Jesuitizing the Church: Under Francis, Would That Be So Bad?

Francis has made this strategy the most visible difference in the lifestyle he has adopted as Bishop of Rome … rejecting … the “riches and honors” that, over the centuries, have attached themselves to the papal office like barnacles to an unkempt ship.

The word “Jesuit” does not reassure. Its second dictionary meaning is “a crafty schemer, cunning dissembler, casuist … who deliberately uses words to deceive others.”

In fairness, “Jesuit” should stand for persons or practices that follow the principles of St. Ignatius of Loyola, who founded the Jesuit order in 1534. What are those principles, and what is their relevance for the Church today, now that a Jesuit is Bishop of Rome? Especially, as Pope Francis has said, “I feel like I’m still a Jesuit in terms of my spirituality, what I have in my heart. … Also, I think like a Jesuit” (airplane interview returning from Rio de Janeiro, 2013).

1. The “Presupposition” that Ignatius proposes at the beginning of his Spiritual Exercises could serve as a guideline to unify the Church:

Let it be presupposed that every good Christian should be more ready to save his neighbor’s proposition than to condemn it. If he cannot save it, let him inquire how he means it; and if he means it badly, let him correct him with charity. If that is not enough, let him seek all the suitable means to bring him to mean it well, and save himself.

Francis has already shown how he follows this principle in practice. In his 2010 book, Sobre el Cielo y la Tierra (On Heaven and Earth), he says that, when speaking to an atheist, “I would not tell him that his life is condemned, because I am convinced that I have no right to pass judgment on the honesty of the person. Even less so if he shows me human virtues that make people better and are done in goodwill toward me.”

Of gays he said, “If they accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them? They shouldn’t be marginalized. The tendency is not the problem” (airplane interview).

The name for this is “dialogue”—trying to understand rather than condemn. The starting point and goal of the process are the same: love that seeks the other’s good.

Based on this principle that Francis was formed on, there is hope he will urge the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to try to “understand” and “save” what appears to be doctrinal dissent. Frank and open hearings, and friendly dialogue between brothers and sisters can allow even a negative decision to be predominately an experience of love.

2. The “first principle and foundation” for human living is:

Humans are created to praise, reverence, and serve God, and by this means to save their souls. And all other things on the face of the earth are created for humans to help them achieve the end for which they are created. From this it follows that people should use them insofar as they help to achieve this end, and rid themselves of them insofar as they hinder them.

Nothing can be more logical than that. Already the implications for economic justice, responsible technology, and ecology are evident. But Ignatius extends the logic:

For this it is necessary to make ourselves indifferent to all created things … so that, on our part, we want not health rather than sickness, riches rather than poverty, honor rather than dishonor, a long rather than a short life, and so in all the rest; desiring and choosing only what is most conducive to help us achieve the end for which we are created.

This is an inescapable conclusion that would make saints out of all who observe it—and convert the world into a paradise. But not only Christians: Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, everyone who believes humans were created by God for a purpose can embrace it. If accepted in practice, it could bring about peace on earth.

It is evident Francis is not making the lockstep choice to embrace the “riches” of the Vatican “rather than poverty.” Or to accept the “honor” of being Bishop of Rome rather than the ordinariness of being like everybody else. In this, he seems to be “desiring and choosing only what is most conducive for the end” for which he was created by God and elected by the cardinals.

St. Ignatius must be smiling.

3. Assuming responsibility: With these principles as a foundation, Ignatius has us take a deep look at what happens when they are not followed. His genius is that he has us analyze “sin” as it is chosen in three different human conditions. In all three conditions, sin is still sin and still deadly.

The first consideration will be to apply memory to the First Sin, which was that of the Angels, and then to bring in the intellect, discussing it.

We excuse ourselves and others because so often we act out of ignorance. There is truth and justice in doing this. But the bottom line is: we have free will. We can knowingly and deliberately choose what is evil. The angels did, and they were brilliant, pure spirits, not confused about anything. We should not think intellectual enlightenment—or the lack of it—makes us exempt from conscious sin. If we do, we do not know ourselves.

The second point is to do the same—that is, to bring to bear the Three Powers (of Memory, Intellect, and Will)—on the sin of Adam and Eve.

Adam and Eve had bodies and all the natural appetites and emotions we have. But they were free of cultural conditioning. Their society had not “programmed” them to distorted attitudes and destructive ways of behavior. Still, they chose to sin.

We have to recognize cultural conditioning, and allow for the destructive assumptions, fears, and compulsions we grew up with. But we must insist that the fact “everybody” says it, or does it, does not excuse our conformism. Adam and Eve sinned when nobody else had. The bottom line is, it is always our free choice.

When Francis became Bishop of Rome, he immediately broke with the clerical culture, the symbols, costumes, and customs that had been accumulating for centuries. His unspoken message was: “Just because we’ve ‘always done it’ doesn’t make it right to continue.” He broke the chain. If the next pope returns to pomp and protocol, he will not be able to plead obedience to “the way things are done.” He will have to take responsibility for it as his own, personal, individual choice.

About the outcome of World Youth Day, he said: I hope there will be disturbance (lio).  … I want the Church to go out onto the streets, I want us to resist everything worldly, everything static, everything comfortable . …”

The third point is to apply the same process to the particular sin of anyone who for one mortal sin has gone to Hell—and to the sins of many others who have gone to Hell for fewer sins than I have committed.

Let’s not get sidetracked. The question is not whether anyone has ever actually “gone to Hell” for one mortal sin, or for many. We are making an abstract supposition for the sake of what it can tell us about the reality of sin—and about our own reality.

It is no defense that we are “not as bad as others,” or even “better than most people.” The bottom line is, sin is sin. And we have to face the consequences of our own actions. To say, “Relatively speaking, I am not so bad” is shut-eyed blindness. The people I insult or ignore, the poor I exploit in minor ways, are not suffering any less from me because someone else is hurting them more.

Francis has a “good record” as Archbishop of Buenos Aires for his outreach to the poor. But when he washed and kissed the feet of juvenile prisoners in Rome on Holy Thursday, he was begging pardon for the ways he had failed to love. He was not trying to show himself “more humble” or “more loving” than others. He was simply doing what was right, and doing “penance” for all he had done that was wrong.

We need to go and do likewise. Our responsibility is to “love the Lord our God with our whole heart, mind, and will,” and love our neighbor as Jesus has loved us. And—yes, and—do it in the Church, as members of the united Body of Christ, regardless of what we see “the priests and bishops” doing. Their sins do not diminish our sin. We are not excused for denying the faith in principle because they are denying it in action.

Ignatius has us look at different categories of persons who commit sin in order to show us that the bottom line is: sin is sin, no matter who is committing it.

For Ignatius, turning away from sin bears the fruit of truth and love. It puts us into appreciative harmony with God, other people, and the cosmos. His final consideration begins with perspective:

To look at who I am … First, in comparison to all humans. Second, what humans are in comparison to all the Angels and Saints of Paradise. Third, what all Creation is in comparison to God: (Then, I alone, what can I be?) … Fourth, to consider what God is, against whom I have sinned, according to his attributes; comparing them with their contraries in me—his Wisdom with my ignorance; his Omnipotence with my weakness; his Justice with my wickedness; his Goodness with my malice.

Francis has strikingly kept himself, and his new position, in perspective. He avoids referring to himself as “Pope,” because that gives the impression that “Pope” is a higher position than “Bishop.” He insists on seeing himself in perspective as the “Bishop of Rome,” primus inter pares, “first among equals,” who has no sacramental ordination other than that common to all bishops. He even insisted that the Jesuit General Superior address him with the familiar “tu” in Spanish rather than the more formal and respectful “Usted.” He told him, “Treat me as you would any other Jesuit.”

This sense of perspective is unifying. In human relationships, treating people as dignitaries generates distance. Splendor separates. Majesty is foreign to familiarity. The more exalted we see another to be, the more distance it creates between us. But if those we exalt see themselves in perspective—their littleness compared to God and to the whole of creation, the lack of distance between themselves and others when seen from God’s perspective—the sense of perspective unifies.

St. Ignatius sounds like St. Francis of Assisi when he invites us to marvel at how, through God’s mercy, everything now cooperates to “make lonely flesh welcome to creation.”

The fifth point is an exclamation of wonder with deep feeling, going through all creatures, how they have left me in life and preserved me in it; the Angels, how, though they are the sword of the Divine Justice, they have endured me, and guarded me, and prayed for me; the Saints, how they have been engaged in interceding and praying for me; and the heavens, sun, moon, stars, and elements, fruits, birds, fishes, and animals—and the earth, how it has not opened to swallow me up …

Let me finish with a “dialogue of mercy,” pondering and giving thanks to God our Lord that He has given me life up to now, proposing amendment, with His grace, for the future.

Small wonder that Bishop Francis is a champion of ecological responsibility!

4. Dedication to mission: For Ignatius, anyone who does not embrace Christian life as a mission is simply out of the action. In his famous “Kingdom Meditation,” he invites us:

To see Christ our Lord, King eternal, and before him all the entire world. He calls all and each: “It is my will to conquer all the world and all enemies and so to enter into the glory of my Father. Therefore, whoever would like to come with me is to labor with me, that following me in the pain, he may also follow me in the glory.”

The second point is to consider that all those who have judgment and reason will offer their entire selves to the labor.

This is the spirit and soul of the “New Evangelization” that has been recognized as the most urgent task of our day. Apparently, it is a major concern of Bishop Francis.

Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega was so impressed with Cardinal Bergoglio’s intervention during the pre-conclave meetings that he asked for a copy. The text reads:

Evangelizing Implies Apostolic Zeal

1. Evangelizing pre-supposes a desire in the Church to come out of herself. The Church is called to go to the peripheries, not only geographically, but also the existential peripheries: the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance and indifference to religion, of intellectual currents, and of all misery.

2. When the Church does not come out of herself to evangelize, she becomes self-referential and then gets sick … living within herself, of herself, for herself. This should shed light on the possible changes and reforms which must be done for the salvation of souls.

3. Thinking of the next Pope: He must be a man who, from the contemplation and adoration of Jesus Christ, helps the Church to go out to the existential peripheries, that helps her to be the fruitful mother, who gains life from “the sweet and comforting joy of evangelizing.”

Where Ignatius, in the context of  16th century Spain, has Christ saying, “My will is to conquer all the world and all enemies,” Francis offers a modernized, currently relevant call to “go to the peripheries … the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance, and indifference to religion, of intellectual currents, and of all misery.” The words are the words of Francis, but the hand is the hand of Ignatius.

5. The discipleship of prayer: In the “Second Week” of his Exercises, Ignatius instructs us to ask repeatedly “for interior knowledge of the Lord, who for me has become man, that I may love him more and follow him better.” We have just quoted Francis saying that the next pope “must be a man who, from the contemplation and adoration of Jesus Christ, helps the Church to go out.” But he and Ignatius are both saying we must first go in to seek intimate knowledge of Jesus in our hearts before we turn outward to other things. If the Church follows this fundamental principle, we will see teachers in their catechetics giving first priority to personal relationship with Jesus instead of to dessicated doctrines and legalistic law observance. We will see pastors preaching from the pulpit what they themselves have “heard with their ears, and seen with their eyes, what they have looked at and touched with their hearts, concerning the word of life.”

There will be a decrease in moralizing sermons and an increase in homilies that break open the word of God until people feel their hearts “burning within them.” Bishops will be giving creative leadership in taking the Gospel out to “the existential peripheries,” exploring deeply the mystery of sin without simplistic answers, confronting the challenge of pain and injustice in their dioceses, the rising tide of ignorance and indifference to religion, helping their flocks to discern what is both right and wrong in the intellectual currents of our culture, instead of just insisting on a shallow, uncomprehending rote conformity to pat phrases.

All this will be the fruit of “interior knowledge of the Lord.” We will be a Church of disciples committed to learning, through reading, reflection, and lived response, the mind and heart of God.

6. Seeking perfection where one is: As we approach the decisive moment of the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius tells us to “begin contemplating Christ’s life, to investigate and to ask in what life or state his Divine Majesty wants us to serve him.”

And for an introduction to this, we will look at what Christ our Lord wishes for us, and, on the contrary, what the enemy of human nature wishes, and ask how we ought to dispose ourselves in order to come to perfection in whatever state of life God our Lord moves us to choose.

Ignatius is taking for granted we should all “dispose ourselves to come to perfection,” regardless of our state of life. It was another four hundred years before the bishops at Vatican II declared this to be the Church’s perception of Christian life:

Every Catholic must therefore aim at Christian perfection and all, according to their station, play their part so that the Church … may daily be more purified and renewed. (Decree on Ecumenism, no. 4)

Thus, it is evident to everyone that all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of love (The Church, no. 40).

This was one of the major breakthroughs of the Council. If Francis keeps thinking both as a Jesuit, and as a supporter of Vatican II, he will be doubly motivated to focus pastoral ministry less on “keeping in bounds” and more on forward motion toward the goal of the “perfection of love.” Bishops will concentrate more on supporting expression of faith than on supervising repression of error. Everyone—pastors, parents, lay ministers, and every live body in the pews—will be going forward in action rather than backwards in reaction. The Church will come alive.

The young must go out to fight for values. … Faith in Jesus Christ is not a joke, it is something very serious. … It is a scandal: the scandal of the Cross. … Please do not water down your faith in Jesus Christ. … Make yourselves heard. … “What must we do, Father?” Look, read the Beatitudes … read Matthew Chapter 25, which is the standard by which we will be judged. With these two things you have the action plan: the Beatitudes and Matthew 25. You do not need to read anything else. I ask you this with all my heart. (World Youth Day).

7. The secret of strategy: In the “Two Standards” meditation, Ignatius pinpoints in a practical way the strategy of the devil and the strategy of Christ. This is a valuable insight.

Satan’s strategy is:

…first to tempt with a longing for riches—that people may more easily receive the vain honor of the world, and then to increasing pride. So the first step shall be riches; the second, honor; the third, pride; and from these three steps he draws on to all the other vices.

The strategy of Jesus is the exact opposite of this. He sends out his disciples to urge people:

…first to the highest spiritual poverty, and—if his Divine Majesty would be served and would want to choose them—no less to actual poverty; the second is to desire slights and disrespect; because from these two things humility follows. So there are three steps; the first, poverty rather than riches; the second, slights and disrespect rather than worldly honor; the third, humility rather than pride. And from these three steps let them guide people to all the other virtues.

It’s simple. It’s concrete. It’s insightful. And it’s true. Lord Acton rephrased it in his letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887: “All power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Francis has made this strategy the most visible difference in the lifestyle he has adopted as Bishop of Rome. He has rejected, in striking, repeated instances, the “riches and honors” that, over the centuries, have attached themselves to the papal office like barnacles to an unkempt ship. He has made it clear that his goal and desire is to be, live, and act as a poor and humble man. He told journalists: “How I wish for a Church of the poor, and that the Church were poor.” We can assume this was the desire of all our recent popes. But Francis knows, and is using, the means to make it happen. He learned the strategy from St. Ignatius.

Conclusion: These seven principles are only a sample of the spirituality in which Jorge Bergoglio was formed as a Jesuit. But they are enough to give us a deeper understanding of the way he has been acting as “first” among the bishops of the Church—and presumably will continue to act. If he reforms the Church along these lines, perhaps having a Jesuit as Bishop of Rome will not be so bad after all.

Fr. David M. Knight About Fr. David M. Knight

Father David M. Knight is the author of over 50 books on spirituality, and has ministered as missionary, teacher, pastor, professor, retreat director, and campus minister. For the last 40 years, he has focused on a plan for spiritual growth based on the five mysteries of Baptism. See


  1. Avatar Tom McGuire says:

    What a breath of fresh spirit for the Church. People who had no hope for the Church now express a new hope but with a wait and see attitude. The response of all disciples of Jesus Christ will make a difference. Will the new hope turn to an encounter with Jesus or more of the cynicism?

  2. Avatar Martin B. Drew says:

    Father David Knight was my classmate here in Dallas at Holy Trinity elementary and Jesuit High school 1935 -1948. This paper is his usual solid explanation about life in the Church as expressed by Pope Francis and Ignatius in his marvelous Spiritual Exercises which all should read in meditation

  3. Avatar Ted Heywood says:

    Wonderfull, moving thoughts, beautifully written and presented. Could never disagree with any of them in any degree. But, when do you tell the children that they have to be in bed by 10:00PM, do their homework, and clean their rooms when they decide that these are not in keeping with their particular interests?

  4. Avatar Paula Hagan says:

    Thank you Father Knight. This article is the best I have read with regard to deciphering the spirituality of Pope Francis’ words and actions.