The New Pope’s a Jesuit: How Do You Feel?

Since the election of Pope Francis I the first yesterday, I can already predict what the number one topic of my conversations will be in the coming days, weeks, months perhaps.  It will begin something like this: “How do you feel about having a Jesuit Pope?”  Though at this point we are only a day into this new reality, I find that my reactions fall into at least four categories.  First, I was—and still am—surprised.  Second, I feel delight, and a sense of pride.  Third, I find myself conflicted.  Finally, I am apprehensive.  I can’t speak for all Jesuits, but my sense is that many of my Jesuit brothers are experiencing similar reactions, to varying degrees.

Why am I surprised?

“They would never elect a Jesuit Pope!”  We Jesuits have always taken it as something of a maxim that a Jesuit would never be elected Pope.  I said as much to several people who asked me recently whether I thought the new Pope might be a Jesuit (they have been quick to point out that I was wrong).  There were many reasons for this presumption.  Most obviously: In the more than 400 years that it had been possible, a Jesuit had never been elected Pope.  It was also thought that since the Jesuits are and have long been the largest single religious order of men in the Church (though the different Franciscan families, if added together, would be larger in number), that having a Jesuit Pope would skew a presumed balance of power between the “white Pope” and the “black pope,” as the Jesuit superior general is sometimes called.  Such a vision, however, seems to be the product of a bygone age when the papacy was understood differently.  Nevertheless, we know that in the Church former ways of thinking sometimes die hard, and many of us presumed that this way of thinking was still alive and kicking.  So, give the current college of Cardinals—and the Holy Spirit—credit for overcoming a long-standing prejudice!

Why delighted and proud?

The new Pope is a Jesuit!  Members of a religious community, no matter how different they may be individually (and individual Jesuits can be very different), share a unique kinship founded in their order’s charism (that is, unique characteristics), traditions, mission and spirituality.  We speak the same language.  We understand each other.  Also, our shared identity as a community of men devoted to a common mission in service of Christ and the Church results in a collective sense of pride in our accomplishments, and sorrow over our failures.  What one Jesuit does, for good or ill, somehow reflects upon all of us.  So, just as I feel proud when I see I Jesuit I live with act heroically in support of someone in need, I also find myself feeling proud to be a Jesuit when one of my brother Jesuits becomes Pope.

Why conflicted?

A Jesuit is not supposed to be Pope!  Here, I’m not repeating myself, but saying something about Jesuit legislation, tradition, and self-understanding, as well as the intentions of our founder, Saint Ignatius of Loyola.  Dismayed by the distasteful actions by many Catholic clerics of his day in pursuit of advancement, power and prestige, Ignatius was determined that such ambition not infect the Society of Jesus.  Therefore, it was clearly specified in the founding documents of the Jesuits that Jesuits were not to become bishops.  Indeed, it is even forbidden for Jesuits to aspire to most positions of authority within the Society of Jesus itself.  Should a Jesuit mount a campaign to be a Provincial or the General Superior of the Jesuits or even express a desire to hold such a position, that very act would disqualify him!  Being a bishop also makes it essentially impossible for one to be fully a Jesuit, in a sense.  Integral to Jesuit identity is apostolic availability, meaning that a Jesuit should always be prepared to go at a moment’s notice to answer the greatest apostolic need, anywhere in the world, especially if the Pope asks!  Being a bishop doesn’t allow for that kind of availability.  So, I suspect that Saint Ignatius would be strongly opposed—if not horrified—at the election of a Jesuit as Pope!  However, this all also points to a question within the Society of Jesus as to how Jesuits are to understand availability, and their vow of obedience to the Pope.  Shouldn’t a Jesuit’s availability also include being available to serve the Church as a Bishop?  And, a matter of some dispute among Jesuits, given that we have a specific vow of obedience to the Pope, does this include a Pope’s request that one become a bishop?  This question came up during Ignatius’ lifetime when some in the Church wanted to make the Jesuit Francis Borgia a cardinal.  Ignatius made known his strong opposition to the proposal (especially because in this case it was about giving honor to a member of a prominent family), but he also acknowledged that should the Church insist, and Borgia accept, he would have to respect the Church’s decision.  Borgia was never made a cardinal, and instead became the third general superior of the Jesuits.

Why apprehensive?

A Jesuit Pope surely spells disaster for the Church!  Or so many might say.  While many in the Church have no idea what a Jesuit is, or that there are priests of a different sort than the ones that they know, those more in the know have strong opinions about religious orders like the Jesuits.  There are those that love the Jesuits with great passion, and those who hate the Jesuits with equal passion.  Both these camps are likely to harbor unreasonable expectations for a Jesuit Pope, both positive and negative.  Pope Francis will most certainly disappoint both, not being as progressive as some would expect of a Jesuit, and not being as disastrous as others might expect.  One of the main problems is that the most commonly held view on both sides is that the Jesuits are liberal.  The fact that this isn’t an accurate representation of the diversity of the 19,000 Jesuits around the world, doesn’t stop our lovers or haters from seeing us that way.  So, those who hate the Jesuits, but love the Church will make peace with themselves by saying things like, “but he’s a good Jesuit,” or “the right kind of Jesuit,” to distinguish him from the vast majority of Jesuits who are “bad Jesuits.”  I can’t tell you how maddening, and I must say ignorant, such comments are.  When he’s not progressive enough, Jesuit lovers will accuse him of not being Jesuit enough, or of betraying the Jesuits, or the Jesuit spirit.  And though we certainly prefer the criticisms of those who love us, such comments will also be rooted in a similar ignorance of the expansive richness, diversity and fidelity to the Church that the Society of Jesus represents.  When the Pope fails, as he certainly will from time to time, you might hear expressions of contempt such as “what do you expect from a Jesuit.”  But I pray that both Jesuit lovers and haters can see beyond their expectations and find the wisdom of the Church and the will of the Holy Spirit in this surprising choice.Image

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Saint Ignatius: “Sticks and Stones . . .”?

“For at the moment you decide, will, and strive with all your strength for the glory, honor, and service of God our Lord, at that moment you join battle and raise your standard against the world, and prepare yourself to cast away lofty and embrace lowly things, resolving to treat equally the high or the low, honor or dishonor, wealth or poverty, love or hatred, welcome or rejection—in short, the world’s glory or all its abuse.  We cannot pay much attention to insults in this life when they are no more than words; all of them together cannot hurt a hair of our heads.  Deceitful, vile, and insulting words cannot cause us pain or contentment except as we desire them; and if our desire is to live absolutely in honor, and our neighbor’s esteem, we can never be solidly rooted in god our Lord, nor can we remain unscathed when faced with affronts.”

Letter to Isabel Roser

Can’t We All Just Coexist?

So, there it was again, in front of me, slipped in between “My Other Car is a TARDIS,” and the “Vulcan Science Academy Alumni” stickers.  Now, I’m not averse to either of those.  I, too wish I had a TARDIS (for the uninitiated, this is a blue police box, bigger inside than out, which travels in time and space and is piloted by a Time Lord, who calls himself “The Doctor”) and, back in the days when I had a car of my own, I seem to recall a Starfleet Academy sticker somewhere.  So, I’m not opposed to bumper stickers in general, but there is one that particularly sticks in my craw.  You’ve probably seen it.  It’s the one that says, “COEXIST,” but in the place of the letters are symbols of various world religions.  They can vary a bit, but one is likely to see a star and crescent, a star of David, a peace symbol, a ying-yang symbol, a cross, etc.  You get the idea.  At this point, many might wonder: Unless you are a religious militant or bigot, why would you object to that?

Well, I don’t consider myself either of those things.  You could call me a Christian evangelist, and I wouldn’t object to the term.  I am even ready to admit that I would love to have you become a Christian or a Catholic if you are not already one (and some, I suppose, even if you are!).  However, I admire anyone who is faithful and devoted to his or her religious tradition (or lack thereof), so long as they are not out to harm me, or worse kill me, because of mine, or because I don’t share theirs.  They can even try to convince me to convert if they’d like, though I doubt they’d be successful (chalk it up to an opportunity to learn more about them and what they value).  Given all that, sounds like I should be slapping one of those babies on my car too, right?  WRONG.

While I’ve no doubt that most people who sport such stickers have good intentions, I’m not sure they fully realize that they too are participating in their own form of bigotry.  As a Christian, when I read this “peaceful” reminder of my duty to live peacefully with my fellow human beings, I read condescension.  I read the presumption that my faith and the faith of others are naturally prone to violence and are, as some believe, at the root of all wars and conflict.  The implication is not simply that people of different faiths should coexist (because, in truth, we already do), but that if we really want to bring peace to the world we should all abandon our faiths and become secular humanists.  Yet, as Star Trek has shown us, even a federation founded upon a form of secular humanism, still has to fight battles with Klingons, Romulans, and various other peoples, races and factions that are different from them.  We cannot, nor should we, erase difference.

And truly, that is what is at the root of conflict and war.  Not religion, but difference.  Granted, some wars have been fought over religious differences, but many have not.  Thus, the “COEXIST” bumper sticker could just as easily feature the flags of various different countries.  It could include an elephant, a donkey, a teacup(?), and the symbols of various other political movements or parties.  It could include, as some do, the symbols for men, women, and the various LGBT communities.  Or, a combination of all of these things.  There is even one that suggests that aficionados of various sci-fi shows—Whovians, Trekkies, and the like—might also need to find ways to COEXIST.

To bring this way of thinking to its most absurd conclusion, then what we really need to do away with is coexistence.  If all religious peoples, video gamers, or sci-fi fans are by nature violent and intolerant of each other, then what we really have to do is give everybody in each community or category there own little peace of the earth.  That’ll solve things, right?  I’m still not convinced.  Jesus once said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them.”  He could just as easily have said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name—or anyone else’s, for that matter—there is difference.”  Thus, all of us, whether we adhere to a religious faith or not, whether we like it or not, are forced to coexist.  But, that’s obvious.  We don’t need anyone to tell us that.

Remember My Voice

The Saturday night mass at the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress was the end of the congress for me, since I had to fly home the next day.  And, at the end, I found myself very moved and even teary-eyed.  This had nothing to do with the fact that it was the end, or even the quality of the liturgy (which was very good), but with the man sitting behind me.

It had been a busy day in a tiring weekend.  Earlier, I’d taken the tab out of the collar of my clerical shirt, and had even found someplace to catch a brief nap.  So, I was sporting the casual, open-collar priest look.  When it came time for the sign of peace, I turned to my friends sitting next to me, and then to those behind me.  I had heard  the groanings of attempts at speech earlier in the mass, and had wondered at their source.  And here he was, a large, somewhat disheveled man who, upon seeing me turn to him, appeared very distressed.  He tried to speak, but what came out was only nonsense, and he kept pointing to his collar.  I quickly realized that the source of his distress seemed to be my open collar.  Clearly, he recognized that I was a priest who was missing something.  I tried to reassure him, even talk to him, but I could not bridge the communication gap.  Eventually, he pulled a collar tab out of his own pocket and I, as if to reassure him, took mine out of my pocket and showed it to him, but he still seemed agitated.  I looked to the people on either side of him, thinking that one of them might be a caretaker, but he seemed to be alone.

I turned back to the mass and began to wonder: Was this man a priest?  Was that what he was trying to say?  I, too, am a priest.  Or was it that I was somehow not living up to expectations by having removed my collar?  I began to think that he was a priest, though I could not be sure.  But in imagining that he was a priest, I began to consider what it might be like to be a priest without a voice.  Attending this joyous liturgy, and even mouthing some of the words of the mass to myself while doing so, I started to consider what it might be like if my voice were suddenly taken away.  What a privilege it is to “say” the mass, and what grief it would cause if that were taken way.  And suddenly I realized in a quite overwhelming way that surely there are hundreds if not thousands of priests who because of a stroke, Alzheimer’s or some other illness are no longer able to speak, or to do so intelligibly.  And like the man behind me, perhaps a priest, they heroically press on, attending mass burdened with the sadness of not being able to say it, and perhaps seeing other priests like myself who don’t seem to appreciate the privilege enough.

I restored my collar, out of deference to this man—priest or not—who seemed to be concerned (some thought it was because I was about to receive communion from Cardinal Mahony, but I must admit that this thought hadn’t even occurred to me).  I found myself being even more deeply moved by this man’s plight, whether real or imagined, as I received communion, and took time to reflect afterwards.  I determined that I would ask the man, and hopefully be able to discover whether he was indeed a priest.  And, if so, I  decided, Iwould ask for his blessing.  I found myself verging on tears as I reflected on this, and continued to enjoy the splendor and music of the Eucharist we celebrated.  I found myself wanting to reach out to this man, to know who he was, to somehow get past his broken voice and find a connection.  Mass ended, I turned, and he was gone.  I’ll never know if he was, in fact, a priest, but he was to me that day in the truth of my imagination, and in the compassion which it inspired.

I was disappointed and further saddened by his absence, but I determined to remember him when once again my lips gave voice to the mass, a voice that he helped me to appreciate, that I might lose one day too.

Which Team Are You On?

My homily for today, based on 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, and Luke 4:38-44:

These days, people are asking: Do you belong to team Edward or team Jacob?

Evidently, among some of the early Christians in Corinth, the question was: Do you belong to team Apollos, or team Paul?  What Paul is saying in his letter to the Corinthians today is that it cannot be either (though who knows what he would think about Edward or Jacob).

Yet, this conviction is easier said than done.  We all want to be popular or—at least—accepted by a certain group.  We are all drawn to be part of that group of people who really get it.  Sometimes the draw to such a group or its leader can seem impossible to resist.

So can the attraction to be that leader.  Even those of us who think little of ourselves can find that, because we strive to do what God has called us to, others might wish to build a cult of personality around us.

This is the temptation and attraction that Jesus in today’s Gospel seems to find so easy to resist.  The people beg him not to go.  They like him.  They like what he does.  They want to keep him around.  And I expect that like us, Jesus at least felt a little pull to remain where people knew him and liked him, rather than set off for unknown places and uncertain receptions.  Yet he is firm in his resolve that he is called to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom to all, and not to settle comfortably in a place where he finds acceptance.

And, indeed, Paul says, the people who really get it are those who will not stay so comfortably in one place rather than another.  If we really get it we realize that it’s not a matter of Jesuits versus Dominicans, or social justice Catholics versus pro-life Catholics, or any such opposition.  Paul challenges the divided Corinthians to realize that we are all in this together.  We are called, for the sake of the entire Christian community, to, like Jesus, look beyond and even leave our comfort zone.  We are called like Paul not to let others prefer one brand of Christianity to another.  Because there is only one brand.

There is only one team.  There is only team Christ.  And it is when we allow ourselves to forego adulation or comfort and to venture into the unknown that we realize our desperate need to trust first in Christ, and Christ alone.

Who Do You Think You Are?

When I was nearing completion of Already There, I happened to mention that I was finishing work on the book to a fellow Jesuit who wasn’t aware I’d been writing it.  In the nicest possible way, he asked me something along the lines of, “What makes you think  you have the experience/authority/knowledge (I forget the exact words) to claim to teach someone what the spiritual life is about?”  It was meant sincerely, not in an accusatory way.  My first reaction was surprise.  How is it, I wondered, that I had gotten this close to finishing the book without anybody else asking me that question? The second was relief, because I had an answer that I didn’t have to fumble around for.

The answer was that I was very deliberate to point out in the book that I didn’t have all the answers.  That I had some experiences that suggested answers, and that often those insights came from the experience of screwing things up.  I will never lay claim to being a guru who gets or has gotten everything right.  At the same time, I can’t pretend that I haven’t learned some things over the years that others might find it helpful to know about.  As flawed as my experience is or has been, God has given me the gift of being able to reflect profitably on those experiences and to communicate them verbally and in writing in ways that some people find helpful.  (This means also contending with the perception by some that simply by writing such a book I am being presumptuous or am full of myself, which I hope with God’s help I am not)

As unqualified as I sometimes feel to help others in their spiritual lives, I also have come to have some confidence that God can still use me in this way, despite my shortcomings.  Indeed, when I am offering spiritual direction or hearing a confession, I often find myself thinking that the other person should be sitting in my chair!  They seem to have a much better prayer life than I do, I think.  Or, they’re doing a much better job of resisting sin or temptation than I am! It’s very humbling to be put into this position.  And it’s even more humbling to know that despite my unworthiness, that through me God is able to bring guidance and consolation to that person.

Though it was not the case with the Jesuit I mentioned, people often do ask us questions like, “Who do you think you are?,” in an accusatory way.  As troublesome as it is, we all have to acknowledge that there is (or should be) a gap between who we think or know we are, and who God is calling us to be.  Otherwise, there would be no need to advance in the spiritual life, and no need for people like me to write books about how we are trying to bridge that gap, or at least shorten it.

There is a great and wonderful mystery contained in our realization of this reality.  We realize that we are all at different places in our relationship with God, and called to different things, and thus the more we find ourselves called upon to help others in their spiritual journeys, the more we realize the need ourselves to let others help us.

Each of us is meant in our own way to stand among both the guides and the guided.   Our challenge is to be humble enough to know which of these we are meant to be in a given situation.  We might think we are meant to lead, but realize we are being called to follow; and sometimes we are content to follow and find ourselves called to lead.  In both cases, we have to contend with our pride, and the question, “Who do you think you are?,” becomes very important.  But now it is not an accusatory affront, but an invitation from God.

I think one of God’s greatest challenges is trying to get us to match up who we think we are with who God knows us to be.  God doesn’t want us to think either too much or too little of ourselves, and God wants us to trust that by responding to our calling, who we are now is sufficient to achieve God’s purpose, even if we are not yet who we—or God—desire us to be.