On July 31st we celebrate a significant feast for the life of our Diocese, that of St. Ignatius Loyola. Our Cathedral church is named in honor of St. Ignatius and so we have a particular affinity with this great man of the Church who is our secondary patron. St. Ignatius is also significant for the life of the universal Church as our Holy Father, Pope Francis, is a member of the religious congregation founded by St. Ignatius - the Society of Jesus better known as the Jesuits. While Pope Francis has chosen St. Francis of Assisi, both for his name and a model for his papacy, St. Ignatius and his spiritual heritage are the foundation of the Pope's priesthood and spirituality. As the Jesuits like to quip, "The Pope may act like St. Francis but he thinks like St. Ignatius!" The Pope himself admitted in his press conference on the plane returning from World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, "I think like a Jesuit!"
Ignatius was born on October 23, 1491, in the municipality of Azpeitia at the Castle of Loyola in what is today the Basque Country of Spain. He died at the age of sixty-five in Rome on July 31, 1556. The youngest of thirteen children and part of an aristocratic family, he was very much attracted to the military life and was taken by a great love for martial exercises and a desire for fame. Ignatius was seriously injured in 1521 by a cannonball which broke one of his legs and wounded the other. During his convalescence, because there were no novels on hand, he spent his time reading a life of Christ as well as those of the saints. He began to find great peace in this and his conversion to Christ began. In 1534, at the age of forty-three, he and six others committed themselves to a religious manner of living and four years later founded the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, which was approved by Pope Paul III. Ignatius was elected to serve as the first general.
Based on the vision of St. Ignatius, the Jesuits became a missionary group with great apostolic zeal. The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius became the foundation for Jesuit spirituality with the discernment of spirits as an important part of its method. The motto of the Jesuits became Ad maiorem Dei gloriam, a Latin phrase translated as, “For the greater glory of God.” The monogram, IHS, an abbreviation for the name of Jesus in Greek, became the center of its coat of arms, which is prominent in Pope Francis’s coat of arms. The spirituality of the Jesuits is a rigorous one centered on Christ, the Trinity and the Eucharist. St. Ignatius was a man of God who put Christ before all else and for whom the daily celebration of the Eucharist was the heart and crowning point of his day. He gave to his congregation a precious spiritual legacy meant for the service of the entire Church.
It is quite interesting to note that at the time of his conversion Ignatius proclaimed, "I want to be a saint like St. Francis." The apostolic zeal and missionary fervor of St. Francis of Assisi were a profound influence on St. Ignatius and thus are part of the fabric of the Jesuit vocation. It is also most interesting that St. Ignatius formed in his congregation a special bond to the Pope to whom its members made a fourth promise of obedience. Because of the black cassock which the Jesuits wore, the superior general of the Jesuits became known as the “Black Pope.” How paradoxical is this for us today with Pope Francis!
Much in spirit with the missionary zeal of St. Francis, the Jesuits also have a great commitment to the intellectual life of the Church which has been prominent in so many of its members. The basis for this commitment is found in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius with its very careful analysis of decision making in regard to God's will. It is also very evident in the Jesuit tradition of the examination of conscience in a very careful and precise manner. These qualities are quite apparent in the life and spirituality of Pope Francis.
Last year, on the Feast of St. Ignatius, Pope Francis celebrated Mass at the Church of the Gesú in Rome for about three hundred of his fellow Jesuits as well as their associates. The bond between the Pope and his congregation was very evident on that occasion as was his devotion to St. Ignatius and his spirituality. In his homily Pope Francis reflected on three thoughts based on the spirituality of St. Ignatius which are good for all of us to reflect upon as we celebrate his feast.
Pope Francis reflected that for St. Ignatius, Christ was the center and always the point of reference. The Pope raised the question, "Is Christ the center of my life? For us, for any one of us, the question is do I truly put Christ at the center of my life?" It is an easy temptation to put ourselves at the center and to see things always from our perspective. We can do this many times without even realizing that it is happening. For St. Ignatius, Christ was always the center and he guided the Jesuits to live their lives from this vantage. We can clearly see this commitment in the life of Pope Francis.
Secondly, Pope Francis reflected that we must all let ourselves be won over by Christ in order that we might serve others. Jesus leads us to Himself and then leads us to the service of others. In serving others, especially the most vulnerable, we serve the very person of Christ whether we realize it or not. We can never forget that it is Christ who always seeks us first. As the Pope reflected, "I seek Jesus, I serve Jesus because He sought me first, because I was won over by Him: and this is the heart of our experience."
Finally, the Pope reflected upon the emphasis of St. Ignatius in examining our conscience and recognizing our frailties, sins and shortcomings. We must admit these shortcomings and sins so as to be humble in the eyes of the Lord as well as those of our brothers and sisters. Examining our motives and recognizing our failures helps us to know ourselves better as well as the overwhelming love of Christ for us. It teaches us to be more understanding of the shortcomings of others and to be more open to changing ourselves. Pope Francis has frequently admitted his need to rely upon the Lord and identifies himself as a sinner as his starting point. He gives the world a wonderful example in this regard and his emphasis on the mercy of God certainly has been an invitation to many.
As we celebrate the Feast of St. Ignatius, we embrace this great saint in our Diocese of Palm Beach where he is the patron of our Cathedral. May we also, like Pope Francis, embrace the spirituality of St. Ignatius in our own lives and daily existences so that Christ may become more and more our center and that His joy may be our own.
The famous prayer of St. Ignatius is a good one not only for his feast but for any day: “Lord Jesus Christ, take all my freedom, my memory, my understanding and my will. All that I have and cherish you have given me. I surrender all to be guided by your will. Your grace and your love are wealth enough for me. Give me these, Lord Jesus, and I ask for nothing more.”
Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito
June 20, 2014