Fr David Vincent Meconi SJ says God sends Pope Francis at the moment we most need him

The world has been watching Pope Francis the past few weeks, not only to figure out where he is going, but also to see where he is taking us.

To understand Pope Francis and the trajectory of this pontificate, it might be helpful to recall two scenes from the life of the founder of the Jesuits, St Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556). First, the young “Inigo” was apprehended by ecclesial authorities for being a doctrinal renegade and, second, he coined the term “hierarchical Church”.  Whereas the first scene calls up how Ignatius always sought the divine within the very concrete and particular contours of his own life, the second scene reminds us that he was always and everywhere a faithful son of the Catholic Church. 

First, Inigo, aflame with the zeal of an adult “revert” to the Faith, was travelling around post-Reformation Europe inviting others to make his recently composed Spiritual Exercises. The goal of these Exercises is to grow in Christian freedom. To get there, Inigo stressed how God works with each person individually, “as a schoolmaster teaches a child”, as he put it, bringing the individual to see God’s labouring in the very concrete circumstances of his or her life.  Ignatius began this ministry in a country and in a day when, for the first time ever, the West was being divided along Catholic and non-Catholic lines, a new understanding of state and society, tearing apart an already fragmented Church. 

Hence, even appearing to disregard the Magisterium’s teachings and the Church’s sacraments was dangerous for any Catholic in the public eye.  An itinerant and uneducated layman’s highlighting one’s “personal relationship” with God appeared as a threat to many Church officials and the Inquisition seized Inigo. They accused him of being one of the Spanish Alumbrados, the heretical sect known for emphasising a Christian’s personal relationship with God to such an extent that the Church becomes a dispensable intermediary.
Yet this is the same man who never wavered as a Catholic and as a faithful son of Mother Church. The same Ignatius who was wrongly accused of making the Church a superfluous extra was the same religious founder who composed his influential set of principles, “Rules for Thinking with the Church”. Does the admonition “in all things we must always maintain that the white I see, I shall believe to be black, if the hierarchical Church so stipulates” sound like it comes from the pen of a dangerous misbeliever? 

As someone who not only received a thorough Jesuit training but was also responsible for implementing it (as both a novice master as well as the Argentinean provincial) Pope Francis well represents this Ignatian hybrid. He knows what is essential to the apostolic faith Christ offers his followers, while also realising where flexibility can be found with fidelity. Francis knows there is an appreciable difference between divine and ecclesiastical law. Take, for example, his unprecedented washing of women’s feet on Holy Thursday this year: that a priest of Jesus Christ humble serves others, traditionally represented by the Maundy Thursday foot washing, is essential; how that priest exemplifies such service is open to evangelical modifications (cf Canon Law §838). How disappointing to read the predictable denunciations of his touching women. The next thing you know some will be accusing him of curing on the Sabbath.

Yet Jesuits have always found their identity on the periphery of the Church’s mission, in taking that particular work or area of the world where others had not yet ventured.  Ignatius sent his men not only to the Far East and to Africa and South America but also into the academy’s hard sciences, the arts, and many works where priesthood is not normally associated. The only difference now is that these sheepdogs who have enjoyed a tradition of corralling those on the edge of the Church have one of their own as supreme shepherd.

Catholics trust that the conclave and the selection of this Pope (and thus of his “style” and approach) is the work of the Holy Spirit, pointing the Church in the way we need to go for however long God decides to allow Francis to lead us. We should therefore see a Church more attentive to the poor and those who feel neglected by institutions. We shall also see a Church more open to dialogue, not in search of the Truth but so confident in the Truth that we seek to engage those who have not yet come to embrace Christ as Lord and Saviour. Surely we shall experience a Church more integrated and joyous. God sends Francis to “rebuild” his Church when we most need it – and I daresay today is that day.

Fr David Vincent Meconi SJ is professor of patristic theology at St Louis University in Missouri

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Catholic Herald dated 12/4/13