by Eric Santillan
Many people have been pleasantly surprised by Pope Francis’ refreshing take on the papacy since the end of the conclave: how his first act as Pope was to ask everyone to bow down in silence and pray for him in St. Peter’s Square, how he insisted on passing by the Vatican hotel to pay for his bills, how he took the bus with the rest of the cardinals instead of the papal car, the decision to use a recycled Papal ring instead of having one specially engraved, the cross made of wood instead of the traditional gold, the mass with the prisoners on Holy Thursday, some of them not even Catholics, the decision to live in simpler quarters instead of the Papal castle. It seems like so many “traditions” and the pomp and circumstance that we took for granted as marking previous Papacies have been done with.
I’m sure Jesuits will be mortified to write something like this themselves, but being a former Jesuit, I have the privilege of distance and ‘objectivity’. I was just struck by how he was really just living out his Jesuit formation and identity– which is St. Ignatius’ distillation of what it is to be Christian. The Society of Jesus calls it “Our Way of Proceeding” — a mindset of how to do things following the way of Christ.
What are these Ways of Proceeding that I talk about? I would like to highlight three:
1) READY TO BE SENT ANYWHERE. The Jesuits have been called God’s Marines, which is really a testament to how the Church has sent Jesuits to places that have never been explored before. I remember a novel called The Sparrow that had as its premise the discovery of a new planet. And who do you send to that new planet? The Jesuits.
These “places” need not be geographical in nature. Jesuits have also been known to explore new frontiers in science and technology, philosophies and theologies. While others would condemn and dismiss, the Jesuits’ first instinct is to engage with the trust that God is found in ALL things. This has led to some awkward moments with the Church and some Jesuits have been censured and punished in the past, but it is this openness to new ideas– not for its sake, but because God can be found there– that allows Church doors to be open and more inclusive and truly Catholic.
I learned about Islam for example in a Jesuit School of Theology. And while some priests condemned Harry Potter as a book about witchcraft, Jesuits were using it in their homilies!
2) FREEDOM. The Jesuits, because of their status in society, has not been known for simplicity. They are professors in the best schools of this land, they are not allergic about using technology and gadgets, they are on Facebook and Twitter. They use media and theatre. But they do all these with a freedom that is simply astounding to behold and is counter-cultural. The principle and foundation of every Jesuit is to use things of this world in tantum quantum — for as long as it helps and ad majorem Dei gloriam — for the greater glory of God.
A former President of Ateneo de Zamboanga many years ago was given a Mercedes Benz van to be used as his car. He decided not to accept it. When asked why, he simply said, “This is Zamboanga. We don’t use that here.” I’ve been in a jeepney ride to Payatas with the former Socius to the Provincial (the second in command among the Jesuits in the Philippines). My mom told me this story of two provincials visiting our house in Cagayan de Oro and helping in the cooking. A former Provincial (head of the Jesuits in the Philippines) and President of Xavier University and Ateneo de Manila explained it this way, “It’s just a job. I get picked up at the airport because of my job. But after my term, it will go to someone else and I will take the taxi like I used to.” They use things, and don’t let things use them. Status is good, and it makes things easier, but they’re not beholden by it.
So when you see Pope Francis riding the bus or the train, he’s just living out the freedom that marks everyJesuit. People have said that the reason Francis wanted to live in the Vatican Hotel instead of the Papal Apartments is because its less isolating and perhaps easier to sneak out of as he sees fit.
3) SILENCE. The silence that marked the beginning of Francis’ papacy wasn’t just for show. It is the silence that St. Ignatius asked of all his men: the silence of a contemplative-in-action. It is a silence that understands that before action is done, reflection is needed. But don’t be fooled by that seemingly passive silence.
It is that silence that has changed the world: Mateo Ricci’s revolutionary decision to let go of priestly vestments and wear Mandarin clothes, not preach fire and brimstone, learn the language and embrace the Chinese culture, it is what led to St. John Brebeuf’s death in the hands of Native American chieftains who ate his heart to honour his bravery, it is what led to a deep understanding of liberation theology in the Pope’s own Argentina, or Fr. Rutillo Grande’s death that changed Archbishop Romero’s life. Closer to home, it is the silence that led to the indictment of the Marcos regime after the snap elections of ’84. Or the continuing reflection on social entrepreneurship. It is the calm before the storm. It is a silence that has changed the world many times over.
A question I’m often asked is this, “If he becomes too old, will Pope Francis also resign like Benedict XVI?” I remember the story of St. Ignatius, founder of the Jesuits, when he was asked, “What is the worst thing that can happen to the Society of Jesus?” And he answered, “If God decides that the Society be disbanded.”
And then he pauses, and adds, “But give me 15 minutes to pray in the chapel, and I’ll be okay.”
Because Francis is a son of Ignatius, think of the worst thing that can happen, give him time in the chapel, and he’ll be okay.