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.

St. Ignatius, Pope Francis, and the Jesuits

Today was the Feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits.

To mark the feast, Pope Francis celebrated mass at the Church of the Gèsu, the “mother church” of the Jesuit order. Here are his remarks to his fellow Jesuits:

To be men routed and grounded in the Church: that is what Jesus desires of us. There cannot be parallel or isolated paths for us. Yes, paths of searching, creative paths, yes, this is important: to go to the peripheries, so many peripheries. This takes creativity, but always in community, in the Church, with this membership that give us the courage to go forward. To serve Christ is to love this concrete Church, and to serve her with generosity and with the spirit of obedience.

Drew Christiansen, SJ, has a useful essay on Francis, the Ignatian Pope:

As I witnessed his day by day abandonment of centuries-old custom, I marveled at his joyful, spiritual freedom. I soon realized it manifested his appropriation of the Ignatian value of “indifference.” It 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.

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.

And Pope Francis himself talked about his Jesuit spirituality during the press conference on the flight back to Rome from Brazil that received so much press for other reasons:

Pope Francis said he still considers himself a Jesuit, but first he posed a tricky logic problem: “The Jesuits make a special vow of fidelity to the pope. But if the pope is a Jesuit, does he have to make a vow to the superior of the Jesuits?”

“I am a Jesuit in my spirituality, a spirituality involving the Exercises (of St. Ignatius),” he said. “And I think like a Jesuit,” he said, but smiled and quickly added, “but not in the sense of hypocrisy.”