Five years with the Pope of “incomplete thought”
A few days ago we celebrated the fifth anniversary of Pope Francis’ pontificate. There’s much that can be said about the man who has tacked the sails of Peter’s barque to catch the wind of the Spirit.
We might talk about his simple and creative methods of communication, rich in imagery and easy-to-remember neologisms, which reach out to all those who might be listening. We could look at his reform of the Church and the processes of transformation he’s set in motion – both in his official speeches and writings as well as in his manner of relating to people with humility, without pretense, as a pastor with the smell of his sheep. Or we might take into consideration the renewed weight of Vatican diplomacy on the international geopolitical stage. The angles through which we could look at his pontificate are many. Each facet has been explored by experts in greater detail then we can do here in the library of books and articles they’ve written.
That said, I believe that a feature of Francis’ papacy we could identify as uniting all these aspects – style of life, governance, preaching and methods of communication – into a harmonious whole is this: Ignatian Spirituality.
Before being elected the 266th successor of St. Peter, and before having been ordained a bishop, Jorge Mario Bergoglio was a Jesuit and, as a Jesuit, made his own the spirituality of St. Ignatius of Loyola.
At the beginning of his pontificate he frequently pointed out that the Jesuit must be a man of incomplete thought, of open thought. A man who must question himself constantly in order to seek for and find the will of God in the reality surrounding him – in a constant tension towards that which he might never fully comprehend or fully define. Such an attitude favours dialogue, encounter, coming out from one’s own comfort zone. The riches of Ignatian Spirituality offer us, among other things, three keys through which we can try and gain a better understanding of this man who came “from the other end of the earth”.
Beginning with the pre-supposition that man is fundamentally good, discernment is deeply concerned with life, society and the culture. This in turn derives from the conviction that God may be sought and found in all things. St. Ignatius of Loyola understood that by paying close attention to the interior movements our desires, projects, actions and interactions bring about within our hearts, it’s possible to begin to discern: that is, identify God’s voice among all the noise of daily life, allowing us to make good choices in freedom. Both “context” and “experience” are starting points in this process: this means that, for true discernment, a vision guided by faith yet never detached from lived experience is necessary. Francis has repeatedly underlined the fact that every choice he makes is the end result of a process of spiritual discernment. He has spoken at length about the importance of this tool, just as he did in this last video with his prayer intentions for the month of March.
A love for the peripheries is a typical trait of the Society of Jesus, something perfectly incarnated by Matteo Ricci, about whom we’ve already had a chance to say something. This Jesuit, a missionary in China, helped Christian thought enter into a relationship with Confucianism in a way that helped with the transmission of the Gospel to the Chinese, just as Christian thought had entered into dialogue with the predominant greco-roman culture of the first millennium.
Inculturation means overcoming the fear of otherness, becoming curious and attracted by it in creative ways, ready to know more about it and recognize what’s precious in it. It means being “more ready to save”, as we are told in §22 of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius: employing all one’s resources in order to seek the beautiful, the good and the true to be found in the life of our neighbor. The frontiers we’re talking about, in fact, aren’t only geographical but existential.
Francis’ style is profoundly influenced by this conviction, by his curiosity and openness towards his neighbour. This becomes very evident if we pay attention to his use of language and way of communicating. He meets his audience where they are, making himself their neighbour.
The centre of a Jesuit’s life is God: a God who doesn’t remain far away in the highest of heavens, but is present in the world, working among people as they go about their daily lives. Ignatian spirituality is a spirituality of creative and life-giving tensions. The Jesuit must learn to hold seemingly polar opposites in balance: by recognizing oneself a sinner called by God to be a companion of Jesus; being faithful to the message of the Gospel while creatively helping it find its place within native cultures; falling deeply in love with the work he’s been entrusted with while being ready to abandon it all and go wherever he’s sent; place all his trust in God while cultivating and using all his talents to the full; being faithful to history and open to the future. Francis often speaks about the need to live with a “restless heart” which continually seeks the “magis”, that “more” which seeks to work for the greater glory of God. All the polarities Jesuits are called to live find their origin and meaning in the deep desire for a profound union with God and service of neighbor, a desire which generates that constant tension in a Jesuit’s life: being a contemplative in action.
Francis comfortably inhabits these tensions in his exercise of the Petrine ministry and his openness to synodality, in his faithfulness to the tradition and his push for change. A tension which was already apparent that 13th March 2013, in that happy meeting between the words “habemus papam” and “good evening”.