Homily for the Feast of St Ignatius Loyola

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Once he'd been hit by a cannon ball and was laid up in bed, Ignatius became rather expert in the choice offered by Moses to the people. Whether in the big things or little things of life, we have the choice between life and death. Ignatius thereafter always chose life. This was his art of discernment in the midst of the complexities and practicalities of everyday life and administration. And in the spirit of Paul's letter to the Corinthians, everything he did was done 'for the glory of God'.

He was always beavering away at himself, working to become interiorly free, truly indifferent, just as Jesus said to the crowds: 'none of you can be my disciple unless he gives up all his possessions'. He was always on about interior freedom, stripping away any disordered affections. He was not interested in happiness except as a manifestation of that freedom and as a response to the Lord's call.

While working for this deep interior freedom and indifference, he was ever attentive to the practicalities of the moment, being ever prudent. He was not one to build the tower unless he had first sat down and worked out the cost to see if he had enough to complete it. In fact our resident Jesuit historian Peter L'Estrange tells us that 8000 of Ignatius's 10,000 letters sent from his desk in Rome related to finances and the practical preconditions for going ahead with any project.

Ignatius was like the king of the gospels going to war. He would not join forces against his enemy until he had first made the calculations that he could win. He combined discernment and down-to-earth, practical, prudential decision making.

Reflecting on Ignatius in 21st century Australia in the light of today's scripture readings, I wonder about three things: the nature of contemporary leadership; how to be true to Ignatius' vision and rules for thinking with the Church; and how to be truly discerning. I will share a word about all three.

Ignatius was one of history's great leaders when he founded the Jesuits. His detailed Constitutions for the Jesuits set out the need for the Order's leader and the criteria for the leader's choice. The leader was chosen 'to attend to the universal good' holding charge of the whole body, with the duty of 'good government, preservation and development of the whole body'.

Ignatius listed many qualities for the leader, including that the leader: 'be a person whose example in the practice of all virtues is a help to others'; 'be independent of all passions'; 'know how to mingle rectitude and necessary severity with kindness and gentleness'; have 'magnanimity and fortitude' 'to bear the weakness of many'; 'be endowed with great understanding and judgment'; and 'be vigilant and solicitous'. Not only Church and State, but also humanity and the planet, will suffer in the future without such leadership. God knows we need it. Let's pray for it, and let's do something about it.

I am one of those Jesuits who sometimes has been perceived as not being sufficiently loyal to the church hierarchy. From time to time, people of good will have urged me to consider Ignatius' rules for thinking with the Church which are appended to his Spiritual Exercises. The stereotypical view of those rules is often summed up by quoting the first sentence of the 13th rule: 'To keep ourselves right in all things, we ought to hold fast to this principle: What I see as white, I would believe to be black if the hierarchical Church would thus determine it.'

But life was not ever that simple, even in the time of Ignatius. He lived at a time of great theological controversy about the relationship between faith and works, and between grace and free will. Guess what? He did not take sides. He saw some validity in all points of view. The nuance of his mind and the practicality of his pastoral approach are summed up in his more rarely quoted 16th and 17th rules:

16. In the same way we should notice with caution that by speaking much and emphatically of faith, without a distinction and explanation, we may give the people an occasion for growing listless and lazy in their works, either before or after these have been informed with charity.

17. Similarly, we ought not to speak so lengthily and emphatically about grace that we generate a poison harmful to liberty. Hence one may speak about faith and grace, as far as possible with God's help, for the greater praise of his divine majesty, but not in such ways or manners, especially in times as dangerous as our own, that works and free will are impaired or thought valueless.

He saw no place for faith without good works, and no place for grace without the exercise of free will. He was not focused on dogma or pedagogy. He was a pastoral priest anxious to encourage persons of high and low station to exercise discernment in their professional and personal lives. And that brings me to the third topic: discernment.

Pope Francis, the first Jesuit pope, was asked by the Jesuit magazines soon after his election as Pope: What does it mean for you to be a Jesuit and Pope? He spoke about the Ignatian gift of discernment:

I was always struck by a saying that describes the vision of Ignatius: non coerceri a maximo, sed contineri a minimo divinum est ('not to be limited by the greatest and yet to be contained in the tiniest — this is the divine').

I thought a lot about this phrase in connection with the issue of different roles in the government of the church, about becoming the superior of somebody else: it is important not to be restricted by a larger space, and it is important to be able to stay in restricted spaces. This virtue of the large and small is magnanimity. 

Thanks to magnanimity, we can always look at the horizon from the position where we are. That means being able to do the little things of every day with a big heart open to God and to others. That means being able to appreciate the small things inside large horizons, those of the kingdom of God.

For me, this is what the Ignatian vision is about at this moment in the history of the Church and in the history of Australia. We need to be able to attend to the little things but with a grandness of vision, focused on the large horizons, 'those of the kingdom of God'. We need to have an appetite for the big things, but with attention to the little things along the way, being especially attentive to the little people, the poor and marginalised who are so often left behind when bold visions are espoused, with or without theological trimmings.

Pope Francis has continued to put a spring in our step by doing this, most recently with his encyclical Laudato Si'. Consider just this observation from the encyclical:

If we acknowledge the value and the fragility of nature and, at the same time, our God-given abilities, we can finally leave behind the modern myth of unlimited material progress. A fragile world, entrusted by God to human care, challenges us to devise intelligent ways of directing, developing and limiting our power.

Francis has given us such licence to celebrate and enact our interior freedom, committing ourselves to a better world reflecting so many aspects of the Kingdom to come. To those who question Francis' grasp on science, economics or politics, we urge a consideration of Ignatius' 16th and 17th rules.

We thank God that we are part of a discerning Church community led by such a Pope at this time. We commit ourselves afresh to choosing life, to acting for the glory of God, and to discerning the greater good in the midst of the minutiae of our lives, the failings of our church hierarchy, and the vapidity of our national politics — all set against the vast horizon of the Kingdom to come and of the planet crying out for healing.

The above text is taken from Fr Frank Brennan SJ's homily for the Feast of St Ignatius Loyola, Xavier House, Canberra 31 July 2015.

Topic tags: Frank Brennan, Feast of St Ignatius



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Beautifully put, Frank. Thank you. I like the vision of Ignatius: 'not to be limited by the greatest and yet to be contained in the tiniest - this is the divine'. I love the Church, despite failings, and I thank God for that.
Pam | 04 August 2015


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