Pope Francis has been the focus of much commentary for his Franciscan spirit, his simplicity, love of the poor and concern for nature. There is also much in our new pope’s style that demonstrates his Jesuit spirituality, above all his freedom with respect to the traditional trappings of the papacy.
Interior Freedom. As I witnessed his day by day abandonment of centuries-old custom, I marveled at his joyful, spiritual freedom. I soon realized it manifested his appropriation of the Ignatian value of “indifference.” It is an old-fashioned, philosophical term, borrowed from the Stoics, but what indifference means is freedom from distracting and degrading attachments, so as to be free to do what is more conducive to the good of souls.
An Inclusive Church. The spirit of openness is foundational to the Jesuit way of proceeding. Jesuit churches are known for their inclusiveness and Jesuit confessors for their understanding and compassion. (This is Pope Francis’s church in the street aware that accidents will happen.) The Presupposition at the head of the book of Spiritual Exercises is a presumption in favor of the goodness of everyone we encounter, and a prescription for a style of encounter that makes condemnation of those in error a last resort.
Care of the Neediest. In addition, the legate theologians were to keep close to the people, teaching catechism, preaching and caring for the sick. Again, Ignatius’s preferred style anticipates the positive pastoral approach Pope Francis has taken to evangelization. The pope’s attention to refugees, the abandoned elderly and unemployed youth exhibit the same concern as the first Jesuits for the lowliest and most needy people in society.
Humility and Clerical Reform. Humility is a key virtue in the Spiritual Exercises. One of its key meditations focuses on the Three Degrees of Humility. In Ignatius’s eyes, humility is the virtue that brings us closest to Christ, and Pope Francis appears to be guiding the church and educating the clergy in that fundamental truth. Reform through spiritual renewal begins with the rejection of wealth, honors and power, and it reaches its apex in the willingness to suffer humiliation with Christ.
Humility is the most difficult part of the Ignatian papal reform, but it is essential for the church’s purification from clericalism, the source of so many ills in the contemporary church. Undoubtedly, it is here that Francis’s reform will receive the most resistance from beneficiaries of the millennial-old system and from recent acolytes who have invested themselves in a post-Tridentine model of the Church Triumphant. But as Michael Sean Winters proposed in his National Catholic Reporter column yesterday, reform through spiritual renewal is essential to make the New Evangelization real and effective both within the church and in her encounter with the world.