Finally, we should not neglect the importance of Francis being the first Jesuit pope. In many respects, it appears Francis’ Jesuit background has had an important influence on Pope Francis’ theology. Given the Jesuits lengthy history and its varying roles over time, it would be merely superficial to draw the many parallels between Francis’ papacy and the Jesuit order broadly. Rather, the goal here specifically is to focus on the parallels between Francis’ writings and an Ignatian spirituality, specifically as developed by St. Ignatius of Loyola himself.
As Father Robert Imbelli writes for America Magazine, Gaudete et Exsultate “is deeply Ignatian.” Indeed, Pope Francis cites St. Ignatius of Loyola several times in this document. Aside from those direct citations, Imbelli notes a few other clear overlaps between the writings of both.
Francis compares the spiritual life to a battle, a theme quite often used by St. Ignatius in his spiritual writings. This recurrent battle theme in St. Ignatius’ writings, of course, most likely flow from his own personal experiences as a soldier–that is, until his leg was shattered by a cannonball, prompting a deeper spirituality. Francis introduces a section entitled “Spiritual combat, vigilance and discernment” with the following:
The Christian life is a constant battle. We need strength and courage to withstand the temptations of the devil and to proclaim the Gospel. This battle is sweet, for it allows us to rejoice each time the Lord triumphs in our lives.
James Hitchcock, author of The History of the Catholic Church, refers to St. Ignatius of Loyola’s program, particularly within the context of his times, as a “holy pragmatism.” In contrast to a dizzying maze of traditions and devotions that could make God both seemingly inaccessible and also necessarily accessible to those who successfully navigated their way through (paraphrasing Hitchcock), Ignatius’ insistence on discernment, prayer, and a direct spiritual connection with Christ served a great need. Indeed, the Jesuit order would explode with new members in just a few short decades since its founding.
In his writings on discernment, St. Ignatius gives practical advice to people to test whether something is truly good or evil, whether something is from the devil or from the Spirit. Francis also shares this commitment to discernment, but unlike St. Ignatius, Francis is writing to an audience which may not appreciate spiritual realities. Today, with many people holding fast to empiricist principles, talk about “devils” and “spirits” can likely only turn people off. However, Francis doesn’t shy away from these categories. Rather, he insists on them, exhorting us to maintain a “supernatural understanding.”
Having established that this supernatural view is critical and calling us to be alert and on guard, Pope Francis writes,
How can we know if something comes from the Holy Spirit or if it stems from the spirit of the world or the spirit of the devil? The only way is through discernment, which calls for something more than intelligence or common sense. It is a gift which we must implore. If we ask with confidence that the Holy Spirit grant us this gift, and then seek to develop it through prayer, reflection, reading and good counsel, then surely we will grow in this spiritual endowment.
The focus on discernment, a major theme of Gaudete et Exsultate, is also a part of many other documents as well. Pope Francis is very much concerned with “next steps”–that is, in a pragmatic sort of way, what God is calling each person to do in the “concrete realities” of his or her life. In Amoris Laetitia, he writes,
We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them.
In, GE 169, Francis synthesizes the major elements mentioned above and couches them in a very Ignatian way–namely, that discernment is a means of spiritual battle, that discernment happens in everyday realities, and that the goal of discernment is to respond to God’s invitation to grow. Likewise, David Fleming, SJ, summarizes Ignatian spirituality as “an active attentiveness to God joined with a prompt responsiveness to his leading” which leads the Christian to growth. The Ignatian spirituality is all about “What more can we do to love him?”
In his attention to the desire for moral and spiritual growth, Francis follows the Jesuit founder, St. Ignatius, who urged the early Jesuits to always seek “the progress of souls,” frequently defined as love of God, charity to the neighbor and the growth in other virtues.
Another very Ignatian insight that Francis shares is a skepticism regarding the ability of the mind to lead the Christian to holiness. This, of course, is not anti-intellectualism or antinomianism but simply the recognition that the power of God does not manifest itself primarily in the person as knowledge but as his gift of mercy, to which the Christian is invited to respond. For this reason, in Gaudete et Exsultate and elsewhere, Francis is keen to reframe Christianity, as legalistic and scholastic as it may seem at times, in terms of this kerygma, the kernel of the faith.
The same power that the gnostics attributed to the intellect, others now began to attribute to the human will, to personal effort. This was the case with the pelagians and semi-pelagians. Now it was not intelligence that took the place of mystery and grace, but our human will. It was forgotten that everything “depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy” (Rom 9:16) and that “he first loved us” (cf. 1 Jn 4:19).
Fleming, in a piece called “Spirituality of the Heart,” again summarizes the Ignatian spirituality. As Fleming points out, St. Ignatius was a devout and orthodox Catholic prior to and after his “conversion.” What happened to him while he was recovering from his battle wounds did not make him “more devout” or “more orthodox” or “more knowledgeable”; it was something deeper. Fleming writes:
[St. Ignatius] did not say that the Spiritual Exercises are designed primarily to deepen our understanding or to strengthen our will. He did not promise to explain spiritual mysteries to us or enlighten our minds. We may emerge from the Exercises with enhanced intellectual understanding, but this is not the goal. The goal is a response—a certain kind of response. Ignatius is after a response of the heart.
As far as I can tell, there is no direct link between the “law of gradualness” and Ignatian spirituality but the emphasis on growth is shared by both. Similarly, Pope Francis’ “time is greater than space” also seems to be related. Both Francis and St. Ignatius recognize that the Christian must grow in holiness over a period of time. It is a “constant battle” and certainly it is not easy. We must give the sinner time to respond fully to God’s call, which doesn’t happen immediately or all at once.
Christensen suggests that Francis is not entirely in line with St Ignatius on this question. Whereas St. Ignatius might say that the Christian life is binary, offering one set of guidance to those struggling with sin and another to those who aren’t, Francis, following Aquinas and more recent moral tradition including that of St. John Paul II, affirms that one can authentically be on the path of holiness while still in the grips of sin. The important thing is to recognize that we are “works in progress,” emphasis on progress. Helping others to grow into their relationship with God is something that both Francis and St. Ignatius share a deep affinity for.
Daniel Amiri is a Catholic layman and finance professional. A graduate of theology and classics from the University of Notre Dame, his studies coincided with the papacy of Benedict XVI whose vision, particularly the framework of "encounter" with Christ Jesus, has heavily influenced his thoughts. He is a husband and a father to three beautiful children. He serves on parish council and also enjoys playing and coaching soccer.