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What makes Pope Francis 'tick' spiritually?

A focus on humanity's weakness and God's boundless love

  • Fr Michael Kelly SJ, Bangkok
  • International
  • March 24, 2013
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Much has been made of the impressions Pope Francis has created by his ordinary, every day activities: catching buses, using a telephone to make his own calls, not dressing in all the fine drapery usually worn by popes, treating people respectfully as he did the journalists, celebrating the Holy Thursday Mass in a Roman prison.

He is on record as being open to consider ending the celibacy rule for Roman Catholic clerics, caring about the pastoral care of divorced and remarried Catholics and reflecting the approach of Vatican II in decentralizing Church governance to allow local bishops’ conferences more initiative.

There seems little doubt that change is underway and the one thing we all know about change is that it has uncertain outcomes.

We are at a turning point in the Church and it will reward inspection of the key formative experiences in Pope Francis’ life to see where and how things might go in coming years.

The man clearly brings a great deal of pastoral and administrative experience as a Church leader. But about him personally there is something else.

As Jorge Bergoglio, the current pope’s first and then recurrent experience of ministry as a Jesuit was his making and directing the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits. Twice at least he has made the 30-day retreat, and he has also guided others over many years through that experience.

The Exercises are at once a school of prayer and an experience with one purpose – making decisions about directions in life. Over four “weeks” of varying lengths, the retreatant prays for the freedom to make good decisions.

They are prayerful days when a retreatant contemplates her or his human condition as a sinner in need of God’s mercy, a companion with Jesus in his preaching and healing ministry, as one beholding the sorrowful and painful death of Jesus and then asking to share the new life of Jesus’ resurrection.

What impact does making a 30-day retreat have in shaping a person? As one who’s done two and has planned a third one for later this year, there is one uncompromising fact that has to be taken into account: God can only work with us as we are and sometimes God hasn’t got much to work with!

There is no big tally card in the sky that measures and rewards achievement of standards expected of someone making the retreat. The believer comes as he or she is, that mixture of virtue and vice, insight and stubborn blindness, intelligence and stupidity, generosity and mean spiritedness.

So there is no “standard product” at the end of the Exercises. However there are at least three things that not even the most narrow, hard-hearted and obtuse person can miss as the process of the weeks unfold.

They are:

A relentless focus on God’s love for us – from the first to last period of prayer over the 30 days – that has the corresponding effect of our appreciating how far we are from being loving creatures in response. We are sinners but loved sinners, which elicits greater self-knowledge, gratitude and humility.

A constant preoccupation with the person of Jesus – in his teaching and preaching in word and deed climaxing in prolonged meditation on his death and resurrection. The helpless surrender of Jesus to God’s love on Calvary and the astonishing reversal that comes with the Resurrection are seen through not only Jesus’ eyes but also in the Calvaries and resurrections of the retreatant’s life.

The recurrent practice of what Ignatius called the “discernment of spirits” – those mood swings and feelings in an individual that lead towards or away from deepening inner peace, joy and confidence. Those that lead to the positive feelings are believed by the retreatant to be those leading him or her to choose God’s will.

Self-knowledge, humility before the facts, decisiveness until another direction presents itself for consideration, looking for the traces of God’s presence to be found when a decision is taken – these are at heart what will focus the energies and priorities that Pope Francis will choose.

But as a Jesuit and a leader of them, Pope Francis is a practiced exponent of what has developed as a pattern of leadership that received its fullest expression in the Constitutions of the Order, developed over a decade by St Ignatius. The book is both a guide to administration and a set of open-ended suggestions about approaches to effective leadership.

They have been the subject of study and writing by a former American Jesuit, celebrated author and business consultant, Chris Lowney. He summarizes the Ignatian heritage of leadership as being marked by four key features that will turn up in this pontificate: 

Self-awareness: A good leader in this tradition will know his or her capabilities and, as a consequence, also areas of limitation. A leader with self-knowledge surrounds him or herself with people who complement his abilities and so makes up for gaps and short-comings.

Ingenuity: Good leaders are curious and Ignatian leaders are invited to look beyond the ordinary and the possible to the magis, the Latin word Ignatius used for the “greater” or “further” we are capable of, even what seems impossible. Ignatian leaders like and embrace challenges.

Love: Ignatian prayer leads to the specific and the actual because its purpose is to have the believer find God, the source and center of love, in everyone and everything, however unlovely they may appear at first sight. It is the engine room of service and, in Ignatian prayer, is met in the desire to do the best for others and oneself.

Courage: Ignatian prayer and governance is also about taking risks., thinking big, making things happen all in the service of God and human beings. For Ignatius, making things happen for God, oneself and others means not taking blocks and knockbacks in striving to make a positive difference.

This is where Jorge Bergoglio is coming from. Only time will tell where and to what extent Pope Francis will take this formative legacy.

Fr Michael Kelly SJ is executive director of ucanews.com

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