God and enter into his peace. This is a wisdom flowing from a personal and real encounter with Christ. This wisdom is not the product of human cleverness or the accumulation of life experience. It is an openness to an astonishing judgment.

This holy wisdom beholds the surprising new things God is accomplishing in our tired-out, old world. In his conversation with Scalfari, Pope Francis even provides a personal example of how St. Ignatius’ openness to the Lord’s mysterious ways is something he also tries to emulate.

After his election to the pontificate, he recalls withdrawing for a few brief moments of prayer before going out for the formal announcement on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica. He describes how, in this moment of prayer, a light of confidence flooded his soul. He felt time suspended, as God delicately disclosed his holy will and provided the needed reassurance. Only the moment before, a swirl of thoughts and doubts had been assailing him. But now these suddenly disappeared. In this new moment, and under this new light, he knew what he needed to do.

This is not really an extraordinary experience, even if it is rare. For the soul that will discipline itself, withdraw into silence and take the necessary time to attend to the Lord, it is possible to gain confidence and insight to do the will of God. It is a matter of the renewal of the mind: The resurrected eyes of Christ see hope and possibilities of love to which unaided reason is blind.

Pope Francis feels close to those saints who learned to live by this light. St. Augustine describes a similar light giving him confidence when he begged the Lord to help him with his struggles to be chaste. Similarly, St. Francis of Assisi realized what he needed to do when he heard the Lord command him to go and rebuild the Church.

Withdrawn in a cave at Manresa, after long periods of prayer and fasting, struggling to articulate spiritual exercises that would dispose souls to encounter God, St. Ignatius also received profound graces of illumination that strengthened his resolve to serve the Lord.

In this perspective, even if this light of grace always remains a reality of which we cannot be fully conscious, it can shine through us whenever we allow ourselves to be vulnerable to God. This light can even touch us in special moments with peace, moments that provide just what we need in order to take the next step in our effort to do something beautiful for God.

Without this grace, no matter how much a soul knows or enjoys or accomplishes, it does not have the fullness that God wants for it. This is the wisdom of the saints.

Because Pope Francis understands his own prayer in this wisdom, he is becoming a source of encouragement for many of his fellow Jesuits like Father Gawronski. If Pope Francis wants to lead the Church into a deeper awareness of the misery that threatens humanity today and a fuller dialogue of salvation with those who have no faith, this is because he believes this is where he has discerned God’s presence.

To this end, he may have provided something of a working model in his conversation with Scalfari. When the famous atheist asked the Pope whether he himself was a mystic, he answered simply, “What do you think?”

Editor's Note: Dr. Lilles recent book, Hidden Mountain Secret Garden: A Theological Contemplation on Prayer, can be found here.