Thanks for all the messages on this feast of St Ignatius….. I have fond memories of celebrating this feast in Tanzania in recent years with our pupils, and in India with the Dalits, and in Manchester with some of the students. This year seems special, here at St. Beunos, in North Wales, directing the 30 days – in the silence of the Exercises, at the beginning of the Second Week. Now our retreatants are praying for a growing interior knowledge of Christ. Having meditated on the Call of the King they are now contemplating, step by step, the life of Jesus. After the intensity of the First Week it is a rich and vivid journey they are making, using imaginative contemplation. If we are to remember Ignatius for anything – it is not necessarily for the Jesuits, for our works, for the apostolates – Ignatius knew that we are founded to serve the church, to help souls. Famously Ignatius said if we were to be disbanded it would take 15 mins in the chapel for him to reconcile himself to that.
The heart of St Ignatius is found most clearly in making the Exercises. That is a legacy of his that we can never lose. This uniquely transformative tool that has changed so many lives. And in the privilege of giving the exercises, I feel very close to him. One of the things we are encouraged to do is review our own notes of the Exercises we made in Tertianship. I was in Manila – three years ago – and during the second week I read a biography of St Ignatius by the Basque Historian José Tellechea Idígoras. It is the best biography I have read. I have been thinking a lot over the past few days about how Ignatius would ‘give’ the Exercises. There were no retreat houses in his day, no en-suite facilities! He would invite someone he had got know, for whom he thought it would be profitable. They would often stay in a spare room in his house and he would meet them after dinner to listen, to help and then set them points for the next day. Maybe we need to renew that practice ourselves….. and then there is beautiful description Idigoras leaves us with of Ignatius…. you can imagine him towards the end of his life…. perhaps leaving the house after having met his exercitant….
He wore a simple austere cassock and fought off the cold with a large cloak. When he left the house he wore a voluminous cape and a broad brimmed hat with attached chords that he tied to his chin. It was impressive to see him walking in the street. He was always going, because of some business, to some specific place or to see some particular person. At this period in his life his fair hair had disappeared, he was bald and wore a short beard from which loomed an aquiline nose and high cheekbones. His complexion had become darker, weather-beaten, perhaps even yellowish because of his liver ailment? His countenance, serious and peaceful, was the image of circumspection and a life lived interiorly. Some found it particularly luminous and expressive. His eyes which at one time had been sparkling and bright were now blurred by work, old age and copious tears. They had lost their gaiety but not their penetrating force. He seldom looked at people straight on. When he did, however, people said he took in the person from head to toe. His gaze seemed to have the power of seeing straight through a person right into his heart.
Reading the wonderful interview that Pope Francis gave to Thinking Faith and other Jesuit journals last week – what comes across is the great freedom with which he speaks and also the humility with which he looks back on his past. There is an interesting parallel between him and St Ignatius the founder of the Jesuits. When we were Jesuit novices we had seminars on what is referred to as the ‘autobiography’ of Ignatius. This was written towards the end of his life, somewhat reluctantly, Ignatius was wary of vainglory. He had been urged by the young members of his new order to leave them an account of his life before he died, he seem to avoid it, but eventually he submitted and dictated his memories to a young Jesuit – Goncalves de Camara.
At a time when saint’s lives where often written after their death by their adoring followers, the literary style was usually hagiographic. Emphasising their virtues, downplaying or ignoring their vices, often from a desire to inspire devotion – the result was that the Saints lives didn’t seem very human, or distant from what many of experience in normal life. Ignatius is determined in his autobiography to do the opposite – he wants to show young Jesuits and also those who read about his life, about his mistakes and how God has worked through them and transformed him. Some historians even think that de Camara ‘toned’ down some of the passages, particularly of Ignatius as a young man in order not to cause a scandal.
Pope Francis’s interview comes across in a similar tone. He speaks frankly, and without excuses or self pity about the mistakes he made as a young Jesuit. He was put in as a provincial in his thirties, a very young age, and in his own words ‘My authoritarian and quick manner of making decisions led me to have serious problems’ How refreshing it is to hear the Pope talk in such ways. Francis talks about a period of ‘great interior crisis’ in Cordoba– – again mirroring Ignatius who went through great spiritual turmoil in Manresa after his initial conversion and overly zealous ways. I am convinced that in life we often learn more about ourselves through failure than success – as long as we are supported through our failures in a loving environment. Both Francis and Ignatius give testament to this, and theirs is the ultimate loving environment – an regular, deep and intimate prayer life. This is how grace works through weakness. This is easy to forget when we have an education system that is obsessed with measurable success.
If you have a bit of time – read the Pope’s interview – and if you are too busy, make time!!
English: Manchester University Logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
So it has been announced publicly now that my next job is to be chaplain at Manchester University. I will be moving in sometime by the end of this week. I will be on my own till Christmas and then 3 other Jesuits will join me. It is a very exciting new mission, with a conglomeration of over 85,000 students (the biggest in Europe I’ve been told) and 400-600 coming to the Sunday evening mass. Outside the chaplaincy is also the busiest bus stop in the country (foot-fall wise) with more than 2000 passengers embarking and disembarking an hour, so we really are in the thick of it. Fantastic! Many of mates think it is hilarious that a scouser and Liverpool fan is going to Manchester to be chaplain, but as I said on local radio yesterday, over the last 20 years us Liverpool fans have had to learn humility, which is a good quality for a chaplain. I hope that brought a smile to a few Mancunian faces…. Daniel into the lions den!
Probably by advent we will be taking back the Holy Name Church (next door to the chaplaincy) as the Oratorians will move to their newly founded oratory nearby. We owe them a huge debt of gratitude as in essence they saved the Church. Last week a national newspaper reported that Roberto Mancini (Man City manager) is a regular mass attendee click here, so I will have to exercise restraint in the pulpit! At the back of the church is a beautiful copy of the Rubens painting of St Ignatius and St Philip Neri, the founder of the Oratorians (see right). They were great friends and St. Philip encouraged a number of his own disciples who displayed a desire for missionary work to become Jesuits. Philip was fascinated with the plans of St. Francis Xavier, whom he befriended before the latter set off on his missionary journeys. Ignatius used to pass along the letters of St. Francis reporting back to Rome, which Philip and his companions would read and discuss together in community. However, Philip was told by a wise Trappist that “Your India is to be Rome.”, a city which is always in need of missionary and reforming zeal! We owe a great debt to Father Ray Matus and his companions for all the work they have done in Manchester and I hope we can keep the spiritual synergy going!