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

An Early Review

Ignatius Loyola–The Spiritual Writings has been out about 4 weeks, and “Prints of Grace” has been kind enough to offer a review.  Here’s an excerpt:

“I didn’t realize how much of modern day spirituality and prayer practices came from this particular saint and his prescribed methods of growing closer to the Lord.  Now that I have read excerpts from his memoir as well as his letters within the context of explaining certain passages of The Spiritual Exercises, I have a far greater appreciation of the wealth of wisdom he provided through his writing.”

Read the rest here.

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

Saint Ignatius: What Have I Done For Christ?

“Imagining Christ our Lord present and placed on the Cross, let me make a Colloquy, how from Creator He is come to making Himself man, and from life eternal is come to temporal death, and so to die for my sins.

Likewise, looking at myself, [ask]:

What I have done for Christ? What I am doing for Christ? What I ought to do for Christ?

And so, seeing Him such, and so nailed on the Cross, to go over that which will present itself.

The Colloquy is made, properly speaking, as one friend speaks to another, or as a servant to his master; now asking some grace, now blaming oneself for some misdeed, now communicating one’s affairs, and asking advice in them.”

How do I use imagination in prayer?  What’s a colloquy?

Meet the Author

Recently, I appeared on Radio Maria’s “Meet the Author” program.  

The host, Ken Huck, and I spoke about living a spiritual life in contemporary times, my book Already There, and briefly about my new book, Saint Ignatius Loyola–The Spiritual Writings.

You can listen to the interview here.

Saint Ignatius: On Dealing With Distractions In Prayer

“Even very devout servants of God complain about wanderings and instability of the mind, and we read that St. John occasionally relaxed his contemplations by lowering his attention to a bird he held in his hand, saying to a follower of his who was disedified that, just as the bow cannot remain always bent, so neither could the understanding, etc.  It is true that sometimes, even many times, numerous servants of God have a great and vivid awareness, quite certain and stable, of his eternal truths; but for them to remain permanently in this state is impossible to believe.”

Letter to Francis Borgia

Looking for more advice from Saint Ignatius?  Image

Order Saint Ignatius Loyola–The Spiritual Writings: Annotated & Explained Today!

Find Answers to the questions: Who was Francis Borgia?  And, was he related to that awful family on TV?

Jesus, the Easter Bunny, and My Friend, the Atheist

So, while I wasn’t looking, a friend of mine has become a somewhat notable neo-atheist (I’m not sure if it’s fair to call him that, but that’s how he’s being perceived, at least).  He’s a philosopher, and we both met while teaching philosophy, and sharing an office.  We live on opposite coasts now, so I don’t see him very much.  I don’t think he was exactly a believer when we were in the same city (New Orleans), but his ideas have certainly gotten more radical—and more public—since then.  He’s always been a provocative teacher, and that’s one of the things that I like about him.  I like that he challenges students to make reasonable arguments.  After all, in many ways that’s what philosophy is all about.  And I know from my own teaching how hard it can be to get students to risk making any argument sometimes!

From what he’s been saying lately, it seems he’s coming down quite hard on students who make arguments based on faith (though precisely what he means by faith, I can’t be sure).  I don’t object to that.  I have done the same myself, not in a dismissive way, but in a way that I hope helps them make more coherent arguments.  After all, Christianity has long held that faith and reason are by no means incompatible.  I suspect my friend would agree (or at least he would have in the past).  What I fear, though, is that those who listen to him will get the impression that this is not the case.  And that is a disservice to them.  The Letter to the Hebrews says that faith is “the substance of things hoped for.”  Do we really want to rob people of hope, in the name of truth?  And, can I really rid my life of what might be called “reason informed by faith”?  It would certainly make life more difficult.

I would have to stop introducing my parents as my mother and father, since I have never seen a DNA test proving that I’m even related to them.  Barring that, I can only offer faith-based arguments that they are, indeed, my biological parents.  Indeed, I might need to go so far as the philosopher David Hume to contend that I really have no way of knowing, despite the fact that it has always been my experience, that if I drop something heavy it will fall down instead of up.  For isn’t there a “faith” involved in assuming things simply because we have never experienced things otherwise?  Yes, we might find ourselves escaping Plato’s cave one day and finding that things are far different than we ever thought.  But does that mean that I should live my life in constant anxiety that my experience of it may not be what it seems to be?

But one might object.  That after all is “trust,” not faith.  A rose by any other name?  And, besides, what is objectionable is not that kind of faith (if you want to call it that), but religious faith.  How is it different, as my friend put it in a recent talk, than believing in the Easter Bunny?  Well, for one thing, I know now that the things the Easter Bunny was once credited with doing were actually being done by the people I call my parents.  But were they?  Why should I believe that what they have told me is true, and that they are not just trying to protect me from the reality that there is indeed an Easter Bunny?  But I have never seen the Easter Bunny, and I have seen and learned to trust those who claim to be my parents, so the truth of their assertion is at least more probable.

But here’s where they’ve got me!  Since I have never seen God, isn’t he just as ridiculous a notion as the Easter Bunny.  Well, it depends again whether you are willing to trust what people have told you.  I come from a tradition that descends from the historical encounter of a people called Israel with a real God.  I come from a tradition that believes that God also entered history in another way in the person of Jesus Christ, a human person who lived, whom other people experienced, who died, and who, according to their accounts, visited some of those very same people after his death and rising from the dead.  I have to take their word for it.  I also have to take the word of the millions of people who have also experienced God in a variety of ways over the centuries.  Sure, some of them were probably crazy.  But even crazy people can argue from experience.  I may be one of them.

But I don’t just have to take their word for it.  I have experienced God for myself.  Anyone can say that I’m just making it all up, that I’m delusional.  Certainly, if there is no God, I have made a joke of my life.  I can say that.  But, interestingly, I’m pretty sure that’s something my friend would never say to me, or even believe of me.  He has experienced the concrete effect that my belief in God has on who I am, what I do and why I do it.  He knows that much of my life is based on reason, informed by faith, and that some of my life rests on faith alone.  He objects to what a lot of “faithful” people do—and so do I.  But that doesn’t make faith objectionable to me, it just means that people can mistaken conclusions based on faith, as they can commensurately so based on reason.  And life is a mixture of mistakes and successes based on both.


It’s Holy Week.  And this week that is the story we remember.  A story of mistakes and successes, of friendship and betrayal, and a love that expresses itself in a way that is both reasonable and which transcends reason.  It’s a story that we know really happened—people experienced it, history records it.  Yet it is also a story that for those of us who believe, who have faith in Jesus Christ, happened once and for all time.  It is no less real today than it was on the historical date that it happened.  And it demands something of us that is not reasonable.  It demands that we give our lives to over to the mission and the person of Jesus Christ—completely.  In doing this, we do not ignore the fact that people have and continue to do hateful things in the name of Jesus Christ (which is one of the atheists’ favorite bludgeons), or that peopledo amazing, loving and heroic things also in the name of Jesus Christ.  Or that people do both, without believing in Jesus or God.  They can be as heroic or fallible as those of us who do have faith.

I’m not offended by the offense they take at my faith.  I am, however, concerned that in championing the truth, they might, even if unwittingly, take people’s hope away.  Especially because I suspect that, ultimately, they are looking for “the substance of things hoped for” too.  Their substance is just different than mine.  Mine is Jesus Christ, who I have experienced, and who calls me, guides me, lives in me and loves through me.  Theirs is, well, I’m not sure.  Hope in Jesus may be as ridiculous to some as the Easter Bunny, but it is everything to me, and the community of faith to which I belong.  It’s just how we roll . . . (if we can say for sure that anything, in fact, rolls.)

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.

SyFy Sacramentals: Warehouse 13

At first it seemed like a weird premise and, I thought, this show’s going nowhere.  How are they going to maintain interest in a show in which covert Secret Service agents wander the country in search for powerful artifacts wreaking havoc in the real world, instead of being safely locked up in a warehouse in the middle of South Dakota?  You know the place.  It’s kind of like that warehouse in which the supposed ark of the covenant is shelved at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, or the infamous “Area 51” where the government hides all evidence of alien visitations and technology on earth.

But what do I know?  The show in question—Warehouse 13—has not only been successful, but now carries the distinction of being the Syfy channel’s most popular show ever.  I would argue that there have been better shows on Syfy—the recent reboot of Battlestar Galactica, for example—but for some reason Warehouse 13 seems to have a broader appeal.

Sitting waiting for penitents to come for confession recently (no, I do not have holy and pious thoughts every moment, even then), it occurred to meet that as a Catholic I should have realized sooner the appeal of the show.  The idea behind the show is not unlike the Catholic belief in “sacramentals.”  Sacramentals are material objects which, because of their special connection to someone or something sacred or holy, thus possess special qualities or are able to mediate God’s power or blessings in some way.  Thus, we invest religious medals, sacred art or relics connected with a particular saint with greater power or significance than just any other ordinary object.  They possess this power or significance not in and of themselves, but because of their connection to a significant or powerful person or moment in time.  Some see Catholics’ devotion and enthusiasm for such objects as strange and even superstitious.

But we Catholics, though we might appreciate it more, don’t have the corner on the sacramental market.  Just attend the latest Comic-con, or go to the Apple store, and you’ll see that the tendency to endow certain material things with special qualities because of their connection to something extraordinary—in this case, superheroes, a favorite TV show or the church of Apple—reveals itself as not something particularly Catholic, but peculiarly human.  One of the main differences is that “secular sacramentals,” the autograph of a famous person, for example, are often sold at a high price.  People profit monetarily from them.  Catholic sacramentals, on the other hand, are not meant to be sold for profit (though, still, they sometimes are).  People are meant to profit spiritually from them.  Sacramentals are meant to be used for good, not evil.

This is the mission of the Warehouse 13 agents.  They are on the front lines, trying to ensure that the errant “artifacts,” material objects often associated with a famous historical person or event (Lizzie Borden’s axe, for example) are not misused for the power they possess.  And, because the temptation to do so is so great, better that they be kept at the warehouse rather than become an occasion of sin.  Sometimes this means that the agents have to police each other.  Some in the past have gone rogue.  And, in the most recent episode, one agent draws his weapon on one the warehouse superiors, because she is using an artifact as a means of torture.  It will be interesting to see how the consequences of that decision are treated in future episodes.  The woman in charge of the warehouse now stands guilty of the very type of crime that the warehouse agents are out to stop.

The show is successful I think because most of us believe (or want to believe) that many material objects, like our own bodies, are more than just ordinary matter, floating in the soup of life.  Whether it be symbolically or even more substantially, certain special items hold a power which many people recognize.  There are a number of ways in which we memorialize significant historical persons, places or things.  And some hold power that only a given community or family might acknowledge.  In any case, we imagine that they all should be treated with respect, and that their power should not be used to harm others.  They are meant to fascinate and inspire, not to oppress or injure.  The good guys and gals at Warehouse 13 try to maintain that balance while taking care of each other, and having some fun in the process.  That’s why we like them so much, because they take seriously their duty to safeguard those things that we hold dear, without getting too uptight.

Seeking What’s Next

For the last three years, including last weekend, August 3-5, I’ve had the privilege of helping lead a young adult Charis retreat weekend called “What’s Next?: Finding Answers With Faith” at the Jesuits’ Ignatius House Retreat Center in Atlanta, GA.  This year, I put my admittedly amateur video skills to work in order to make a “highlight reel” of the weekend.  If you want to get a sense of what some young adults are looking for, and what our retreat was like, have a look at our video!: