Monday, July 31, 2006

Let Me Talk Jesuit Today by Fr. Joaquin Bernas SJ



TODAY IS THE FEAST OF THE FOUNDER OF the Jesuit Order, Ignatius of Loyola. This year in fact is an important date for the Jesuit family. We are celebrating the 450th year since the death of Ignatius and the 500th year since the birth of two of Loyola’s first companions, St. Francis Xavier and Blessed Peter Faber. I trust, therefore, that my readers will not begrudge me the chance to “boast” a little about my religious family and especially about our founder.
The origins of the Jesuit family go back to a 1525 boarding house in Paris, where two young men in their late teens shared a room. One was athletic and outgoing, the aristocratic Spaniard Francis Xavier, the other an introverted nerd, Peter Faber, from a family of French shepherds. The shepherd was the brighter of the two. The two got together very well, no doubt, partly because the brighter student coached the athlete in preparing for his exams.

Little did the two anticipate that their lives would be radically changed by a much older Spanish nobleman with a limp, who joined them as their third roommate. That boarding house produced two saints, Xavier and Loyola, and one blessed, Faber. Few boarding houses can boast of such a record.

This is where my story begins, mainly about that nobleman with a limp. Does he have anything to say to us moderns?

We can look at Loyola as a typical medieval saint, profoundly prayerful, wise in the ways of the spirit, disciplined and a believer in the vanity of the attractions of the world. Saints, because of their rigorous bodily discipline and severity on self, can be unattractive. If this were all that Loyola was, I doubt that he would have attracted the thousands of young men who have followed in his footsteps. I myself, not being very penitential, would probably not have been attracted to join the Jesuits. But even now his power to attract talented young men still remains.

Students of the life of Loyola see in him not just an ascetic but also a man who may in fact have exemplified not a saint characterized by his contempt of the world but one who enthusiastically embraced the world. I must confess to being attracted to this trait. He was not one to exhort his followers to engage in “holy follies.” He did engage in them in the early years of his conversion but he learned from his own experience that extremes can do great harm. Thus among his followers he preached moderation in penances.

If you look at the things he encouraged among his followers, you might even call him worldly. This is why, when you look at many of the things which his Jesuit followers do, you will find them engaged in a big way in matters that are far from other worldly.

Loyola actually started it all. He carved out for himself a path to holiness that would guide the religious order he had founded. When he finally got to write the handbook or “Constitutions for the Order,” he called his approach “nuestro modo de proceder.”

At the center of this “modo” was a vision of a world that is good. On the seventh day, God looked at the world He had created and He saw that it was good. That, too, is how Loyola looked at the world—good and wonderful, filled with the wonder of God.

In his own time, he began sending Jesuits into various parts of the world. He always wanted them to write about their accomplishments in their apostolic endeavors but no less in their worldly undertakings. Thus he received reports about plants and animals they had discovered, about languages and practices they had learned, about the length of days in summer and winter in various places and about their strange discoveries. He took pride in showing these around as part of the total mission of his Order.

Most illustrative of this “worldly” way was the manner in which he and the schools he founded so easily adopted to the ways of the Renaissance. The Renaissance was not just about the art and architecture of the masters. It was a rebirth of the appreciation of the literature of pagan Rome and Greece, which led to attempts to imitate their elegance. Thus in his own time and even into the 20th century, the Greek and Roman classics were studied in Jesuit schools.

Elegance, however, was not sought for its own sake but also for its usefulness in the formation of character and in the quality of oral and written communication. As one historian put it, “Most Renaissance humanists were school teachers or speech and letter writers for civil authorities. Learning to speak and write well, they believed, required studying and imitating the elegance of authors like Cicero and Seneca .... The humanists despised the wooden Latin of the summa in favor of the literary classics of Roman antiquity. They were aficionados of the classics.”

Loyola was also a humanist. He was not just a saint. The word humanist arose in the 15th century when the teachers of classical Latin—in order to distinguish what they were teaching from theology, the study of divinity—called their discipline studia humanitatis. Today, we call it humanities or liberal arts. Ultimately, what I am trying to say to our contemporaries, is that Loyola taught us that embracing the world should be humanizing and sanctifying at the same time.

Published on page A15 of the July 31, 2006 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

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