“We’re going to have to get used to a new way of doing things,” Fr. Federico Lombardi, S.J. told reporters shortly after the election of Pope Francis.[1]

From the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis challenged the way things have been done in the Church. He kept his worn black shoes in lieu of the scarlet slippers traditionally worn by the pope on the night of his election. And, in a statement regarding homosexual priests, he surprised the world: “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”[2] Pope Francis demonstrated an openness to departing from the methods used by his predecessors, Benedict XVI and John Paul II, both in papal custom and, notably, his style of communication and his manner of teaching.

Francis is known for his ad hoc communication. This style was clear from the first papal mass that he celebrated with the cardinals following his election. He refused to use the homily prepared for him and instead spoke spontaneously without a script.[3] The media, and its love for a soundbite, capitalized on his spontaneity and spun his words to fit a particular narrative. The episode regarding the famous “who am I to judge?” is a prime example. The press repeated that particular phrase ad nauseum. They omitted the proceeding phrase regarding the search for God and good will. Initially, as reported in the press, the words appeared to change the Church’s teaching towards homosexuality when, in fact, he changed nothing. Such episodes cause consternation for many in the Church who desire more delineated, clear, and prepared forms of communication like John Paul II and Benedict XVI used.

Many of the same people who criticize Francis’s spontaneity also dislike his teaching style. Francis does not use academic language and categories in his speeches, exhortations, and encyclicals in the same way that John Paul II and Benedict XVI did. He communicates in a much more pastoral manner using everyday language and referencing a wider array of sources. His detractors assert that he communicates in this manner because he does not have the same rigorous academic training as his predecessors. This is a false notion.

Prior to becoming a bishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Bergoglio, S.J. served as a professor of pastoral theology at the Colegio Maximo in Argentina. He spent time in Germany in a doctoral program. He focused on the Italo-German philosopher Romano Guardini’s work on polar opposites and the tension between them.[4] Francis returned to Argentina for personal reasons and did not complete his doctorate.[5] If Francis has the academic background, then why does he not communicate like his predecessors?

Italian scholar and author Massimo Borghesi asserts that Francis’s communication style is a pastoral choice; that is, he has consciously chosen to write in an accessible style in order to reach as many people as possible.[6] When he teaches, Francis begins by exploring the reality of a given situation and then attempts to find the path to reach the ideal, rather than beginning with an ideal, as his predecessors did. His style of communication also embraces the human person’s inherent process of gradual faith and moral development, which is a point of continuity with his predecessors.[7] Francis’s teaching consistently points back to the method of this process—discernment—and its centrality to spiritual growth.

Rather than attempting to supply all of the answers, Francis invites the Church to find the guiding path of the Spirit. He teaches through a hermeneutic of discernment, shaped by his mid-twentieth century Ignatian formation in the Society of Jesus. He grounds his teaching in pastoral spiritual experience with a kerygmatic focus rather than a legislative, juridical focus. To truly understand Pope Francis’s teaching, one must approach from the perspective of spirituality based in experience, rather than from a legislative, or even pedagogical perspective.

Pope Francis is clearly a product of his formative experiences as a priest and a religious in the 1960’s. Bergoglio entered the Society of Jesus at Córdoba, Argentina in March of 1958 at the age of 22. His formation, from the novitiate until the end of his tertianship in 1973, was a time of massive change, not only spiritually with in the Society of Jesus but also for the Catholic Church around the world. His mentor was Miguel Ángel Fiorito S.J. (1916-2005), a theologian whose vision helped shape the development of Ignatian spirituality in Argentina, who was a key influence on  Bergoglio during his formation.[8] The full Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, one of his first experiences upon entering the Society, laid the basis for his understanding and focus on Ignatian discernment.[9] Bergoglio learned the importance of the Daily Examen and how to discern consolations and desolations that would come to guide his life as a priest and beyond. The same concept and practice served as the foundation for all of Bergoglio’s choices.

Top row, third from left: a young Jorge Mario Bergoglio standing next to Father Miguel Ángel Fiorito (arms crossed)

In 1956, Fiorito published an article entitled “The Personal Option of St. Ignatius: Christ or Satan” in the Argentinian journal Ciencia y Fé in Argentina. In the article, Fiorito draws upon the writings of the theologian Hugo Rahner S.J. to explain “current Ignatian spirituality” emerging in the Society.[10] Fiorito was at the forefront of a movement within the Society calling for a reexamination of St. Ignatius’s spirituality that began in the 1950s and continued through the Second Vatican Council. Fiorito argued that the call of Christ, based on the Two Standards meditation in the Spiritual Exercises, is a real and actual call of Christ rather than a symbolic call of the Church. The response to this daily call from Christ is ultimately the fundamental choice made in the life of every Christian. Fiorito refers to the active daily choice to follow Christ and not a kind of general orientation towards Christ. The “Enemy,” masquerading as an angel of the light, can manipulate what Fiorito considered an “ecclesiocentric” discernment that closes a person off to the movements of the Spirit through an illusory notion of obedience to the Church. In this scenario, the Church becomes the end rather than the means of reaching Christ. Although this approach to discernment occurs within an ecclesial context and in fidelity to the Church, for Fiorito, the Spiritual Exercises and the process of discernment is fundamentally a Christocentric enterprise.

Towards the end of “The Personal Option of St. Ignatius,” Fiorito demonstrates how this call relates to the role of the pope. Fiorito asserts that Christ constantly calls people to himself. It is the role of the pope to echo that call from Christ to the Church.[11] The call from Christ is that fundamental choice between Christ and the “Enemy.” In an interview some fifty years later, Pope Francis would iterate a similar line of thinking as Fiorito. In 2013, Antonio Spadaro S.J., the editor of the journal La Civiltá Cattolica, asked Pope Francis what it means for a Jesuit to be elected pope. Francis answered “discernment.”[12] For Francis, discernment is at the heart of walking with and guiding the Church. Discernment guides everything that he does from the smallest action to the largest decisions and actions of his papacy. His formation as a Jesuit and his experiences inextricably ties his papacy to Ignatian discernment and resurfaces throughout his papal writings.

Two years later, in October 2017, Pope Francis announced the Vatican would host a synod on the Amazon region. In June 2019, the Vatican released the Instrumentum Laborem, a “working document,” in preparation for the synod. It covered a wide range of topics that the Amazonian people and Church faced. One section addressed the shortage of priests and suggested ordaining community “elders,” including those married with families to fill sacerdotal gaps and make available the Eucharist. Much of the coverage leading up to and during the synod attempted to reduce the entirety of the synod to viri probati, the ordination of “men of virtue.”. Battle lines emerged between those who saw the opening up of ordination of married men as a Trojan horse leading to the end of priestly celibacy in the Roman Church, and those who saw it as a practical measure–with precedent–to meet the sacramental needs of the people.

The synod’s discussion on the question of married priests was lively and ended in consensus. The final document recommended the ordination of married men to Pope Francis, and most expected him to approve the measure. When Francis released Querida Amazonia in February 2020, he surprised the world by circumventing any forward motion on the subject. Rather, he asked the Church in the Amazon to be open to the Spirit and Its promotion of new ecclesial structures. Focusing solely on married priests, he exhorted, would be a “narrow aim.”[13]

In September of 2020, La Civilita Cattolica published an interview in which Francis addressed his reasoning:

“There was a discussion… a rich discussion… a well-founded discussion, but no discernment, which is something different from arriving at a good and justified consensus or relative majority. We must understand that a synod is more than a parliament; and in this specific case it could not escape this dynamic. On this subject it has been a rich, productive and even necessary parliament; but no more than that. For me this was decisive in the final discernment, when I thought about how to shape the exhortation.”[14]

Yet again, Francis surprised observers by not answering the question of the viri probati at all. Rather, Francis invited the Church to discern where the Spirit called it, thereby demonstrating how discernment should operate in the life of the Church. In the end, he did not recognize the Spirit’s call in either direction on the matter, but that patience was necessary.

Seven years into his papacy, the world still found it difficult to predict Francis’s course of action. There was a failure to recognize how his mode of operation differs from his predecessors. Pope Francis approaches the world and all of its complexity through the lens of discernment drawn from Ignatian spirituality. Therefore, to understand Francis’s way of thinking, one must first understand Ignatian discernment, which is rooted in the movements of the Holy Spirit. Recognizing these movements allows one to be receptive to the Spirit’s guidance, Who leads a person to become more fully who God created him or her to be and by extension the Church that God created it to be. Francis’s papal legacy might be to make the spiritual heritage of the Society of Jesus and St. Ignatius of Loyola, that is the discernment of the spirits, a lasting way of proceeding for the Church.


[1].     Austen Ivereigh, The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope (New York: Picador, 2015), 370.

[2].    Rachel Donadio, “On Gay Priests, Pope Asks, ‘Who Am I to Judge?,” New York Times, Jul 30, 2013, https://login.avoserv2.library.fordham.edu/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.avoserv2.library.fordham.edu/newspapers/on-gay-priests-pope-asks-who-am-i-judge/docview/1413372992/se-2?accountid=10932.

[3].     Gerard O’Connell, The Election of Pope Francis: An Inside Account of the Conclave That Changed History (New York: Orbis Books, 2019), 247-248.

[4].    Massimo Borghesi, The Mind of Pope Francis: Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s Intellectual Journey, trans. Barry Hudock (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press Academic, 2017), xii.

[5].    Ivereigh, Reformer, 200.

[6].    Borghesi, The Mind, xix.

[7].    John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, 1981, #34 http://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_jp-ii_exh_19811122_familiaris-consortio.html

[8].    Vatican News, “Pope Francis presents the Works of Maestro Fiorito: a great dream that will bear fruit.” https://www.vaticannews.va/en/pope/news/2019-12/pope-francis-presents-the-works-of-maestro-fiorito.html

[9].    Whelen, A Discerning Church, 111.

[10]. Miguel Ángel Fiorito, “La Opción Peronal de San Ignacio: Cristo o Satanás,” Escritos 1952-1959, vol. 1 (Rome: La Civiltá Cattolica, 2019), 175.

[11]. Ibid., 183.

[12]. Antonio Spadaro, “A Big Heart Open to God: The Exclusive Interview with Pope Francis,” America (September 20, 2013): 14-38.

[13]. Francis, Querida Amazonia, (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2020), #91-98.

[14]. Antonio Spadaro, “Francis’s Government: What is the driving force?,” La Civiltá Cattolica (5 September 2020) https://www.laciviltacattolica.com/francis-government-what-is-the-driving-force-of-his-pontificate/.

Image: Pope Francis meets with the Jesuit superior, Father Arturo Sosa. General Curia of the Society of Jesus.

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Chris Hernandez lives with his wife and four children in Houston, TX, where he teaches high school theology. He is a graduate of three Jesuit institutions. Chris has a MA in Christian Spirituality from Fordham University. He is a lector at his local parish and teaches Baptism classes.

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