When the Jesuit Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, of Buenos Aires, was elected pope and took the name Francis, the world was enthralled—and intrigued, too. Did we now have as pope a Franciscan Jesuit? Or maybe he’s a Jesuit Franciscan? Having the first Jesuit pope choose the name of the most famous medieval saint draws us back to Church history. What was the importance of St. Francis of Assisi, who died in 1226, and his Franciscan friars for St. Ignatius of Loyola—who founded the Society of Jesus 300 years later? And how have both shaped Pope Francis?
In May 1521, Ignatius (still known as Ifligo) was badly wounded in both legs from a horrific cannonball injury at the battle of Pamplona. After a pair of brutal surgeries afterward, he was recovering back home in Loyola that summer. To pass the time, he asked to read the kinds of tales of chivalry that had always inspired him, but none were around.
When someone handed Inigo a collection of saints’ lives called The Golden Legend, gathered by Jacopo da Voragine, he encountered Francis and Dominic, the innovative founders of the medieval mendicant orders. He remembered the moment years later in a memoir dictated to his secretary in Rome. “What would happen if I should do the things that St. Francis and St. Dominic did?” the convalescing Inigo found himself asking. “St. Francis did this? Then I must do it. St. Dominic did that? Then I must do it.”
The other book that came to Inigo, now wrestling with the crisis of how he should spend the rest of his life since his career as a dashing courtier and soldier seemed over, was Ludoiph of Saxony’s Life of Christ. This meditation influenced Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises quite a bit, especially in its invitation to envision a scene from the Gospel and then to place yourself in it. That Life of Christ had, in fact, been inspired substantially by a Franciscan text called the Meditationes Vitae Christi, which, for a long time, was attributed to the influential Franciscan St. Bonaventure, but had really been written by another friar named Giovanni de Caulihus.
When Ignatius later taught that we should try to “find God in all things,” he was surely drawing on the Franciscan devotion that God could be discovered in every element of the universe that God had created. This is the kind of incarnational theology that flows so poetically through Francis of Assisi’s “Canticle of the Creatures.”
Ignatius also was inspired by Francis’ practice of poverty, although the Jesuits rarely got into the kinds of heated debates that the Franciscans did about just how extreme that poverty had to be. For Ignatius, it was enough that his companions didn’t own anything themselves, but at the same time had the resources they needed to practice their ministries. Jesuits, as did Franciscans, regularly spent years as wandering preachers begging for their food and shelter. Ignatius believed that this experience was essential in the formation of his novices: they needed to taste the life of Jesus, Paul, and the first apostles in addition to Ignatius and Francis.
But a Rocky Relationship, Too
That is not to say that Ignatius and the Franciscans got along all the time. Soon after his recovery at Loyola, he developed a great desire to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. While Ignatius curiously has little to say about his feelings at the holy sites in his later memoir, he dwells on the fact that the Franciscans there gave him a rather stiff heave-ho after he announced, in 1523, he’d like to stay. The Franciscans, who oversaw the holy sites and escorted pilgrims, explained that many others with that same desire had ended up captured and had to be ransomed. Some had even been killed, so it was not a good idea to stay.
Ignatius stubbornly said that this wouldn’t happen to him. He even stole away one night to revisit the Mount of Olives without the customary Franciscan escort. He bribed the guards there with a penknife and scissors so he could get in past closing time. When the friars discovered he was missing, they sent someone after Ignatius. This servant roughly grabbed Ignatius by the arm and dragged him back. The Franciscan provincial who had told him he couldn’t stay was so angry at Ignatius that he said he’d be glad to pull out the papal bulls that gave him permission to excommunicate a recalcitrant pilgrim like Ignatius. He finally relented and took the long journey home.
Maybe some of that bad blood was still there about 30 years later when a rich man from Ignatius’ home, the Basque region of Spain, got papal approval to set up a Confraternity of the Holy Sepulcher in Rome, with colleges in Cyprus, Constantinople, and Jerusalem. When word got to the Franciscans in the Holy Land that the Society of Jesus, which had been approved just a little more than a decade before, had set sights on Jerusalem, they voiced their objection loudly. For this and other reasons, the plan was dropped.
Between the incident at Jerusalem in 1523 and the conflict about a Jesuit college there in 1553, however, there were many positive interactions between the established Franciscans and the men who would be the first Jesuits. Ignatius and his friends studied under Franciscans and Dominicans when they took up advanced studies at the University of Paris. Earlier, Ignatius had benefited from the spiritual direction of a Franciscan confessor in Barcelona while working on preliminary studies there around 1524, before leaving for Paris. The most important encounter between Ignatius and a Franciscan confessor ended up making Ignatius the first superior general of the Jesuits.
As the story goes, Ignatius was twice unanimously elected by the first companions, excluding himself, who declined to name anyone, and said in his ballot that he agreed with whomever his friends chose. Twice he declined, but Ignatius agreed to yield to God’s will through the voice of his confessor, a Franciscan in Rome named Fra Teodosio da Lodi. This insightful man told Ignatius on Easter Sunday in 1541 that he was God’s choice to lead the new Society of Jesus. And so he did. For years afterward, Ignatius celebrated Mass in a Franciscan chapel in Rome, perhaps the very same room where God had spoken to the new Jesuit with a Franciscan voice. Now, 500 years later, it seems to be happening again.
By Christopher Bellitto, St. Anthony Messenger, December 2013 Pages 32 – 35.