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Even if he had to announce the Second Coming Vatican spokesman Fr Lombardi would keep his cool

Both Fr Lombardi and Pope Francis have the Jesuit gift of remaining calm under fire

By on Friday, 5 April 2013

Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi: as cool as a cucumber (AP)

Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi: as cool as a cucumber (AP)

Much has been made of the new Pope’s “Franciscan” qualities, as reflected in the name he has chosen as Pope, but not much has been discussed about his Ignatian aspects, even though he has been a Jesuit for over 40 years. This suggests he must be steeped in Jesuit spirituality to his core.

My own (very limited) impression of Jesuits from my brothers’ boarding schools (Beaumont College and Stonyhurst) is of learned, disciplined, rather reserved men whose lives were spent in the education of privileged Catholic youth. Indeed, there is a well-known anecdote about Beaumont that illustrates this. Situated beside the River Thames, the school once challenged Eton to a rowing contest. Eton sent back a snooty reply: “What is Beaumont?” The school responded: “Beaumont is what Eton was: a college for Catholic gentlemen.”

My – again limited – impression of Jesuits overseas has been that they were heavily involved in politics, especially in the form of Liberation Theology, ready to take up arms – literally – in defence of the “preferential option for the poor.” Thus they appeared, rather confusingly, as Right-wing at home and Left-wing in the Third World.

So the story that has emerged of the life of the Argentinian Jesuit, the former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, has come as a jolt to my perception of this order. It seems he had the moral strength to stand out against the temptation of his fellow Jesuits in Latin America to be intellectually seduced by a form of Christian Marxism. Yet he also identified more with the poor in the slums of Buenos Aires rather than with the rich elite. Now, in an interesting article by Michael Severance in Catholic World Report, entitled “Pope Francis SJ”, I have learned something more about the “Ignatian” aspects of Pope Francis’s character.

The Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi SJ has admitted he was “a little shocked” to have a Jesuit Pope. Jesuits “think of themselves as servants, not Church authorities”, he commented. Mind you, this is not an either/or. The papal office could be seen as one of supreme service, although this paradox might be a bit subtle for the media.

Fr Robert Spitzer SJ, an American and former president of Gonzaga University, thinks the election was “divinely inspired” adding: “[Bergoglio] is the perfect man for the contemporary papacy. His concern for the poor and marginalised, his manifest love of people and his authentic life of poverty and simplicity, has already begun to restore credibility to a Church injured by scandal.”

Fr Kevin Flannery SJ, a professor of moral philosophy at the Gregorian University, thinks “Ignatian fearlessness is exactly what is needed at this time in history, when Rome needs to wage … a counter-cultural battle against militant forms of secular materialism.” He notes that “there is widespread pressure on people everywhere to give in on [same-sex marriage]” and anticipates Pope Francis will display “great moral courage” in this area.

Fr Joseph Fessio SJ, founder of Ignatius Press, points out that when a cardinal, Bergoglio “really tried to be a man of the poor, not just someone who had an interest in the poor” – an allusion to the simple lifestyle the cardinal had chosen in Buenos Aires. Fr Fessio believes Pope Francis has a winning combination of being “doctrinally very sound … and at the same time socially compassionate.”

Fr Antonio Spadaro SJ, the director of the journal Civiltà Cattolica, referred to two books written by the former Cardinal Bergoglio, saying: “You’d better not read them if you want to remain at ease. These books will strike a nerve of conversion and repentance in you.” He thinks that Pope Francis “wants the Church to inspire sinners who must first have a total change of heart, a deep personal conversion”.

Fr Spadaro also referred to the Pope’s own speech to his fellow cardinals during the pre-election period, a speech that seems to have made a great impression on them, when he quoted the Jesuit theologian, the late Cardinal Henri de Lubac, on “spiritual worldliness” and told them: “When the Church does not come out of herself to evangelise she becomes self-referential and then gets sick.”

There is much to absorb and to learn from these glimpses of Pope Francis’s interior life. However, none of these reflections mention a quality that, judging from the performance of Vatican spokesman, Fr Federico Lombardi SJ, in front of the world’s media in March, Jesuits also possess: a capacity to remain calm and unruffled whatever the circumstances.

When explaining to a stunned world that for the first time in 600 years a pope was resigning, Fr Lombardi simply looked like a slightly harassed schoolmaster telling the Fifth Form the results of their Latin homework. He had the same air of gentle pedagogy when later telling them that the election of this new pope had broken a few precedents.

I have the feeling that if Fr Lombardi had to announce the Second Coming of Christ to the assembled cameras, he would still have the same self-deprecating body language and the same slightly hesitant yet courteous delivery. I do hope Pope Francis, when getting his red pen to work on the list of Vatican officials, will keep this fellow Jesuit at his post.