Thinking with the Church–Some reflections on the Pope’s Interview

The internet and Christianity are abuzz with the interview Pope Francis gave with Jesuit publications.

What surprised me most was not the soundbytes pulled out by reporters about the hot-button issues but rather the thoroughly Ignatian tone of the entire piece. Pope Francis is not just remaking the Church and the Papacy, he is bringing to the fore the Jesuit mode of proceeding. His talk of discernment, his humility and simplicity, his approach to spirituality and prayer, his demeanor all point to his Jesuit background.

But at the same time as he is revolutionizing the Church, he is also revolutionizing the Ignatian tradition. There is no better example of that than in the section of the interview “Thinking with the Church.” James Martin, SJ says that what Pope Francis said here has “immense ramifications” for the Church.

Pope Francis is referring to a section appended to the Spiritual Exercises: “Rules for thinking with the Church.” Most famously, Rule 13 which reads:

To be right in everything, we ought always to hold that the white which I see, is black, if the Hierarchical Church so decides it, believing that between Christ our Lord, the Bridegroom, and the Church, His Bride, there is the same Spirit which governs and directs us for the salvation of our souls. Because by the same Spirit and our Lord Who gave the ten Commandments, our holy Mother the Church is directed and governed.

Pope Francis rewrites this rule, emphasizing that the Church is the whole people of God, not just the hierarchy, and that it is as the whole people of God that one needs to “think with the Church.”

Pope Francis:

“This is how it is with Mary: If you want to know who she is, you ask theologians; if you want to know how to love her, you have to ask the people. In turn, Mary loved Jesus with the heart of the people, as we read in the Magnificat. We should not even think, therefore, that ‘thinking with the church’ means only thinking with the hierarchy of the church.”


“This church with which we should be thinking is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people. We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our mediocrity.”

As an aside, having taught Ignatius many times over the years, requiring students to read both the Autobiography and The Spiritual Exercises, I always struggled with students’ preconceptions about the Jesuits (“The shock troops of the Counter Reformation) and more broadly Roman Catholics. It was always a challenge to try to get them to understand the flexibility, adaptability, and moderation of the Jesuits, all of which were keys to their success in the 16th and 17th centuries.

The “Rules for Thinking with the Church” were in part Ignatius’ attempt to help later Jesuits learn from his experience. When we read, we should think white is black if that’s what the Church says, we assume the worst of the Jesuits and the Roman Catholic Church. A more charitable reading would be that we should submit our own reason and perspective to the long perspective and wider vision of the Church. Pope Francis, by taking “hierarchical” out of the equation, broadens the perspective still further.

The back story on how the interview came about is here.

From James Martin’s commentary:

But there is one thing of which Pope Francis is sure.  In the best Jesuit tradition, which asks us to “find God in all things,” the pope speaks movingly of his commitment to finding God in every human being.  That is his certainty.  For me, this was the most moving part of the entire interview: “I have a dogmatic certainty: God is in every person’s life.  God is in everyone’s life…Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs or anything else—God is in this person’s life. You can, you must try to seek God in every human life.”

“Discerning the Papal Interview” (From Eric Sundrup, SJ in The Jesuit Post)

There is much for all of us to ponder here. Pope Francis has had an enormous impact on the Roman Catholic Church in the few months of his papacy; he is also challenging all Christians to a more humble, careful, and discerning approach in the world.

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