Understanding Pope Francis Through Ignatius of Loyola


(photo: CNA/Kyle Burkhart)

I believe that Pope Francis is the quintessential Ignatian Jesuit, and that is the hermeneutical key to understanding him.

When Ignatius of Loyola was wounded in the Battle of Pamplona, he was taken to the hospital, where he received a copy of the lives of the saints.

After devouring the book, Ignatius said, “I want to be a saint like St. Francis.”

Well, we have a Pope who has embraced the vocation of being a follower of Ignatius, who wanted to be a saint like St. Francis.

Why did Jorge Bergoglio become a Jesuit? He has said that he was attracted to the Jesuit’s missionary spirit, community and discipline. Today, the Holy Father is living his Jesuit vocation with a true missionary zeal, a love for community that is oriented for mission and a disciplined life that does not waste anything, especially not time. I love the image of Pope Francis trotting around the Vatican turning off lights — it reminds me of my dad.

Pope Francis embraces the introspection that is central to Ignatian spirituality. The practice of the “daily examen” — mental prayer that involves a review of how one is living one’s vocation — was Ignatius’ plan to keep the Jesuits recollected in God-focused lives despite their active lifestyle.

As a Jesuit novice master, Father Jorge Bergoglio insisted on fidelity to the practice of the examen, realizing that Ignatius’ strict program of formation was to prepare men for years of self-discipline once all the props of formation were taken away.

In keeping with his own Jesuit formation, Pope Francis is a man of discernment, and, at times, that discernment results in freeing him from the confinement of doing something in a certain way because it was ever thus.

One striking example is his decision to celebrate the Holy Thursday Mass and wash the feet of a group of prisoners.

On Holy Thursday, Jesus washed the feet of the Twelve. They were shocked and unhinged by the experience. St. Peter rebelled at the thought and capitulated only when Jesus insisted.

For most of us, the washing of the feet on Holy Thursday has become a rather stylized liturgical gesture that is but a weak reflection of what the original foot-washing entailed.

The decision to wash the feet of the prisoners was not an innovation for Pope Francis. As archbishop of Buenos Aires, he had been doing this each Holy Week. However, many were surprised that he did not celebrate Holy Thursday Mass as other popes had done and go to the Basilica of St. John Lateran.

Yet his actions jostled our imagination. We have grown so complacent that we can no longer see beyond the familiar custom to glimpse the challenging truth.

With a simple gesture, the Holy Father was challenging core assumptions about power, authority and leadership. As he told the prisoners, “Washing your feet means I am at your service.”

As a Jesuit novice master, Father Jorge Bergoglio would send the young novices out to work with the poor, and when they returned, he would check their shoes. If they didn’t have dusty shoes, they had some “splainin” to do.

The same desire to teach the young Jesuits to stay engaged with the people, to be close to the little ones, is what Jesus did when he was training the apostles.

Jesus took them to the Temple to observe the widow putting her last penny into the collection. The Lord does not refund her money, applaud her or give her a compliment. She is unaware she is being observed, as Jesus uses her as part of his lesson plan for his seminarian apostles.

He helps them to see the poor widow through his eyes. Jesus wants his priests to see the devotion of the poor, who are rich in faith. We have so much to learn from the poor.

In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis reminds us that God’s heart has a special place for the poor, so much so that he himself became poor.

Pope Francis is most eloquent in his advocacy on behalf of the poor and our obligation to help them by a program of promotion and assistance, as well as by working to resolve the structural causes of poverty.

However, one of Pope Francis’ most impassioned pleas on behalf of the poor concerns their pastoral care.

In Paragraph 200 of Evangelii Gaudium, the Holy Father writes, “I want to say with regret that the worst discrimination which the poor suffer is the lack of spiritual care. The great majority of the poor have a special openness to faith. They need God, and we must not fail to offer them his friendship, his blessing, his word, the celebration of the sacraments and a journey of growth and maturity in the faith. Our preferential option for the poor must mainly translate into a privileged and preferential religious care.”

The young Jorge Bergoglio joined the Jesuits in part because of his desire to be a missionary and go to Japan. It is hard to read Pope Francis’ challenge to go to the peripheries without recalling the letter of Francis Xavier to St. Ignatius that appears in the Breviary on the feast of the great Jesuit missionary.

Francis Xavier’s letter contains this passionate plea to his priests: “Many, many people are not becoming Christians for one reason only: There is no one to make the Gospel known to them. Again and again, I thought of going around to the universities of Europe … and everywhere crying out like a madman, riveting the attention to those with more learning than charity, ‘What a tragedy: how many souls are being shut out of heaven and falling into hell, thanks to you.’ I wish they would work as hard at this as they do at their books and so settle their account with God for the learning and talents entrusted to them.”

You can almost imagine Pope Francis writing that. He never got to be a missionary in Japan, but he never ceased to admire those Japanese Jesuit missionaries and others who formed the faith of the laity so well that the Christian communities in Japan survived without priests for over 250 years.

The Pope is a true companion of Jesus, a Jesuit who puts Christ at the center of his life. Indeed, at the center of the Church’s mission is the announcement of the kerygma. The kerygma is Trinitarian: The fire of the Spirit leads us to believe in Jesus Christ, who, by his death and resurrection, reveals and communicates to us the Father’s infinite mercy.

Pope Francis writes in Evangelii Gaudium, “On the lips of the catechist the first proclamation must ring out over and over, ‘Jesus Christ loves you, he gave his life to save you, and, now, he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you.’”

Cardinal Sean O’Malley, of the Order of Capuchin Friars Minor, is the archbishop of Boston and a member of Pope Francis’ council of eight advisers.


These remarks were excerpted from an address Cardinal O’Malley delivered March 18 at Loyola University in Baltimore.

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