On Being a Jesuit and Not Being “In the Center”

Reflections on the Pope’s homily on the Feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus

“We Jesuits and the entire Society are not in the center; we are, so to say, removed; we are in the service of Christ and of the Church….” — Pope Francis, Sermon at the Gesŭ. Feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola, 2013.

After returning from his memorable trip to World Youth Day in Brazil, Pope Francis celebrated morning Mass on the Feast of St. Ignatius today at the beautiful Church, the Gesŭ, the center of so much Jesuit history and tradition. We are by now used to this Pope’s style. He gives simple, straight-forward, brief reflections, usually with three points, based on the day’s readings or feast. He tells stories, makes homey remarks, and recalls his own experiences. He usually has some remark or take on life that is memorable, but that is not necessary. There is something nice about an ordinary sermon on an ordinary day.

This was the Pope’s first ceremonial visit to the Order since his elevation to the Pontificate. Some two hundred Jesuits were there together with the Father General of the Order, Adolfo Nicolas, and Archbishop Luis Ladaria, a Spanish Jesuit who is secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Obviously, a pope who is a Jesuit is first Pope, just as a Franciscan Pope is first a Pope. The tradition of the respective order will influence a pope’s ways of teaching and his emphasis. What could we understand of John Paul II without knowing something about Poland or of Benedict without knowing something of German university life? In addition, Pope Bergoglio is from an Italian family in Argentina. When we spread out the lives of these three popes, we have an amazing glimpse at the catholicity, the universality, of the Church.

In his sermon, the central theme was precisely “putting Christ at the center of the Church.” We are to serve Him and to be rather annoyed by or “shamed” by our “limits and sins.” But this recollection teaches us the sense of “humility” for which this Pope already stands in the public eye. One has to be careful not to be “proud” of one’s humility, a lesson we still recall from Christ’s dealings with the Pharisees, if not from the fallen angels themselves.

Among Jesuits, of course, the Pope will recall Jesuit things. He cites the symbol of the Jesuits: “Jesus Hominum Salvator”—Jesus the Savior of Men. This memorable phrase teaches us of the “centrality of Christ for each one of us and the entire Society.” And, of course, as we know in every Mass, the “centrality” of Christ always looks at and is in the service of the Father who sent Him into the world with a “plan” for the salvation of men.

Pope Francis thus tells Jesuits that they are to be “de-centered” from themselves. Christ is always greater. “Christ is our life.” But the centrality of Christ is not to be conceived as something apart from the relation of Christ to the Church that He founded. Everyone needs to realize that “I cannot follow Christ other than with the Church and in the Church.” How much we are to read into this comment, I do not know. But it is clear that for many people today, Jesuits often appear as if they are at loggerheads with the Church. “We Jesuits and the entire Society are not at the center; we are, so to say, removed….”

Recalling Christ’s admonition that all discipleship is to be conceived not after the model of power but of service, the Pope adds: “We are at the service of Christ and of the Church…. We cannot walk in parallel or in isolation.” This comment obviously touches on many reasons that have been given to justify independent ways. But the Pope is not trying to close things down. He reminds us of what Benedict and John Paul II stood for, a genuine insight into their times and into intelligence that, while often strikingly new, was rooted in the faith that seeks understanding. “Yes, there are paths of research, creative paths, yes; this is important; to go out to the peripheries, but always in community, in the Church, with this belonging that gives us the courage to go ahead.”

To accomplish this spirit, we must first be followers of Christ. The Pope cites a familiar Spanish phrase: El nos primerea —He is always first. In a sense, this phrase is a classic comment on the problem of pride, on the placing of ourselves, our ideas, our “mission,” at the center of things and not that of the Church whose purpose is first to “save men” to eternal life. Pope Francis is aware that we have martyrs today—he is concerned about a Father Paolo dell’Oglio, a Jesuit, who is missing in Syria.

The Pope reminds us of Christ’s teaching that those who wish to save their lives must lose them, that if we are ashamed of Christ, He will “be ashamed of us when He comes in glory.” We are not to be ashamed of Christ but to follow Him. Pope Francis recalls the Exercises of St. Ignatius, as we would expect. The great fear we have is simply that of our not measuring up to our calling. Yet, “humility makes aware every day that it is not for us to build the Kingdom of God, but rather it is always the grace of the Lord that acts in us; humility that urges us to give ourselves not to service to ourselves or our ideas, but in the service of Christ and the Church.”

Finally, Pope Francis speaks of “the twilight of a Jesuit’s life.” He himself no doubt is already beyond ‘retirement age.” So “when a Jesuit finishes his life,” the Pope reflects, two images come to him. One is of Francis Xavier on the Island off China still wanting to enter the Middle Kingdom and the other of Pedro Arrupe at a refugee camp. Both died, obviously, still thinking of the work to be done that they would not be there to do. The work must be passed on to others who follow. Finally, Francis reminds us of the Mother of God and of the central Jesuit Motto—“Ad majoren Dei glorian.”

This Pope is now many things. His relation to the Society of Jesus is manifest here. His message to them and to all of us, I think, is the centrality of Christ and the Church as ways to God the Father and eternal life. The Church is incarnate in this world not for political purposes, however much its existence can impact on them. It is to link us more directly to God: Jesus Hominum Salvator. It is good for a Pope at an early morning Mass to remind us of this basic truth.

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About James V. Schall, S.J. 180 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019) taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of over thirty books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His of his last books included On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018) and The Politics of Heaven and Hell: Christian Themes from Classical, Medieval, and Modern Political Philosophy (Ignatius, 2020).