Francis, Ignatius and Reform

Author: Kevin L. Flannery, SJ

Francis, Ignatius and Reform

Kevin L. Flannery, SJ

A Jesuit's reflection on the Successor of Peter

The first indication that the Church had been given a new Successor of St Peter came to the Jesuit community at the Gregorian University during its weekly community Mass. As Fr Javier López was preparing the gifts, a mobile phone rang among the concelebrants and within seconds, the bells of Rome were heard sounding, echoing one another throughout the city. Later, during the Eucharistic Prayer, Fr Felix Körner had the presence of mind to pray for "our new Pope," to whom he could not yet attach a name. When the community learned that the new Pontiff was a Jesuit, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, and that he had taken the name Francis, there was almost immediate speculation as to whether the saint thus invoked was Francis of Assisi or Francis Xavier, the great missionary of the Society of Jesus and one of the original companions of Ignatius of Loyola, the order's founder.

Eventually it became clear that the Francis intended was Francis of Assisi, which struck none of us as strange; any Jesuit knows that the figure of Francis of Assisi was an important figure in the conversion of Ignatius — while he was recovering from injuries sustained in battle at Pamplona in 1521 During his convalescence, Ignatius read a compilation of lives of the saints entitled Flos Sanctorum. According to his autobiography, this reading eventually led Ignatius to say to himself: "St Dominic did this; therefore, I have to do it. St Francis did this; therefore, I have to do it." Especially after founding the Society of Jesus and serving as its first General, Ignatius understood well that Francis of Assisi's poverty (like St Dominic's preaching) was apostolic: it was a means of evangelization; this poverty was a guarantee to those who witnessed it that the person calling them to a more ordered, Christian life did so not for personal gain but for their own spiritual good and happiness.

Pope Francis certainly knew that his own simplicity of lifestyle as Archbishop of Buenos Aires provided him with evangelical strength. No one can doubt his sincerity in eschewing chauffeured cars for buses and trams — actions speak louder than words, and he performed the actions — but by the same token, no one should doubt that he was aware that in doing so, he was disarming the ideologies inimical to the truths he preached. His apostolic simplicity communicated very efficiently, for instance, that one can be a man of the poor without being a Marxist, or that one can oppose injustice without advocating gay marriage — in short, that one can be prophetic without allying oneself with the worldly prophets of the day.

On the first full day of his pontificate, Pope Francis rose early and went in a borrowed car to pray before St Luke's icon of the Blessed Mother at the Basilica St Mary Major. He then walked a few paces to the altar where, on Christmas of 1538, Ignatius of Loyola celebrated his first Mass, just a few weeks after he and his companions offered their services to Pope Paul III. Finally, Francis prayed at the tomb of the great Tridentine reformer of Church and clergy, Pope Pius v. There is no dissonance between any of these actions or any of these messages. It was not by chance that Ignatius chose St Mary Major for his first Mass: soon after his conversion, he had similarly offered his sword to Our Lady of Montserrat, foreswearing pomp and honor, donning rather (as he put it) "the armor of Christ". Pope Francis performed an analogous action by beginning his pontificate bowed before the same image of Our Lady. He doubtless prayed that morning for the strength of both intellect and will that characterized Pius V, since the task of evangelization that lies before him will surely call for a reformation of recalcitrant sectors of the Church, including some in the very religious order that Ignatius offered to Paul III and his successors. The most recent successor may even have said to himself, "St Pius V did this; therefore, I have to do it".

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
20 March 2013, page 14

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