Pope Francis’ Formation

by on June 1, 2015

Much has been said about the fact that Pope Francis is not only the first Jesuit pope but that he is also the first pope from Argentina.  However, what specifically about being a Jesuit and being from Argentina informs Francis’ way of proceeding as pope?  Of course, a full answer to this question would require an entire book.  A few words are in order here to show that, while Francis’ formation as a Jesuit certainly plays a very large role in his interior life during his papacy, the main reason why Pope Francis proceeds the way that he does is due to his lived experiences as a bishop and archbishop in the slums of Buenos Aires.  In this way, Pope Francis is like Pope John Paul II, who made significant efforts to bridge the divide between Catholics and Jews principally because of his lived experiences during the Holocaust in Poland.  In the same manner, Pope Francis is making concerted efforts to reach out to the dispossessed because of his lived experiences in the slums of Buenos Aires.

Perhaps the clearest example of how Pope Francis’ Jesuit formation comes through in his actions is his very close adherence to Ignatian indifference.  Indifference in this case is not meant to be taken in the literal sense of the word where one simply does not care about the end result of a decision.  Rather, Ignatian indifference is to be understood as one being interested in serving God and the people of God first and foremost and, accordingly, one being willing to do anything or go anywhere if doing so would best serve those ends.  This indifference is the focus of one of the main parts of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.  As an ordained Jesuit, Pope Francis would have made the Exercises twice and, as a former novice master, would have directed numerous other people who were making them.  Thus, he would be very familiar with them and, in particular, the section where Ignatius instructs the retreatant to meditate on the following: “[In order] to praise, reverence, and serve God…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…”[1]

Not surprisingly, Pope Francis has been frequently praised for his detachment from worldly things and for his strong desire to do what is in the best interests of the people of God.  Paul Valley, in his excellent book Pope Francis: Untying the Knots, notes that “what shines through [for Pope Francis] is that he is a pragmatist rather than an ideologue.” The Pope’s former student in Argentina, Humberto Miguel Yanez commented that, when Pope Francis was provincial of the Jesuits in Argentina, he adopted the pre-Vatican II styles of worship, discipline and theology because he genuinely believed that they were more helpful to the people under him than the newer methods.  However, when Francis became the archbishop, his priorities had changed and he realized that the pre-Vatican II styles did not serve the people of Argentina as well and so he dropped them.  Thus, Francis was able to undergo this significant change because he wants, more than anything else, to serve God and His people.

However, despite the obvious influence Jesuit spirituality has on him, Pope Francis has had a somewhat acrimonious relationship with the Jesuits.  In the twenty-one years that Francis served as a bishop in Argentina, positions that required many trips to Rome, he never once stayed in a Jesuit house when he came to that city.  Further, when Francis left the Jesuits in 1992 to become a bishop, he was viewed by his fellow Jesuits as a pragmatist but also someone that liked to meddle in small things.  How, then, did Francis go from being that person to being the pragmatist pope that lamented that the church had become a place of small things?

This change happened because Pope Francis left the Jesuit community in 1992 and went to work in the slums of Buenos Aires and was, accordingly, more than a passive observer to the suffering that went on there and saw, first hand, the disastrous economic consequences of the 2001 Argentine default.  The interior work that Francis did before he became a bishop prepared him and allowed him to become the man that he is today.  However, it was living in the daily environment of the poor in Buenos Aires that solidified the man that Pope Francis is today and is, in some respects, more responsible for him being the pope that he is than his Jesuit formation.

Perhaps the most significant thing that Pope Francis learned when he was a bishop in Argentina was to appreciate that, while sin certainly resides in poor behavior by individuals, there is also sin that is systemic in institutions and in nations as a whole and that it is this systemic sin that needs to be addressed before one can realistically begin to address individual sin.  No event brought this reality home to Francis more than the collapse of Argentine economy in 2001.  Argentina defaulted on its 94 billion in international debt and fifty percent of the country was reduced to living in poverty.  Through this crisis and the events leading up to it, Francis was able to recognize that what was really at the root of the situation was a system that “produced poor people so that then the Church can support them.”[2] Thus, what matters is not the attempt to rectify small things that are peripheral to an individual’s chance at having a full life but rather to go after the big issues that have created the system in the first place.

[1] Mullan, Elder. The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. New York: P.J. Kennedy and Sons, 1914. 23.

[2] Valley, Paul. Pope Francis: Untying the Knots. London: Bloomsbury, 2013. 117