Jesuit delegates from across the world attending the General Congregation in Rome were looking forward to Pope Francis’s address last Sunday with a mixture of excitement and trepidation.
Excitement, because this is - let’s not forget - the first time a
Jesuit pope has addressed the governing body of the Society of Jesus,
and very likely to be the last, at least in most Jesuits’ lifetimes.
Trepidation, because no pope has known the Jesuits better than Jorge
Mario Bergoglio, one of its most influential yet also challenging
leaders, known as ‘provincials’ (the Society is divided into provinces,
each headed by a provincial).
No pope, in other words, has ever known the Society’s gifts,
strengths, weaknesses and temptations as Francis does, from the inside.
Equally, no General Congregation (‘GC’ in Jesuitspeak) has ever sat
through an address by a pope who has actually attended previous GCs as a
As Argentina’s provincial, Bergoglio was at the historic 32nd GC
in 1974-75, called by Father Pedro Arrupe to settle the disputed
post-Vatican II direction of the Society.
Eight years later, as an
elected delegate, he was at the 33rd GC in 1983 that elected Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach (at which, incidentally, Bergoglio got to know the Jesuits’ just-elected new General, Father Arturo Sosa.)
In between those two GCs the Jesuits went through their most
turbulent period in modern times, a time of collapsing vocations amidst
sharp divisions over some Marxist undercurrents of liberation theology
and the place of justice in the Jesuits’ faith mission.
came with Pope St John Paul II’s notorious intervention in the Society
in 1981 following Arrupe’s debilitating stroke.
(Rather than accept the Jesuits’ nomination of a vicar-general to run
the order until a successor could be found, the pope named his own
‘pontifical delegate’ to serve as the Jesuits’ interim leader for two
In all of this, Bergoglio was no mere spectator. When Paul VI
addressed the delegates at the opening of GC-32 on December 3, 1974, he
gave what Argentina’s then-provincial regarded as the most beautiful
address ever made to the Society by a pope. Yet within the love letter
was a sharp concern, shared by Bergoglio, that the Jesuit renewal had
led them away from their core identity and mission.
Many of the delegates were mystified and angered by Paul’s urging
them to get back on track, which they took as a warning against the
direction they eventually endorsed at GC-32.
Ignoring Paul’s admittedly
indirect pleas, GC-32 voted to amend the society’s purpose to make the
“promotion of justice” an “absolute requirement” of the “service of
Bergoglio objected to that amendment (known as ‘Decree Four’),
because of fears that it would make the Jesuits vulnerable to ideology
and a loss of priestly identity, reducing them to activists and
Returning to Argentina, he would often quote Paul VI’s address and
studiously ignored Decree Four. As provincial and later rector of the
Colegio Máximo in charge of the formation of hundreds of young men, he
pursued a deliberate policy of isolating the Argentine province from the
rest of the Jesuits in Latin America.
A couple of years after Kolvenbach’s election, Bergoglio (in the
1980s by far the dominant figure in the province) was dethroned and
sidelined in order to re-integrate the Argentine Jesuits. Rome’s policy
divided the province, leaving long-lasting wounds.
In 1990 Bergoglio left the Society, at least formally, when he was
made auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires. The legacy of hurt and
misunderstanding was only dissolved after his election as pope.
Given the suspicion with which most Jesuits worldwide regarded
him in March 2013, the growing love and affection between Francis and
the Society since then has been nothing short of extraordinary.
Read in the light of this history, Francis’s speech to
GC-36 was a chance to articulate a vision of the Jesuits’ purpose and
mission that - in his view - they abandoned despite Paul VI’s warning in
Of course, much of the Tiber has run under the Ponte Sisto since
then, and successive GCs - not least number 35 in 2008, which re-aligned
the society with the papacy - have restored the Jesuits’ identity, to
the point where these days those debates are largely over.
But it was still significant that Francis began the address
by quoting Paul’s at GC-32, in which the then pope invited the Jesuits
to “walk together: free, obedient.”
In effect Francis’s address fleshed
out that invitation, arguing that in the discerned tension of freedom
and obedience lies the authentic Jesuit charism.
The address helped to heal two wounds: not just the one left by the
197os derailing, but by the humiliation that followed - lectures by
papal nominees which confused the Jesuits’ famous Fourth Vow of
obedience to the pope with St Ignatius’s rules in the Spiritual Exercises for thinking with the Church.
A famous example was the homily of Cardinal Franc Rodé, then prefect
of the Congregation for Religious, at the opening Mass of GC-35 in 2008,
which implied that the Jesuits’ mission was narrow conformity. That
address hurt, because it showed little understanding of St Ignatius’s
understanding of obedience as docility to the promptings of the Holy
As Bergoglio always did as provincial, to make his case Francis
yesterday reached for primitive sources from the Jesuits’ early days,
quoting St. Ignatius of Loyola and his companions, as well as the
original Formula of the Institute drawn up by Pope Paul III in 1540.
(Returning to that formula, so often revised since then, is typical of
Francis’s ressourcement - reforming by restoring.)
Through these he showed that Jesuit freedoms - from the obligation to
recite the Divine Office, for example - are “mobility aids”, designed
precisely to allow the freedom for obedience properly understood. That
didn’t spell conformity, he implied, but the very opposite: a
holy fervor that was a means of “awakening those who are dormant.”
In case the point was lost, Francis quoted a description of the
famous Chilean Jesuit saint, Alberto Hurtado, as “a thorn in the flesh
of the dormant Church.”
Equally pointed was the absence of the the word “justice” in the
address, which appears only once, as part of the phrase “the practice of
faith and mercy” (a rather different idea from the “promotion” of
justice in Decree Four). Francis reminded the Jesuits that St. Ignatius
saw the society’s means of attaining the “the greater and more universal
good” - the magis - as always including, and never preventing, concrete works of mercy.
(For Argentine Jesuits who remember Bergoglio as provincial, this was
like going back in time. Bergoglio was always convinced that for
well-educated priests, advocacy of justice in the abstract was a
spiritual temptation away from the incarnational demand of Christ that
service be firstly to the concrete person in need.)
Francis then gave a three-point recipe, drawn directly from the Spiritual Exercises,
for “overcoming the impediments which the enemy of our human nature
tries to put in our way when we are in the service of God and seeking
the greater good.”
The first, “to ask consistently for consolation,” makes clear that
Jesuit spirituality is about seeking and asking for the joy that Christ
offers his disciples in prayer. In what will surely be a future Society
of Jesus slogan, Francis observed that “the Jesuit is a servant of the
joy of the Gospel.”
His second invitation is to be close to those who are suffering, by
depending more and more on God’s mercy and grace, “which we, many times,
dilute with our abstract formulations and legalistic conditions.”
Quoting the part of Decree Four at GC-32 that he strongly approved
of, Francis observes that only when Jesuits experience this healing
power in their own lives will they be able to walk with those who
suffer, “learning from them the best way of helping and serving them”
(rather than applying to the poor abstract formulas, he did not need to
The third part of the recipe is “doing good led by the Good Spirit,
thinking with the Church.”
Here Francis quoted his favorite early Jesuit
(whom he canonized on his birthday in 2013), St. Peter Faber, who noted
of the Lutherans that “those who wanted to reform the Church were
right, but that God did not want to correct it through their means.”
But in case that could be read as an endorsement of Cardinal Rodé’s
narrow critique of Jesuit independence, Francis adds: “We do not read
the rules for thinking with the Church as precise instructions about
controversial points,” but rather “to open up a space so that the Spirit
can act in its own time.”
St. Ignatius, Francis reminds the Jesuits, used to make a special
effort when he saw sinful structures in the Church to make sure he was
acting “in the Good Spirit” when he spoke or acted.
Be reformers and frontiersmen, in other words, but watch out for the
temptations of ideology and egotism, and remain true to your original
The address is just five pages, yet in its careful re-balancing helps heal decades.