Pope Francis reflects on the Jesuit life

By Mike Lewis, 17 December 2021
Pope Francis is seen meeting with Jesuits in Athens during his Apostolic Journey to Cyprus and Greece on 4 December. Image: Vatican Media/Vatican News


Today is Pope Francis’s 85th birthday, and today we received the gift of the transcript of his December 4 discussion with the Jesuit community in Greece. Continue reading below to find out what he said about vocations, humility, Jesuit spirituality and his Jesuit brothers.

Today is Pope Francis’s 85th birthday, and today we received the gift of the transcript of his December 4 discussion with the Jesuit community in Greece. It has become customary for Pope Francis to meet privately with the local Jesuit community wherever he travels, and the transcripts of the conversation are made public by Fr. Antonio Spadaro in the Jesuit-run Vatican newspaper La Civilta Cattolica. These transcripts, like his in-flight press conferences, tend to reveal more candid and unfiltered thoughts of the pope than he shares in more formal settings. Unlike the in-flight press conferences, however, these transcripts are typically made public on a slow news day, days or weeks after the media’s coverage of the trip has ended.

Quite often, these transcripts do have an impact. Much of what we know about his thoughts on the controversy surrounding Amoris Laetitia, his apostolic exhortation on love and the family, has been revealed in this transcripts. For example, in his 2018 meeting with the Jesuits of Peru, he revealed some of his frustration at the intransigence of the critics of the document’s eighth chapter. He said, “Some people are reducing the entire fruit of two synods – all the work that has been done – to “you can or can’t.” Help us to discern then. Certainly, someone who is not discerning cannot teach others to discern. And to be discerning you have to enter into practice, you have to examine yourself. You have to start with yourself.”

In his 2019 meeting with 48 Jesuits of Southeast Asia, he offered a direct correction to those, including American Cardinal Raymond Burke, who insisted (implausibly) that Amoris was not part of the Church’s Magisterium (teaching). When asked how to behave pastorally with Catholics who are divorced and remarried, he said, “I could answer you in two ways: in a casuistic way, which however is not Christian, even if it can be ecclesiastical; or according to the Magisterium of the Church as in the eighth chapter of Amoris Laetitia, that is, journey, accompany and discern to find solutions. And this has nothing to do with situation ethics, but with the great moral tradition of the Church.”

He also speaks on the priesthood and clericalism, as he did in 2019 when he met with 24 Jesuits in Mozambique. Also in that meeting, he was forced to pause, stop, and reflect when he admitted in one response that he had never been asked the question before, and would continue to reflect on it in the future.

Most recently, Francis’s meeting with Jesuits in Slovakia in September caused a stir when Francis made a not-too-subtle reference to the way the US cable television network EWTN does “the work of the devil” by “continually speaking ill of the pope.”

The transcript that was released today didn’t drop any dramatic bombshells, but did provide a few insights and causes for hope. At the beginning of the meeting, he was introduced to a Jesuit Brother—a member of the Jesuit order who is not a priest. This is a permanent and distinct vocation, fully a member of the Jesuit order—taking vows of poverty, chastity and obedience—and an integral part of the community, serving the Church, receiving Jesuit formation, and living Jesuit spirituality. (Perhaps the most famous Jesuit Brother today is the American Guy Consolmagno, director of the Vatican Observatory.)

Upon meeting Brother Georges Marangos, Pope Francis stopped him and said,

I’ll make a confession: When I was provincial and had to ask for information which would allow me to admit Jesuits to priestly ordination, I found that the best information came from the brothers. I remember once there was a student of theology who was finishing his studies. He was particularly good, intelligent and likeable. But the brothers told me: “Be careful, send him to work a little before ordination.” They “saw under the water.” I wonder why the Jesuit brothers have the ability to understand what is essential in a life. Perhaps because they know how to combine affectivity with the work of their hands. They touch reality with their hands. We priests are sometimes abstract. The brothers are practical and they understand conflicts and difficulties well; they have a good eye. When we speak of the “promotion” of the brothers, we must always consider that everything – even studies – must be thought of as instruments for a vocation, which goes far beyond the things that they know.

In his response to the next question, Pope Francis spoke about the spiritual renewal that took place under the Servant of God Pedro Arrupe, who served as General of the Society of Jesus from 1965 to 1983:

When one starts a process, one must let it develop, let the work grow, and then withdraw. Every Jesuit has to do that. No work belongs to him, because it belongs to the Lord. Thus he expresses creative indifference. He must be a father, and let the child grow. The Society of Jesus entered into a crisis of fruitfulness when it wanted to regulate every creative development with the Epitome.

Pedro Arrupe became General and did the opposite. He renewed the spirituality of the Society and let it grow. This is a great attitude: to do everything well and then withdraw, without being possessive. We need to be fathers, not owners, to have the fruitfulness of the father. Ignatius in the Constitutions says something wonderful: that the great principles must be incarnated in the circumstances of place, time and persons. And this through discernment. A Jesuit who acts without discernment is not a Jesuit.

Reading his description of this renewal of the Jesuits, I can’t help but be reminded of the renewal in the Carmelite order that resulted from their 1991 Constitutions, as Sr. Gabriela Hicks describes in her article published here earlier today. He describes a “crisis of fruitfulness” resulting from relying on the Epitome rather than the Constitutions of the order. In a footnote, the Epitome is described as “a kind of practical summary in use in the Society and reformulated in the 20th century, which was seen as a substitute for the Constitutions. The formation of Jesuits in the  Society for a time was shaped by this text. For Francis, during this time in the Society the rules threatened to overwhelm the spirit.”

For more information on the Epitome, I turned to a Jesuit friend who gave me broad rundown on this document. He explained that this is a reference to the Epitome Instituti Societatis Iesu, more commonly referred to in English as “The Institute.” It was published exclusively in Latin and all Jesuits had to read it. “It was a collection of writings in the Ignatian tradition, kind of a ‘best of’ anthology,” he explained. “After Vatican II, all the religious orders were instructed to go back to their founding documents to try to recapture their primitive charisms. The Institute/Epitome was simply not a founding document, but an outgrowth that took on an authority greater than it actually had. It has since fallen out of use.”

According to Jesuit Peter Schineller, although one might think the Jesuits have always prayed and reviewed their Constitutions, in fact, “for several centuries we were presented only with the Epitome (excerpts, and those in Latin). Only in 1971 were the Constitutions available in English.”[1] Pope Francis credits Fr. Arrupe in great part for returning the Jesuits to their original spirituality and their founding constitutions.

It is well known that there has been a great decline in the number of clergy and vocations to the priesthood, at least in numbers. The Jesuit order has not been spared. I found Francis’s words on this to be frank, but also insightful. The division and polarization in our Church clearly puts us at a crossroads, but in the end, only God can provide the Church with what we need. In this sense, Francis’s response is both realistic and serene, and is rooted in suffering:

One thing that calls for attention is the diminution of the Society. When I entered the novitiate, we were 33,000 Jesuits. How many are there now? More or less half. And we will continue to diminish in number. This situation is common to many religious Orders and Congregations. It has a meaning, and we must ask ourselves what it is. In short, this decrease does not depend on us. The Lord sends the vocations. If they do not come, it does not depend on us. I believe the Lord is giving us a teaching for religious life. For us it has meaning in the sense of humiliation. In the Spiritual Exercises Ignatius always points to this: to humiliation. Regarding the vocational crisis the Jesuit cannot remain at the level of sociological explanation. This is, at most, half the truth. The deeper truth is that the Lord leads us to this humiliation in terms of numbers in order to open to each one the way to the “third degree of humility,” which is the only Jesuit fruitfulness that counts. The third degree of humility is the goal of the Exercises. The great scientific journal no longer exists today. What does the Lord mean by this? Humble yourself, humble yourself! I don’t know if I have explained myself. We have to get used to humiliation.

Finally, since today is his birthday, I thought I’d end with these words he spoke to Fr. Tonny Cornoedus, a Belgian-Flemish Jesuit in his 70s, about the end of the life of a Jesuit:

While you were speaking, I was thinking about the end of a Jesuit’s life: it is to arrive at old age full of work, perhaps tired, full of contradictions, but with a smile, with the joy of having done one’s work. This is the great weariness of a man who has given his life. There is an ugly, neurotic weariness that does not help. But there is also a good weariness. When you see this old age smiling, tired, but not bitter, then you are a song to hope. A Jesuit who reaches our age and continues to work, to suffer the contradictions and not lose his smile, then he becomes a song to hope. You reminded me of a movie I really liked when I saw it as a boy: The Soldier’s Return. A soldier came home tired, wounded, but with a smile at being home and having done his duty. How wonderful that there are Jesuits like you, with a smile and the assurance that the seed sown has borne fruit! As in life, so in death the Jesuit must give witness to the following of Jesus Christ. This sowing of joy, “shyness,” smiling, is the grace of a full, full life. A life with sins, yes, but full of the joy of God’s service. Go forth, and thank you for your testimony!

Happy birthday, Holy Father!

Mike Lewis is a writer and graphic designer from Maryland, having worked for many years in Catholic publishing. He’s a husband, father of four, and a lifelong Catholic. He’s active in his parish and community. He is the founding managing editor for Where Peter Is.

With thanks to Where Peter Is and Mike Lewis, where this article originally appeared.


[1] Peter Schineller, S.J., “From an Ascetical Spirituality of the Exercises to the Apostolic Spirituality of the Constitutions: Laborers in the Lord’s Vineyard,” in Ite inflammate omnia, ed. Thomas M. McCoog (Rome: Institutum Historicum Societatis Iesu, 2010), 85–108.


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