Pope Francis and the Purification of Heroic Desire

It is the duty of pastoral homiletics to call the faithful to heroic virtue. Virtue itself, to be sure, is a core fruit of receiving the Gospel, but, at times, we need to hear the call to heroic virtue; that is, we must know that the next “hurdle” or “obstacle” to self-mastery will require a kind of effort that echoes the energies of epic heroes or modern superheroes. Great writing and preaching can inspire us to “pick up the Cross” or “run and not grow weary” in the face of spiritual or moral challenges.

A contemporary example might be in the area of conjugal ethics. A couple could understand the Church’s teaching on natural family planning but not trust their own ability to resist the use of contraception at certain times. Overcoming the urge for conjugal union during fertile periods may seem impossible without a “call to arms” from the pulpit, the spiritual director, the confessional, or the retreat master. Thus, inspiration from another’s words can galvanize the will of the married couple so that they try for conjugal virtue in human acts of continence that they never thought they could muster. In the end, proper pastoral homiletics can foster acts that lead to heroic virtue in married life.

A contemporary theological example of this type of exhortation is in the final chapter of Pope St. John Paul the Great’s encyclical Veritatis splendor. Having explained the necessity of the Church’s teaching about intrinsically evil acts at the core of a renewal of moral theology, the Pope looks to the martyrs as the icon of the type of heroic behavior necessary for living the moral demands of the Gospel. He writes, “The Church proposes the example of numerous saints who bore witness to and defended moral truth even to the point of enduring martyrdom, or who preferred death to a single mortal sin. In raising them to the honor of the altars, the Church has canonized their witness and declared the truth of their judgment, according to which the love of God entails the obligation to respect his commandments, even in the most dire of circumstances, and the refusal to betray those commandments, even for the sake of saving one’s own life.”1 In calling our attention to the martyrs, the holy pope-saint encourages us to strive for the highest level of heroism if that is what it takes to obey the commandments in certain challenging situations.

Thus, when the Church of the New Millennium heard John Paul the Great exclaim, “Do not be afraid to be the saints of the New Millennium,”2 we heard the call of one saint to his future fellow-sojourners of heaven: Do not be afraid of that heroic virtue that will be necessary to get to heaven! But was that all that was being said from the Magisterium at the dawn of the New Millennium? Were we only being called to heroic virtue, and was this alone enough for sanctity?

Recently, certain signs from important voices in the Church have suggested that, although virtue remains the goal, the desire for heroic virtue may need purification if it is to be authentically holy. In this essay, I suggest that certain sectors of the Church have gotten “caught” in an imperfect desire for heroism that has prevented the perfection of holiness from taking root. I will explain the source of this diagnosis, the model saint for this illness and its cure, and some texts from the current Magisterium that explain and develop this cure.

The Diagnosis

The diagnosis of a current spiritual defect in the Church today comes from a source whose credibility and authority seems to be growing more and more significant with each passing day. We look to the man who has resurrected the beauty of Catholicism for so many in the world today — especially in America. We look to Bishop Robert Barron, the source for the highly successful ten-part documentary entitled Catholicism, the founder of Word on Fire ministries, and now the auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles.

The rise to stardom and internet-based notoriety of Bishop Barron is notable and, perhaps, unprecedented for an American bishop. When Barron first met Pope Francis, the Holy Father exclaimed, “Ah, the great preacher, who makes the airwaves tremble!”3 The praise was not without merit. According to John Allen, “in the English language, after Pope Francis, Barron is the most-followed Catholic figure on social media.”4 His success has nothing to do with any type of cult of personality; rather, he is a straightforward and down-to-earth thinker who engages his interlocutors in respectful dialogue that leads the mind carefully yet ineluctably to the truth in Christ. Having spent years in online evangelization as well as priestly formation, Barron carries a significant gravitas when it comes to all things Catholic. It is to an intriguing statement from him about a current “generation” of Catholics that I now turn.

In a recent biography of Bishop Robert Barron, the bishop describes what he calls “the shadow side of the John Paul II generation.”5 He states: “I know this generation well from my many years of teaching at Mundelein [Seminary], and I admire this coterie of young people immensely. But I’ve noticed that they have a hard time dealing with moral and spiritual failure, with not living up, at every moment, to the heroic ideal.”6 This “spiritual diagnosis” seems to describe a weakness in the life of faith of some of us who have received the call to holiness in “the John Paul II generation.”7 Eager to achieve heroic virtue, we may have had difficulty embracing God’s mercy in the face of our own failures.8

In order to see how the current pontificate may be offering a solution to this spiritual malaise, I propose that we first examine the life and thought of the saint who most fully engaged this spiritual challenge.

The Life of St. Ignatius of Loyola

When it comes to men seeking the “heroic ideal,” there are few pre-conversion saints who resemble this description more than St. Ignatius of Loyola. A fervent soldier, Ignatius cultivated a desire for “worldly heroism” early in his life. Listen to his biography (dictated more or less by Ignatius himself toward the end of his life):

Until the age of twenty-six he was a man given up to the vanities of the world, and his chief delight used to be in the exercise of arms, with a great and vain desire to gain [honor]. And so, being in a stronghold which the French were attacking, and with everyone being of the opinion they should give themselves up and save their lives (for they saw clearly that they could not defend themselves), he gave so many arguments to the commandant that even he persuaded him to make a [defense].9

From this first story of his life, we already see the desire for military greatness combined with a “vain” desire to win a name for himself as being “militarily great.” His desire for heroism is both noble and ignoble simultaneously.

Nevertheless, at this stage of his life, the double-edged sword of this desire remains hidden to him. It is in convalescence after a war wound at the battle of Pamplona that he first becomes aware of the need for what will ultimately be called “Ignatian discernment.” While lying in bed, Ignatius imagines living out two types of lives from two different textual sources (books of knightly heroism and the lives of the saints). Thus, on the one hand, he was “absorbed in thought . . . for two and three and four hours without noticing it, imagining what he was to do in the service of a certain lady: the means he would take so as to be able to reach the country where she was, the witty love poems, the words he would say to her, the deeds of arms that he would do in her service.”10 Then, on the other hand, “while reading the lives of Our Lord and the saints, he would stop to think, reasoning with himself: ‘How would it be, if I did this which St. Francis did, and this which St. Dominic did?’”11

Discernment is born when Ignatius realizes that “from some thoughts he would be left sad and from others happy.”12 While both paths (knight and saint) originally seem to lead to happiness, Ignatius realizes that only one of them is the true path for him. And so, he converts to a life ordered to sanctity: “And here the desires to imitate the saints were occurring to him, not considering details beyond promising himself, with the grace of God, to ‘do it as they had done it.’”13

But here we should pause. Is Ignatius’s newfound desire to become a saint a pure desire for holiness? Given the original detail from his biography, might we not ask if his desire for holiness is not still tainted in the same way that his original desire for heroism was? That is to say, perhaps there is at this point in his quest for sanctity a simultaneous goal of fame and the “glory” that comes from success.

In fact, the autobiography suggests that this problem was very much at work in Ignatius:

He was resolved, as has been said, to do great penances, with an eye at this point not so much to making satisfaction for his sins as to pleasing and being agreeable to God. And so, when he would make up his mind to do some penance that the saints did, his aim was to do the same, and more besides. And in these thoughts he had all his consolation, not considering anything within himself, nor knowing what humility was, or charity, or patience, or discernment in regulating and balancing these virtues. Rather, his whole purpose was to do these great exterior deeds because so the saints had done them for the glory of God, without considering any other more individual circumstances.14

In this stage of his spiritual journey, Ignatius does not lack zeal for sainthood. Nevertheless, there is in this zeal a kind of rivalry with the saints — “to do the same, and more besides.” The autobiography reads from the standpoint of the dying Ignatius, master of discernment by then. It notes that he did not yet know “what humility was, or charity, or patience, or discernment in regulating and balancing these virtues.” From this passage, we see how the desire for sainthood in imitation of saints must itself be purified and developed. It must pass through stages of growth so as to obtain virtues such as humility, charity, patience, and discernment. Without this development, the contrast between the saintly ideal and one’s sinful reality can be devastating.

To see how this was so for Ignatius, we can consider one key example. At a key stage in his spiritual development, Ignatius experiences scruples to such a high degree that he is tempted to commit suicide. Seemingly, he avoids this tragic end only because he was “mindful that it was a sin to kill oneself.”15 He tries everything to solve this problem, even starvation: “He would neither eat nor drink till God did something for him or death seemed as near as could be.”16 But the scruples return . . .

Thus, Ignatius’s desire for sanctity is not free from a “perfectionism” that has devastating effects on his soul. Ignatius’s scruples reflect the “shadow side” of striving for heroic virtue: when striving for the heroic ideal can get “crossed up” with the rejection of divine mercy.

The Spiritual Exercises

It is to the Spiritual Exercises that we would have to turn to see how the mature Ignatius had been able to cultivate the proper virtues and regulate the desire for holiness effectively toward sainthood. Although a thorough study of the Exercises is well beyond the scope of this essay, a few passages are notable for our purposes.

Consider, as starters, a gem towards the end of the Exercises: “We must be on our guard against making comparisons between those who are still living and the saints who have gone before us, for no small error is committed if we say: ‘This man is wiser than St. Augustine,’ ‘He is another St. Francis or even greater,’ ‘He is equal to St. Paul in goodness and sanctity,’ and so on.”17 Here the saint has clearly perceived that imitation of the saints cannot be one of rivalry. It must be one in which the soul asks for the gifts that God wishes to bestow on him. What are some of the principles that he found helpful in regulating this potential rivalry?

First, Ignatius states as primary and fundamental that “man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul.”18 A man’s goal is not to attain some title, rank, or prestige, even if “saint” is the title one might get for “saving one’s soul.”

Next, “we must make ourselves indifferent to all created things, as far as we are allowed free choice and are not under any prohibition.”19 This is the principle of Ignatian indifference; it is the opposite of becoming a saint on one’s own terms. Thus, Ignatius defines spiritual exercises as “every way of preparing and disposing the soul to rid itself of all inordinate attachments”;20 the exercises are the path to indifference.

Moreover, once the inordinate attachments are removed, exercises are to help us in “seeking and finding the will of God in the disposition of our life for the salvation of our soul.”21 Although there is no shirking from the call to heroic virtue here, the exercitant is challenged to realize his path to holiness according to the specifics of his own situation: “in the disposition of our life.” Remember that Ignatius originally wanted to do what Francis did, to act like Dominic, or even to surpass them all. The spiritual exercises, on the other hand, accept the uniqueness of each individual. There is no need to blindly copy or outdo other saints, for God has a unique plan for each individual soul.

At the same time, Ignatius never abandons imitation of holy models — especially Christ — as the way to holiness. Most of the spiritual exercises entail a contemplation of some aspects of the Gospel so that the exercitant might gain some fruit. Always, though, the exercise begins with a request for “what I desire.”22 The uniqueness of one’s own journey is always highlighted in light of the imitation so that any pitfalls from comparison or rivalry can be avoided.

Furthermore, Ignatius frequently teaches that, though the Holy Spirit causes holiness, the enemy of human nature seeks to propose a counter-model of desire. The exercises train us to be aware of the devil’s tricks in the call to a vocation, in desolation and even in consolation. Ignatius understood that Satan masquerades as an angel of light in all aspects of the spiritual life. Every newly encountered good — even a desire for the good found in another saint — needs to be sifted through discernment.

It was, in fact, discernment, that eventually solved Ignatius’s scruples problem. In the autobiography we learn that since Ignatius “had now had some experience of the difference in kind of spirits through the lessons God had given him, he began to mull over the means through which that spirit had come. As a result he decided, with great clarity, not to confess anything from the past any more. Thus from that day onward he remained free of those scruples, holding it for certain that Our Lord in his mercy had willed to liberate him.”23 This classic example of awareness, understanding, and action shows how the saint-to-be was able to practice “Ignatian discernment” so as to overcome one particular symptom of the “shadow side” of the desire for sainthood.

One final example from Ignatius’s massive warehouse of spiritual advice allows us to see concretely how his own experience allowed for a critical take on the desire for heroic sanctity. Consider part nine in the discernment of spirits. Here Ignatius suggests reasons why a soul might fall into desolation. The first one is certainly punitive: “We have been tepid and slothful or negligent in our exercises of piety, and so through our own fault spiritual consolation has been taken away from us.”24 This makes sense to anyone, it seems, who holds to a reasonable sense of justice; we get good gifts from God but can lose them if our behavior is not worthy of His favors. That being said, if this is the only reason why we encounter spiritual desolation, then we will only be able to rely on our will to stay out of it; heroism would be the only solution to spiritual difficulties.

In fact, the second reason for desolation seems to imply this very idea. “The second reason is because God wishes to try us, to see how much we are worth, and how much we will advance in His service and praise when left without the generous reward of consolations and signal favors.”25 Struggles and trials test and purify the soul; spiritual heroism seems central to winning these battles against desolation.

But then comes the third reason, and this turns the table on the desire for heroism:

The third reason is because God wishes to give us a true knowledge and understanding of ourselves, so that we may have an intimate perception of the fact that it is not within our power to acquire and attain great devotion, intense love, tears, or any other spiritual consolation; but that all this is the gift and grace of God our Lord. God does not wish us to build on the property of another, to rise up in spirit in a certain pride and vainglory and attribute to ourselves the devotion and other effects of spiritual consolation.26

The final lesson of desolation is that we are to understand all of our good experiences in the spiritual life as gifts of God. In fact, this is not a lesson for training the will at all; to some extent, it renders all attempts at heroism moot. The final — and perhaps most important — lesson of our experience of spiritual desolation is to realize that the only true hero in the spiritual life is God Himself.

And here we find ourselves on a theme that thoroughly permeates the Spiritual Exercises. In the contemplation for obtaining divine love, one begins by thinking first of all of that which God has done for him.27 In the daily examen, we begin first with a recollection of the gifts we have received from God that day.28 Even the meditation on Hell is meant to produce “confusion” regarding the immensity of grace.29 How could God let me sin at least two times (if not a thousand or a million times), while the angels only got one shot?! This confusion leads the exercitant to glimpse the unimaginable mercy of God. Once a soul has landed here, it is impossible to become discouraged in failure in the spiritual or moral life. Failure, in a sense, is the norm for fallen human nature. Any success is cause for thanksgiving.

To clarify in summation: Ignatius continually encourages battle and heroism in the fight against desolation; however, he is always alert to the fact that it is God who gives the power for heroic virtue and God who can refuse to give certain powers30 for any of several reasons, especially if a soul is seeking his own glory rather than God’s.

All of this is, in a sense, summed up in the famous motto of Ignatius. At the core of an improper desire for heroism of any kind (even heroic virtue or sanctity) is the desire to win glory for oneself. If one could simply do all things for the glory of God, the problem would be solved. Indeed, if we strive ad majorem dei gloriam, how can we fail?

Pope Francis and the Ignatian Moment

Since Francis is the first pope in history from the Society of Jesus, it is appropriate to ask if these Ignatian insights are not key to his own diagnosis and cure for “the shadow side” of contemporary Catholicism. I answer in the affirmative and cite as the most effective proof-text his most recent apostolic exhortation. In Gaudete et Exsultate, Pope Francis launches head-on into the desire for holiness and the complications that can ensue when desire is mediated by role models.

On the one hand, he situates the call to holiness within the context of an imitation of the saints. He begins with Sacred Scripture and states that “the Letter to the Hebrews presents a number of testimonies that encourage us to ‘run with perseverance the race that is set before us’ (12:1).” He lists a few holy people from the Old Testament mentioned in the letter and then makes clear that “above all, [the letter] invites us to realize that ‘a great cloud of witnesses’ (12:1) impels us to advance constantly towards the goal. These witnesses may include our own mothers, grandmothers, or other loved ones (cf. 2 Tim 1:5).”31 Naturally, the Pope also notes that the saints show “an exemplary imitation of Christ, one worthy of the admiration of the faithful.”32 Moreover, even in our own time, without official canonization, “the Holy Spirit bestows holiness in abundance among God’s holy and faithful people.”33 In this light, the Holy Father offers us a glimpse of his own spiritual exercise: “I like to contemplate the holiness present in the patience of God’s people: in those parents who raise their children with immense love, in those men and women who work hard to support their families, in the sick, in elderly religious who never lose their smile.”34

This approach reflects a trust in the process through which Ignatius himself came to conversion. The Pope asks us to recuperate from our own “battle of Pamplona” by reading the lives of the saints . . . even in the holiness of our next-door neighbor. This discipline promises to spur us on to holiness in imitation of those whom we admire and contemplate.

On the other hand, Francis notes that the mediation of the holy ones can cause conflict for us the imitators, or at least an obstacle to one’s complete spiritual path to holiness. He notes that “we should not grow discouraged before examples of holiness that appear unattainable. There are some testimonies that may prove helpful and inspiring, but that we are not meant to copy, for that could even lead us astray from the one specific path that the Lord has in mind for us.”35 It is precisely in striving to imitate the saints perfectly — or heroically — that we may end up in trouble; this, we saw, was Ignatius’s own experience from which he eventually drew forth wisdom in cultivating the Spiritual Exercises. And, following the saint, Pope Francis calls us to discernment: “The important thing is that each believer discern his or her own path, that they bring out the very best of themselves, the most personal gifts that God has placed in their hearts (cf. 1 Cor 12:7), rather than hopelessly trying to imitate something not meant for them.”36 Francis shows us a path to holiness that is free from the competitive or self-aggrandizing distortions that impure heroic desire can produce.

But there is more. Continuing to address the problems that emerge from a kind of misplaced heroism on the road to sainthood, the Holy Father suggests that we discern to what extent we are aware of grace in our lives. Are we, on the contrary, succumbing to neo-Pelagian tendencies wherein we think that our will alone is sufficient — and grace unnecessary — for our sanctification?

Quoting his first apostolic exhortation, Pope Francis writes: “Those who yield to this Pelagian or Semi-Pelagian mindset, even though they speak warmly of God’s grace, ‘ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style.’ When some of them tell the weak that all things can be accomplished with God’s grace, deep down they tend to give the idea that all things are possible by the human will, as if it were something pure, perfect, all-powerful, to which grace is then added. They fail to realize . . . that in this life human weaknesses are not healed completely and once for all by grace.”37 Francis seems to be describing pharisaism, the pride of the self-righteous one who looks down on the sinner; however, at the same time, it is also a description of the one who is “too hard on himself,” the one who has a too-difficult time accepting his own faults and failures.

And it is here that we see the Pope directly address what Bishop Barron called the “shadow side” of a current generation of Catholics. Listen to the Pope diagnose this disease: “Ultimately, the lack of a heartfelt and prayerful acknowledgment of our limitations prevents grace from working more effectively within us, for no room is left for bringing about the potential good that is part of a sincere and genuine journey of growth. Grace, precisely because it builds on nature, does not make us superhuman all at once. That kind of thinking would show too much confidence in our own abilities. Underneath our orthodoxy, our attitudes might not correspond to our talk about the need for grace, and in specific situations we can end up putting little trust in it. Unless we can acknowledge our concrete and limited situation, we will not be able to see the real and possible steps that the Lord demands of us at every moment, once we are attracted and empowered by his gift. Grace acts in history; ordinarily it takes hold of us and transforms us progressively. If we reject this historical and progressive reality, we can actually refuse and block grace, even as we extol it by our words.”38 Note that Francis uses the word “superhuman” in this passage, and the connotation of heroism should not be overlooked. This is clearly the description of the “orthodox” soldier of Christ on the road to heroic virtue who, unfortunately, has difficulty accepting his own limitations. This is the same “shadow side” that Bishop Barron diagnosed.

For Francis, the cure to a key contemporary spiritual illness in the Church stems from discerning the Lord’s particular plan for each one of us as well as an acknowledgement that God is the sole “hero” at work in the spiritual life. Both of these points flow immediately from the Ignatian spirituality that we saw earlier and suggest an important “Ignatian moment” for the Church today (even if these ideas have a universal and timeless character to them).

Ultimately, both Ignatius and Pope Francis call us to a self-reflection in which we must ask whether our desire for holiness flows from humility or pride. It is pride which sets us on task to outdo the saints; it is pride which propels our will over others; it is pride which causes us to reject God as the source of our holiness, the font of mercy and grace; and, thus, it is pride that causes us to be too hard on ourselves and others when we set out to become saints of the New Millennium. However, humility opens the door for us to see that the holiness we seek in the saints is nothing other than the living breath of God which He desires to pour into our souls at any moment for our unique and irreplaceable journey to sanctity; above all, it is humility that makes us beggars before God seeking only for His greater glory.

Hear, then, the Pope’s exhortation: “May the Lord set the Church free from these new forms of . . . Pelagianism that weigh her down and block her progress along the path to holiness! These aberrations take various shapes, according to the temperament and character of each person. So I encourage everyone to reflect and discern before God whether they may be present in their lives.”39

In conclusion, Ignatian discernment allows us to purify our call to holiness so that we can truly become saints of the New Millennium. Pastoral homiletics must not cease to call us to heroic virtue; at the same time, exhortation must guide us to heroic humility along the way. We are not called to conquer like Augustus; rather, we are called to repent like Augustine.

  1. Pope John Paul II, Veritatis splendor, no. 91.
  2. Pope John Paul II, “Message of the Holy Father to the Youth of the World on the Occasion of the 15th World Youth Day,” no. 3.
  3. Bishop Robert Barron with John Allen, Jr., To Light a Fire on the Earth (New York: Image Books, 2017), 3.
  4. Barron, Light a Fire, 3.
  5. Barron, Light a Fire, 79.
  6. Barron, Light a Fire, 79.
  7. I am talking about the John Paul II generation . . . not John Paul II himself, who, in his life and teaching, elegantly balanced heroic virtue and abandonment to divine mercy.
  8. The personal pronoun suggests that I include myself among the John Paul II reverts.
  9. St. Ignatius of Loyola, Personal Writings, trans. Joseph A. Munitiz and Philip Endean (London: Penguin Books, 1996), 13.
  10. Ignatius, Personal Writings, 14–15.
  11. Ignatius, Personal Writings, 15.
  12. Ignatius, Personal Writings, 15.
  13. Ignatius, Personal Writings, 16.
  14. Ignatius, Personal Writings, 18–19.
  15. Ignatius, Personal Writings, 23.
  16. Ignatius, Personal Writings, 24.
  17. St. Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises, trans. Louis Puhl, accessed from spex.ignatianspirituality.com/SpiritualExercises/Puhl#section_c2n_ypv_b3, 364.
  18. Ignatius, Exercises, 23.
  19. Ignatius, Exercises, 23.
  20. Ignatius, Exercises, 1.
  21. Ignatius, Exercises, 1.
  22. E.g., see Exercises, 48, 55.
  23. Ignatius, Personal Writings, 24.
  24. Ignatius, Exercises, 322.
  25. Ignatius, Exercises, 322.
  26. Ignatius, Exercises, 322.
  27. Ignatius, Exercises, 233-34.
  28. Ignatius, Exercises, 43.
  29. Ignatius, Exercises, 48.
  30. Ignatius does not deny that God gives sufficient grace for salvation. See, for example, Exercises, 320.
  31. Pope Francis, Gaudete et Exsultate, no. 3.
  32. Gaudete et Exsultate, no. 5.
  33. Gaudete et Exsultate, no. 6.
  34. Gaudete et Exsultate, no. 7.
  35. Gaudete et Exsultate, no. 11.
  36. Gaudete et Exsultate, no. 11.
  37. Gaudete et Exsultate, no. 49. EG 94.
  38. Gaudete et Exsultate, no. 50.
  39. Gaudete et Exsultate, no. 62.
E. Tyler Graham About E. Tyler Graham

Dr. E. Tyler Graham has been teaching high school for 25 years and has a humanities B.A. from Stanford University, an M.A. in religion from Syracuse, an M.T.S. from Ave Maria University, and a Doctorate in Theological Studies from Pontifex University. He currently lives in Ave Maria, Florida, with his wife and children. There, both spouses teach at, and all 6 children attend or have graduated from Donahue Academy, a Catholic classical school.


  1. Avatar Tom McGuire says:

    Well done! Tyler, please keep on writing about Ignatius. Discernment, the missing element in so much of theological certitude that blocks the way to missionary discipleship.