Pope Francis, it seems, is a popular guy. Many around the world, Catholic or not, look up to and respect him for his humility and simplicity — for breaking tradition by washing the feet of women, Muslims and prisoners on Holy Thursday, for embracing the sick and disabled, for denouncing inequity and championing justice. He has called for the installation of shower facilities for the homeless in St. Peter’s Square while he himself lives in a simple apartment and foregoes many of the trappings of the past.
His popularity is not universal, of course, not even among the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics. But according to a poll released last year by the Pew Research Center, nine out of 10 American Catholics see Pope Francis as compassionate and humble, and more than 80 percent hold favorable views of him. Among all American adults, not just Catholics, 62 percent rate Pope Francis favorably.
To understand the man who humbly leads the world’s largest Christian denomination while serving and speaking for the poor, for refugees, for the imprisoned and even the condemned, you need to begin by understanding his personal faith and spirituality. His approach to prayer and decision-making and his sense of social justice and advocacy stem from a deep place of openness, freedom and surrender to God that are hallmarks of his life as a Jesuit priest. He is, first and foremost, a man for God and others, for both prayer and action.
To understand Pope Francis is to encounter the 16th-century Spanish founder of the Jesuit order, St. Ignatius of Loyola, who was quite literally hit by a cannonball and seriously wounded during a fight against the French in Pamplona in 1521. During his six months of recovery, he experienced a conversion and began a spiritual journey that would lead to becoming a priest, gifted spiritual director and founder of the Jesuit order.
Along the way, Ignatius kept a journal, noting his spiritual insights and those of others. Those notes became the basis of his “Spiritual Exercises,” a manual for prayer, discernment and the spiritual life, and one of the most influential books ever written. Not a 16th-century self-help book, it is, rather, a guide for leading others through a series of meditations, prayers, and mental and imaginative contemplations to discern God’s will and grow closer to him. Traditionally, the exercises take place over the course of a 30-day retreat. The goal was to create not monks but “contemplatives in action” — men and women who reflect deeply on their calling as Christians and are thus moved to action.
At the heart of the Exercises is the idea of “finding God in all things,” and to do so means paying close attention to the world around us and looking for God even where we least expect him and where we might not care to look — in the eyes of the poor, in the hearts of criminals, in our own failings, weaknesses, and addictions. To live by such a contemplative ideal requires a willingness to let go of what we think we want for ourselves and remain open to what God wants to do in and through us.
The Spiritual Exercises were never designed solely for Jesuit priests, however. From the very beginning, Ignatius recognized that not everyone can go away for a 30-day retreat. In one of a series of “annotations” to the Exercises, he suggested a version that allowed people to carry on with their busy lives while they went through the Spiritual Exercises.
In the St. Louis area, these “19th Annotation” retreats “in everyday life” have been offered by the non-profit Bridges Foundation for 30 years and are open to Christians of all denominations. For more information, including a schedule of free information sessions, visit the group’s website: bridgesfoundation.org.
Steve Givens is a spiritual director and published writer on Christian spirituality. He is a member of Incarnate Word Parish in Chesterfield and a trustee of the Aquinas Institute of Theology.