This Ignatian Franciscan Pope

Like many, I'm stunned and thrilled at the selection of Pope Francis I. Immediately my mind began churning about what a Jesuit who chooses the name of Francis might be wishing to convey. Here I offer some brief reflections on what a son of Ignatius, trained in that spiritual tradition, might mean in seeing Francis as a spiritual father.

In his autobiography, Saint Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, writes about his profound experience of conversion during a period of convalescence after a horrible war injury. Lacking much reading material, he reads a book about the life of Christ and another about the saints, and becomes inflamed with desire to imitate them:

Our Lord was helping him, causing other thoughts, which were born of the things he was reading, to follow these. For, while reading the lives of Our Lord and the saints, he would top to think reasoning with himself: 'How would it be, if I did this which Saint Francis did, and this which St. Dominic did?' (7, translation by Munitiz and Endean)

He saw Francis and Dominic (both founders of religious orders and men of remarkable faith and piety) as exemplars, men whose imitation of Christ was so evident that he wished to imitate them. For Ignatius, imitation of Christ was a goal of the spiritual life: in this he followed earlier writers such as Thomas à Kempis, author of the medieval bestseller The Imitation of Christ.

Later, Ignatius wrote the widely known Spiritual Exercises, a guide for discernment of God's call to service in the world. The heart of the Exercises is the so-called "call of Christ the King"—an exercise in which the person imagines Jesus calling him or her directly to serve in building his Kingdom. Ignatius suggests offering this prayer to Christ:

My resolute wish and desire, and my considered determination—on the sole condition that this be for your greater service and praise—is to imitate you in enduring every outrage and all contempt, and utter poverty, both actual and spiritual, if your most holy Majesty wants to choose me and receive me into that life and state. (98)

The language of his prayer echoes the description of Francis of Assisi's embrace of Lady Poverty, as told by his biographers Thomas of Celano and later Bonaventure. Celano observes, for example, writing of the group that Francis gathered around him, "Neither low birth nor the drawback of poverty was any obstacle to his building up in the work of God those that it was the will of God to build up Who delights to be with the simple, and the outcasts of the world" (First Life of St. Francis, 31, trans. Cameron). Francis longed to be with Christ in poverty, to breathe the breath of Christ in the company of Christ's poor.

Francis was a layperson for most of his life, eschewing the priesthood though accepting ordination to the diaconate after the establishment of his religious order. Francis had a great reverence for the priesthood, though he chose to follow Christ in service (diakonia in Greek). Perhaps echoing this desire for service, Ignatius would later counsel his Jesuits:

It will also be of the highest importance toward perpetuating the Society's well-being to use great diligence in precluding from it ambition, the mother of all evils in any community or congregation whatsoever. This will be accomplished by closing the door against seeking directly or indirectly, any dignity or prelacy within the Society, in such a way that one who can be proved to have sought such a prelacy becomes ineligible and disqualified for any office. (817, tr. Ganss)

Ignatius's order was an order of mission, with a special vow to serve wherever the pope asked them to go. Adding a Franciscan dimension to that sense of mission suggests to me a pope who wants the Church to be agile in its ministry to the poor, to serve as Christ served. For those who long for a retreat from the vestiges of triumphalism, this is welcome news. What will a church look like that dedicates its energies to serving Christ's poor? My own hope is that this might be a moment to stop our ecclesial hand-wringing and get to work.

12/2/2022 9:05:39 PM
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  • Tim Muldoon
    About Tim Muldoon
    Tim Muldoon holds a Ph.D. in Catholic systematic theology and is an award-winning author and Catholic theologian of the new evangelization.