In the scramble to read the signs of how a little-known Argentine Jesuit might change the papacy, the pundits have paid scant attention to the unique spiritual practices that are the core of every Jesuit’s formation. No matter how we stake our political or religious claims, any effort to understand the man ought to include a sense of the Spiritual Exercises, a Jesuit meditative program of spiritual renewal that connects self-reform to transformative action in the world. These meditations offer a framework with which to interpret Francis’s actions because they have provided the key metaphors with which the Jesuit Bergoglio has sought not only to know himself, but also to engage the world.
When James Martin, S.J., mused about the selection of one of “ours” to the papacy, he wrote: “Since his election . . . I have heard at least a dozen Jesuits say, ‘Well, I don’t know much about him, but I know he made the Exercises.’” Bergoglio has made the full 30-day version of the Spiritual Exercises at least twice and has repeated the shorter, eight-day version every year since he entered the Society of Jesus in 1958.
Why is this fact reassuring to Martin’s fellow Jesuits? The new pope, it is assumed, has a deep understanding of the very particular flaws –sins, if you prefer–that have been well-known companions in his ongoing process of self-discovery, a sense of self that is both very particular yet connected to a universal notion of divinity present in all the particularity the makes up the world. This is the experience that is the unceasing Jesuit quest for wisdom that pivots around the questions: “Who am I? What does God want from me?”
The Exercises are what drew the first Jesuits together and the Exercises continue to underwrite both personal and corporate Jesuit identity today. According to the opening lines of Ignatius of Loyola’s guide, the purpose of undertaking this rigorous self-evaluation was: “To overcome oneself and to order one’s life without reaching a decision through some disordered affection.”
Yet a sense of self must be forged before it can be overcome. Structured as meditations on the life, passion, death, and resurrection of Christ, the Spiritual Exercises demand that every Jesuit know himself quite intimately. Each time a Jesuit makes the Exercises, he is compelled to reflect upon the phases of his life, asking, Who was I then? Where am I now? What have I done for Christ, what ought I do for Christ now?
Next, the Jesuit meditates on the Two Standards and, in choosing to stand under the banner of Christ, he imagines himself as poised for action in the world. We hear hints of this Jesuit sense of self and world in Francis’s pre-conclave speech about the qualities the next Pope ought to demonstrate. “Thinking of the next Pope: He must be a man who, from the contemplation and adoration of Jesus Christ, helps the church to go out to the existential peripheries, that helps her to be the fruitful mother, who gains life from “the sweet and comforting joy of evangelizing.”
Here he joins the twin goals of contemplation and action in a world understood in both geographical and existential terms. “Jesus knocks from within so that we will let him come out.” These words echo a very Jesuit notion that personal reform is linked, in the words Bergoglio drew upon to inspire the conclave, to an evangelizing church that is “called to come out of herself and to go to the peripheries, not only geographically, but also the existential peripheries: the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance and indifference to religion, of intellectual currents, and of all misery.” He has eschewed certain liturgical vestments as, quite literally, trappings that would encumber his desire to walk in the world. And this sense of self in the world likely inspires Francis’s controversial symbolics, such as the washing of women prisoner’s feet.
More important, the Jesuits have always known that the answers to the questions “Where are you? Who are you? What am I doing? What ought I do?” can change-are expected to change-based upon age and experience, and, for the mobile Jesuit, based upon his locale.
So who is Bergoglio? He is a man with a sense of his history (one which Argentinians smarting from his perceived inaction both during and after the Dirty War may never find satisfaction). But Francis is also a man in a new setting, now clearly poised for action. As his activities have already shown, I suggest that one cannot separate the new Pope from his Jesuit spiritual formation. What we do know is that his ongoing spiritual exercises no doubt continue to demand a self-scrutiny aimed toward evangelical action in the world.
J. Michelle Molina is Assistant Professor in Religious Studies at Northwestern University where she specializes in early modern Catholic devotional life in Europe and Latin America. Her book, To Overcome Oneself: The Jesuit Ethic and the Spirit of Global Expansion is forthcoming from the University of California Press in May 2013.