What observers are saying about how the pope's Jesuit roots affect his ministry

What observers are saying about how the pope's Jesuit roots affect his ministry

A roundup of commentary

By Father Thomas Rosica C.S.B., with David Gibson, Father Drew Christiansen S.J., Father Sean Salai S.J., and Chris Lowney

Pope Francis greets the faithful in St. Peter’s Square. His papacy reflects an Ignatian spirituality at every turn, allowing the church and the world to glimpse one tradition within the world of religious life. 

Editor’s note: This article, which was drawn from an address that Father Thomas Rosica, C.S.B. gave at the 2016 National Religious Vocation Conference Convocation, has been updated and revised from the original published version (see original here).  Errors and omissions in attributions have been corrected. All excerpts cited in the article are published with permission. 


SINCE MARCH 2013, few people in the world have not been touched or inspired by the Ignatian spirituality being offered daily by the current bishop of Rome, who happens to be a son of Ignatius, a Jesuit. 

David Gibson, writing for Religion News Service in 2014 (“To understand Pope Francis, look to the Jesuits”) notes: “Pope Francis is the first pope from the Society of Jesus—this religious congregation whose worldly, wise intellectuals are as famous as its missionaries and martyrs.” Gibson also observed:  “It’s an all-encompassing personal and professional definition that the former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio brought with him from Buenos Aires, and one that continues to shape almost everything he does as Pope Francis…. From his passion for social justice and his missionary zeal, to his focus on engaging the wider world and his preference for collaboration over immediate action without reflection, Pope Francis is a Jesuit through and through.”

What kind of a Jesuit is Francis?

“Jorge Mario Bergoglio,” Gibson’s analysis points out: "had initially joined the Jesuits in the 1950s because he was attracted to its position on, to put it in military terms, the front lines of the church. But little did he know how serious the combat would become. As a Jesuit in Argentina, ordained in 1969, Bergoglio found himself in the midst of the tumult of the Argentine Dirty Wars which erupted one year later. The violence that overtook the country also threatened many priests—especially Jesuits—even as the regime co-opted much of the Argentine hierarchy. Bergoglio was made provincial superior of the Argentine Jesuits at the age of 36, thrown into a situation of internal and external chaos that would have tried even the most seasoned leaders.”

 In a revealing interview in the fall of 2013, (published in America magazine), Francis spoke honestly about the situation that had engulfed his early priesthood: “That was crazy. I had to deal with difficult situations, and I made my decisions abruptly and by myself.” He acknowledged that his “authoritarian and quick manner of making decisions led me to have serious problems and to be accused of being ultraconservative.”

David Gibson, in his Religion News Service analysis continues: 

Bergoglio fully embraced the Jesuits’ radical turn to championing the poor, and although he was seen as an enemy of liberation theology by many Jesuits, others in the order were devoted to him. He turned away from devotional traditionalism but was viewed by others as still far too orthodox. Critics labeled him a collaborator with the Argentine military junta even though biographies show that he worked carefully and clandestinely to save many lives.

None of that ended the intrigue against Bergoglio within the Jesuits, and in the early 1990s he was effectively exiled from Buenos Aires to an outlying city, “a time of great interior crisis,” as he’s put it.

In classic Jesuit tradition, however, Bergoglio complied with the society’s demands and sought to find God’s will in it all. Paradoxically, his virtual estrangement from the Jesuits encouraged Cardinal Antonio Quarracino of Buenos Aires to appoint Bergoglio as an assistant bishop in 1992.

In 1998, Bergoglio succeeded Quarracino as archbishop. In 2001, John Paul made Bergoglio a cardinal, one of just two Jesuits in the 120-member College of Cardinals.

His rise in the hierarchy, however, only seemed to cement suspicions about him among his foes among the Jesuits. During his regular visits to Rome, Bergoglio never stayed at the Jesuit headquarters but rather at a clerical guest house with other prelates.

This location became famous when, as the newly minted pope, Francis would return to the Domus Paulus VI the morning after the events in the Sistine Chapel to pay his own hotel bill!

I can assure you as one who lived through the conclave experience in a very intense way, and resided at the Jesuit headquarters in Rome during the entire papal transition, that the initial response of Jesuits to Bergoglio’s election consisted of gasps, shock, bewilderment that has since been transformed into profound gratitude, exhilaration, pride and at times, incredible joy. How many times have these two scripture passages run through my mind as I watched Pope Francis move among his Jesuit confrères in different parts of the world over the past three and a half years: “The stone which the builders rejected has become the corner stone … a marvel in our eyes,” and another exclamation from Genesis 45: “... then Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Please come closer to me. And they came closer. And he said, ‘I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. Now do not be grieved or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life.’ ”

Cardinal Sean O’Malley, writing in the National Catholic Register, observed in 2014: “Today, the Holy Father is living his Jesuit vocation with a true missionary zeal, a love for community that is oriented for mission, and a discipline that does not waste anything, especially not time.” 

To journalists aboard the return flight to Rome after his first World Youth Day in Brazil in 2013, the newly-elected Jesuit pope said (as reported by Cindy Wooden with Catholic News Service): “’I am a Jesuit in my spirituality, a spirituality involving the Exercises (of St. Ignatius).... And I think like a Jesuit,” he said, but smiled and quickly added, ‘but not in the sense of hypocrisy.’” Francis’ Jesuit confrère, Father Tom Reese said it well: “He may act like a Franciscan, but he thinks like a Jesuit.” 

The question I want to look at is: How is Francis’ “Jesuitness” impacting his Petrine ministry and through that ministry, the entire church, including vocation directors and their religious communities? Following are some key moments and words that reveal the infiltration of Ignatian spirituality, or as one cardinal called it: the ‘“Jesuit virus” on the universal church. 

In October 2016 Pope Francis went with a message to the General Chapter of the Jesuits, taking place in Rome. His address was characterized by an openness to what lies ahead, a call to go further, a support for caminar, the way of journeying that allows Jesuits to go toward others and to walk with them on their journey.

A Jesuit website (“The General Congregation 36: rowing into the deep,” gc36.org) summarized the pope’s remarks: 

To start out, quoting Saint Ignatius, the pope recalled that a Jesuit is called to converse and thereby to bring life to birth “in every part of the world where a greater service of God and help for souls is expected.” Precisely for this reason, the Jesuits must go forward, taking advantage of the situations in which they find themselves, always to serve more and better. This implies a way of doing things that aims for harmony in the contexts of tension that are normal in a world with diverse persons and missions. The pope mentioned explicitly the tensions between contemplation and action, between faith and justice, between charism and institution, between community and mission.

The Holy Father detailed three areas of the Society’s path; we will come back to each of them in the coming days.

1)    The first is to “ask insistently for consolation.” It is proper to the Society to know how to console, to bring consolation and real joy; the Jesuits must put themselves at the service of joy, for the Good News cannot be announced in sadness.

2)    Next, Francis invites us to “allow ourselves to be moved by the Lord on the cross.” The Jesuits must get close to the vast majority of men and women who suffer, and, in this context, it must offer various services of mercy in various forms. The pope underlined certain elements that he had already had occasion to present throughout the jubilee year of mercy. We who have been touched by mercy must feel ourselves sent to present this same mercy and, he added, in an effective way.

3)    Finally, the Holy Father invites us to go forward under the influence of the “good spirit.” This implies always discerning, which is more than simply reflecting, how to act in communion with the church. The Jesuits must be not “clerical” but “ecclesial.” They are “men for others” who live in the midst of all peoples, trying to touch the heart of each person, contributing in this way to establishing a church in which all have their place, in which the Gospel is inculturated, and in which each culture is evangelized.

These three key words of the pope’s address are graces for which each Jesuit and the whole Society must always ask: consolation, compassion, and discernment. 

But Francis has not only reminded his own religious family of these three important gifts that are at the core of Jesuit spirituality, he has also offered them to the universal church, especially through the Synods of Bishops on the Family. 

Pope Francis is clearly a man of a certain temperament. Whether it is living in Santa Marta guesthouse, turning the papal apartment of Castel Gandolfo into a museum, or traveling in simple vehicles, he knows what he wants. Beginning with his refusal to wear the red mozzetta, or cape, for his introduction to the world from St. Peter’s loggia, Francis showed he was in charge. In doing so he also showed his freedom from pressures that have made previous popes prisoners of the Vatican.

Francis manifests to the world a deep, interior, joyful freedom. What is the source of such freedom? “The Ignatian value of ‘indifference,’” writes Father Drew Christiansen on americamagazine.org in the article, “Francis, the Ignatian Pope,” “is an old-fashioned, philosophical term, borrowed from the Stoics, but what indifference means is freedom from distracting and degrading attachments, so as to be free to do what is more conducive to the good of souls. As Pope Francis has made his daily changes, it has become clear that his aim is to make the church the church of Christ, welcoming to all, and appealing because it shows its care for all people.”


Pope Francis has also stressed that quintessential quality of Ignatius of Loyola: discernment. Discernment is a constant effort to be open to the Word of God that can illuminate the concrete reality of everyday life. It was eminently clear to me and many who took part in the Synods of Bishops on the Family that this Jesuit spirit of discernment was a guiding principle throughout the synodal process. One concept that re-emerged at the 2015 Synod of Bishops was the proper formation of conscience. The Synod’s apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) states:

We have long thought that simply by stressing doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues, without encouraging openness to grace, we were providing sufficient support to families, strengthening the marriage bond and giving meaning to marital life. We find it difficult to present marriage more as a dynamic path to personal development and fulfillment than as a lifelong burden. We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them (37).

The church does not exist to take over people’s consciences but to stand in humility before faithful men and women who have discerned prayerfully and often painfully before God the reality of their lives and situations. Discernment and the formation of conscience cannot be separated from the demands of truth and the search for charity and truth and the church’s tradition.

As put by Cardinal Sean O’Malley, writing for National Catholic Register: “In keeping with his own Jesuit formation, Pope Francis is a man of discernment, and, at times, that discernment results in freeing him from the confinement of doing something in a certain way because it was ever thus.” In paragraph 33 of his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (Joy of the Gospel) Francis writes: 

Pastoral ministry in a missionary key seeks to abandon the complacent attitude that says: “We have always done it this way.” I invite everyone to be bold and creative in this task of rethinking the goals, structures, style and methods of evangelization in their respective communities. A proposal of goals without an adequate communal search for the means of achieving them will inevitably prove illusory.

Tantum quantum

Father Drew Christiansen, S.J. further explored the pope’s Jesuit roots in his America piece: 

One maxim that comes from the Spiritual Exercises, tantum quantum, summarizes the principle for using all created things: Use them insofar as they contribute to the glory of God and the salvation of souls. Discard and reject them, when they lead away from that goal. Francis has done much to further the supervision and reform of the Vatican Bank, but he has also made it clear the Holy See may not need its own bank. His basic choices follow the rule: tantum quantum. If there is a genuine apostolic purpose for running a bank, it is run in accord with that purpose and does not distract from the church’s evangelizing mission, then it has a place. If not, then it is wholly dispensable.

The paramount importance Ignatius put on the good of souls is what distinguishes his spirituality from that of Francis. The first Jesuits, as John O’Malley reminds his readers, were “a holiness movement,” inviting everyone to lead a holy life. Saint Francis was committed to a literal imitation of Christ poor. Ignatius was inspired by that poverty and originally planned that Jesuits would follow the same route. But just as he learned to set aside his early austerities to make himself more approachable, he later moderated the Society’s poverty to make it possible to evangelize more people (through schools). Even evangelical poverty was a relative value in relation to the good of souls and their progress in holiness. We see that same apostolic reasoning in Pope Francis’s concession that priests own cars to help them reach people in their ministries.

An inclusive, listening church

Christiansen also notes that the vision of pope Francis is that of an inclusive church:  “The spirit of openness is foundational to the Jesuit way of proceeding. Jesuit churches are known for their inclusiveness and Jesuit confessors for their understanding and compassion.”

Christiansen goes on: “At a time of religious controversy, Saint Ignatius Loyola, the Jesuit founder, urged retreatants to listen attentively to others, to give a positive interpretation to their statements, and when there was apparent error, to question them closely, and only when the interlocutors were steadfast in their error to regard them as heretics. At the time of the Reformation, that was a remarkable point of departure for retreatants preparing to make life decisions.”

Early in his pontificate, Christiansen explains: “when Pope Francis made his controversial statement about even atheists having a chance to get into heaven, he was following the teaching of Vatican II, but he was also following a very Ignatian approach toward the good of souls.”

Care of those most in need

Ignatius of Loyola’s recommended style of ministry, Christiansen writes, “anticipates the positive pastoral approach Pope Francis has taken to evangelization.” Christiansen continues:

The pope’s attention to refugees, the abandoned elderly and unemployed youth exhibit the same concern as the first Jesuits for the lowliest and most needy people in society.

Ignatius’s twin criteria for choice of ministries were serving those in greatest need and advancing the more universal good. The Jesuit Refugee Service and Jesuit experiments in education, like the Nativity and Cristo Rey schools, are contemporary embodiments of the same spirit of evangelical care for the neediest. These apostolates are part of the post-conciliar renewal of the Society of Jesus, but they have deep, formative roots in Jesuit history and spirituality as well.

Humility and clerical reform

Christiansen also noted the quality of humility in the pope:

Pope Francis’s humility has impressed many people. It is the most radically evangelical aspect of his spiritual reform of the papacy, and he has invited all Catholics, but especially the clergy, to reject success, wealth and power. He has told cardinals and priests not to behave as princes, counseled priests to abandon their pricey cars for smaller, more economical ones, and given them example by returning the Vatican Mercedes and riding in a Ford Focus himself….

Humility is a key virtue in the Spiritual Exercises. One of its key meditations focuses on the Three Degrees of Humility. In Ignatius’s eyes, humility is the virtue that brings us closest to Christ, and Pope Francis appears to be guiding the church and educating the clergy in that fundamental truth. Reform through spiritual renewal begins with the rejection of wealth, honors and power, and it reaches its apex in the willingness to suffer humiliation with Christ.

Humility is the most difficult part of the Ignatian papal reform, but it is essential for the church’s purification from clericalism, the source of so many ills in the contemporary church. Undoubtedly, it is here that Francis’s reform will receive the most resistance from beneficiaries of the millennial-old system….

Francis’ Ignatian style of leadership

In an article on americamagazine.org, Father Sean Salai, S.J.  interviewed writer and leadership consultant Chris Lowney, about the leadership style of Pope Francis. Lowney points out:

Ignatius [did not] use the word “leadership” as we commonly do today. Someone whose style of leadership is inspired by the Ignatian tradition will particularly emphasize certain habits or priorities. One of these is the importance of formation—not just learning to do technical tasks like strategic planning but also commitment to lifelong self-development. [Another Ignatian priority] is deep self-awareness, of coming to know oneself, for example, as happens in the Spiritual Exercises. 

The Jesuits also emphasize, says Lowney: “becoming a skilled decision-maker, as happens through the discernment tools of the Exercises, and committing oneself to purposes bigger than self, to a mission of ultimate meaning. Jesuits often refer to this commitment by the expression of magis.”  Then, too, Ignatian spirituality emphasizes a “deep respect for others, ‘finding God in all things.’”

The difference between the worldly style of leadership and that traced by Ignatius is that, as Lowney notes, the Jesuit style of leadership always points to God, the ultimate source of meaning.  Lowney explains that Great Jesuit figures “like Francis Xavier or Matteo Ricci: they were able to accomplish the feats they did not simply because they had some good leadership skills but because they were inspired by love of God.”

 I cannot tell you how many times these very ideas have surfaced in Pope Francis’ addresses to the cardinals, bishops, priests, deacons, religious, lay leaders, catechists, and young people around the world. These leadership qualities are distinctly Ignatian!

Chris Lowney also adds this:

St. Ignatius once famously wrote that sometimes we have to go in through the other person’s door in order to come out through our own. That’s been a very powerful idea for me. And I find it a very modern idea, too, completely relevant to the church in the 21st century. We live in a very secularized society generally, and young adults in particular are showing very little interest in the church. What are we going to do for these populations? Offer spiritual opportunities that we know they will never avail themselves of? The only place that gets us is to a smaller church, where we all end up sitting around talking to each other. Rather, I would say we are now challenged to find ways to “enter the other’s door,” to offer them some of the riches of our traditions in ways that will better their lives and that might provoke or invite their deeper thought that might draw them toward the essence of what Christianity offers.

Contrary to some voices in the church today, we are not being called by Christ, St. John Paul II or Pope Francis to bring about a smaller church for the perfect, the holy, those who think like us. St. John Paul II did not write his final apostolic letter at the close of the Great Jubilee with the title “Stay close to the shore and don’t risk.” He filled that hopeful document with the mantra: Duc in altum, put out to the deep! Francis has said to us: “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.” Our goal is not to form a smaller church where we all end up sitting around in small circles talking to each other and bemoaning what we have lost! 

The devil

Pope Francis seems obsessed with the devil. His tweets and homilies about the devil, Satan, the Accuser, the Evil One, the Father of Lies, the Ancient Serpent, the Tempter, the Seducer, the Great Dragon, the Enemy and just plain “demon” are now legion. “For pope Bergoglio, the devil is not a myth, but a real person,” writes Sandro Magister in Chiesaexpressonline.it.

Many modern people may greet the pope’s insistence on the devil with indifference or, at best, indulgent curiosity. Francis, however, is drawing on a fundamental insight of St. Ignatius of Loyola! In his first major address to the cardinals who elected him, the Argentine pontiff reminded them: “Let us never yield to pessimism, to that bitterness that the devil offers us every day.” 

The pope has stressed that we must not be naive: “The demon is shrewd: he is never cast out forever, this will only happen on the last day,” he is quoted as saying a morning meditation printed in L'Osservatore Romano (“How to rout the demon’s strategy.”) Francis has also issued calls to arms in his homilies: “The devil also exists in the 21st century, and we need to learn from the Gospel how to battle against him.” Acknowledging the devil’s shrewdness, Francis once preached: “The devil is intelligent, he knows more theology than all the theologians together.” 

In a rally with thousands of young people during his visit to Paraguay, the pope offered the job description of the devil in these words: 

Friends: the devil is a con artist. He makes promise after promise, but he never delivers. He’ll never really do anything he says. He doesn’t make good on his promises. He makes you want things which he can’t give, whether you get them or not. He makes you put your hopes in things which will never make you happy.... He is a con artist because he tells us that we have to abandon our friends, and never to stand by anyone. Everything is based on appearances. He makes you think that your worth depends on how much you possess.

In all these references to the devil and his many disguises, Pope Francis wishes to call everyone back to reality. The devil is frequently active in our lives and in the church, drawing us into negativity, cynicism, despair, meanness of spirit, sadness, and nostalgia.

Sandro Magisto, writing on the Italian website chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it, notes that Francis calls for reacting to the devil with the Word of God, the same way Jesus did during his 40 days in the desert. In an article for Catholic News Service, Cindy Wooden interviewed Father Jesuit Father Gerald Blaszczak, secretary for the Service of Faith at the Society of Jesus' headquarters in Rome at the time. Wooden writes: “It's not that Pope Francis has been focusing on the power of the devil, [Blaszczak] said, but temptations are the realistic flip side to the heart of the pope's message about ‘the world that is replete with the mercy and presence and fidelity of God.’”

The field hospital

There is also another image from Pope Francis that has captivated the minds and hearts of millions: the powerful image of the “field hospital” which he uses often and is drawn from the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. When Francis speaks of the church as a “field hospital after a battle” he appeals to the Jesuit founder’s understanding of the role of the church in light of God’s gaze upon the world: “So many people ask us to be close; they ask us for what they were asking of Jesus: closeness, nearness.” In his 2013 interview, published in America magazine Francis says: “The thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds.... And you have to start from the ground up.”

A field hospital image is contrary to an image of a fortress under siege. From the image of the church as a field hospital we can derive an understanding of the church’s mission as both healing and salvific.

What a Jesuit pope means for the church

We’ve looked at some critical Ignatian principles, styles, concepts, and images that make Pope Francis who he is. Let us now turn to how some of his deeply Jesuit approaches might affect the church. 

David Gibson, who wrote on this topic for the Religion News Service, says:

Francis’ pastoral style extends to his mode of governance. One of his first actions as pope was to name a council of eight cardinals from around the world — none of them from the dysfunctional Roman Curia—to serve as a kitchen Cabinet, much the way Jesuit superiors operate. He has used a similar model for tackling specific tasks as well, such as overhauling the Vatican’s finances.

“The whole concept of setting up committees, consulting widely, convening smart people around you — I believe that is how Jesuit superiors probably function,” said Ken Hackett, the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See. “Then you make the decision.”

This sort of discernment — listening to all and contemplating everything before acting — is a cardinal virtue of the Ignatian spirituality that is at the core of Francis’ being and his commitment to a “conversion” of the papacy as well as the entire church….

But that also means that it’s hard to say exactly what will come next. Francis is shrewd and he has repeatedly praised the Jesuit trait of “holy cunning” — that Christians should be “wise as serpents but innocent as doves,” as Jesus put it. The pope’s openness, however, also a signature of his Jesuit training and development, means that not even he is sure where the spirit will lead. 

[Francis has said]: ‘I don’t have all the answers. I don’t even have all the questions. I always think of new questions, and there are always new questions coming forward.”

Richard Bennett of Berean Beacon also sees change afoot: “Pope Francis breaks Catholic traditions whenever he wants, because he is ‘free from disordered attachments.’ Our church has indeed entered a new phase: with the advent of this first Jesuit pope, it is openly ruled by an individual rather than by the authority of Scripture alone or even its own dictates of tradition plus Scripture.” Pope Francis has brought to the Petrine office a Jesuit intellectualism.

Finally, in closing, Mathew Schmalz, writing in the Washington Post says, “But by choosing the name Francis, he is also affirming the power of humility and simplicity. Pope Francis, the Argentine Jesuit, is not simply attesting to the complementarity of the Ignatian and Franciscan paths. He is pointing to how the mind and heart meet in the love of Jesus Christ.”


Regarding material by David Gibson:  Copyright 2018 Religion News Service LLC. Republished with permission of Religion News Service LLC, all rights reserved.

Related HORIZON articles

Spring 2015 HORIZON. Theme: Pope Francis and vocations.

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