Faith & Life


With a Jesuit in the seat of Peter, the world is looking at the famous order with renewed interest

By Patrick Mott, Editor, Orange County Catholic     5/25/2015

On the morning of May 10, one of the world’s most famous communists sat down across a small desk from Pope Francis. After chatting amiably with the pope for nearly an hour, Cuban President Raul Castro emerged and expansively told a clutch of reporters that he was so impressed with the pontiff that he was considering resuming a long-dormant prayer life and might even return to the Church.

Quite a statement coming from a former revolutionary. But the deck may have been stacked.

“I had a very agreeable meeting this morning with Pope Francis,” Castro told the press. “He is a Jesuit, as you well know. I am, too, in a certain sense because I was always in Jesuit schools.”

Just a couple of fellow Jesuits happily swapping stories.

You can chalk it up to the Francis Effect, but just about any Jesuit will tell you there’s something more at work. Because since the founding of the Society of Jesus in the early 16th century by Saint Ignatius Loyola, Jesuit priests and brothers have enjoyed a unique status in the Church and in society. The English historian Jonathan Wright describes the order in his book “God’s Soldiers: Adventure, Politics, Intrigue and Power—A History of the Jesuits”

“They have been urbane courtiers in Paris, Peking and Prague, telling kinds when to marry, when and how to go to war, serving as astronomers to Chinese emperors or as chaplains to Japanese armies invading Korea. As might be expected, they have dispensed sacraments and homilies, and they have provided educations to men as various as Voltaire, Castro, Hitchcock and Joyce. But they have also been sheep farmers in Quito, hacienda owners in Mexico, wine growers in Australia, and plantation owners in the antebellum United States. The Society would flourish in the worlds of letters, the arts, music and science, theorizing about dance, disease, and the laws of electricity and optics. Jesuits would grapple with the challenges of Copernicus, Descartes, and Newton, and 35 craters on the surface of the moon would be named for Jesuit scientists.”

And, not incidentally, Jesuits—known everywhere as educators—run 28 colleges and universities in the United States, including Georgetown, Fordham, Gonzaga, Boston College and all those Loyolas.
One of the most visible Jesuits in the Diocese of Orange is Father Robert Spitzer, S.J., the retired president of Gonzaga University who currently is the president of the Magis Center of Reason and Faith on the Christ Cathedral campus, a nonprofit he founded and that is dedicated to developing educational materials on the complementary nature of science, philosophy and faith. Orange County Catholic asked Father Robert to provide a clearer picture of his famous order, particularly in light of the fact that one of their number is Pope Francis.

What makes a Jesuit 
a Jesuit?

Jesuits were originally structured around a vow of mobility. Originally a lot of the more contemplative groups pretty much had various places where they would locate, but the Jesuits pledged that they would do anything or go anywhere where the need was the greatest and where the pope wanted us to go. And so we had this idea of the magis, which literally means ‘the even more.’ That’s a huge animating spirit, and Saint Ignatius Loyola put it this way: if you want to know what you’re to do with your life, the first question is, ‘What is the greatest universal need for the Church, for the Kingdom of God?’ Number two: ‘Is anybody else really doing it?’ So if somebody else is doing it, great—we don’t need to do it. We need to do things that nobody else is doing or wants to do. And the third thing he said is, ‘Do you have enough qualifications to do this well?’ And so if the answers are yes, yes and yes, basically that’s the spirit that moves the magis, that’s the spirit that moves the Jesuit. I think Saint Ignatius Loyola wanted people who would be really responsive like that but who also wanted to be companions of Jesus, who wanted to follow Jesus with a truly humble heart, with a truly compassionate heart. He wanted them to be companions of Jesus and wanting to serve the Church—ad majorem Dei gloriam, for the greater glory of God. And that’s going to lead us into the world of the intellectual life, it’s going to lead us into the world of evangelization, it’s going to lead us into the world of the poorest of the poor, it’s going to lead us into all kinds of interesting worlds where the magis needs to be served in accordance with the compassion and humility of Jesus.

There’s an old saying that a Jesuit’s ordination is a reward for a lifetime of service. Why such a long and involved period of formation?

Saint Ignatius Loyola really wanted to make sure that we were formed well enough to be free to serve wherever the highest need called us. First of all, Jesuits are meant to interact with the culture. So our whole objective is to meet the culture where it is, to meet the evangelization effort wherever it is. And if you’re going to meet the culture, you have to speak the culture’s language. You have to have the culture’s categories. And at the Magis Center of Reason and Faith, what we’re constantly doing is that we speak science, we speak philosophy of science, we speak about the issue of consciousness. That’s where the culture is. The rubber’s going to meet the road with atheism, agnosticism, secularism, materialism, nihilism and all the other ‘isms’ that are really perplexing not only our young people but our adults as well. So what’s that going to require? That’s going to require a really strong ground in your spirituality, including the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius. That’s the novitiate, the first period of our formation. The second [period] is, you’re going to have to really know and understand not only philosophy in the traditional sense…but in addition to that we want to know, where is the culture? What’s the culture saying? What are the competitors? Where do we have to match wits? What do we have to do? And in order to do that you really do have to get a very broad and deep philosophical background of knowledge to defend the faith, as well as the sciences and the humanities. Pope Francis, for example: he had a master’s degree in chemistry. He was in the sciences, he was already at that juncture. Then, of course, there’s our regency, which sounds to a lot of people like just going to work at a high school or college or some other apostolate for a few years. Why do you do that? Because, of course, Saint Ignatius wanted us to [confront the question], ‘Can you handle just being a servant of God 24/7 where people are constantly knocking on your door and trying to get you to go to the next level for them?’ Do you have the collegiality? Do you have the relationship ability and also the learning and the theoretical ability? It’s a test, but it’s also a test for you to see if the Jesuit vocation is yours. And finally, there’s theology. We require four years of it, of course, because of the grounding. And many, many Jesuits go on for a Ph.D., though they do so after ordination. So it’s a pretty long formation, but it’s worth every minute of it.

Is it easy to spot Pope Francis as a Jesuit?

If Pope Francis is not a man of the magis, the ‘even more,’ I don’t know who is. If he’s not a man who’s asking himself those three questions, especially what’s the greatest universal need… He knows he’s got to bring a lot of people who have been disenfranchised or feel disaffected back into the Church. This man is reaching out a lot to do that. It’s got magis written all over it. The second thing is that he is definitely asking himself, ‘Is anybody else doing this?’ I think he feels that he’s filling in a gap that needs to be filled in and, of course, he does have the qualifications. And the companionship with Jesus—humble, compassionate—does he have that? Absolutely. He reaches out to the poorest of the poor. The man really is amazingly humble. And in the midst of all of that, he just loves being with people where they are. So those elements are there. And of course he’s accomplished. He has not only an Argentinian education, he has an education from Europe as well. He’s had a lifetime of experience as a superior and an administrator. He’s no person’s fool. The best of the Jesuits and the best of the Ignatian spirit is definitely within him.

What effect has Francis had on Jesuit vocations?

There’s no doubt that he has influenced an upsurge of vocations in the Jesuits. I think a part of it is his example. Another part is that he appeals to the heart of younger people who want lives of service and especially want lives of service to the magis—ad majorem Dei gloriam. I think they want that. And Jesuits are always looking for people who are going to be flexible and adaptable. We have these vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and obedience by far—to me, anyway—is the toughest. Can a person follow a superior’s order to do the magis? Pope Francis exemplifies this par excellence.

That humility thing…

Father James Martin, S.J., in his book “The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything,” relates a well-known joke among Jesuits about their struggles with humility, in which a Jesuit, a Franciscan and a Dominican die and go to heaven:
They are ushered into God’s throne room, where God is seated on an immense, diamond-encrusted gold chair. God says to the Dominican, ‘Son of Saint Dominic, what do you believe?’ The Dominican answers, ‘I believe in God the Father, Creator of heaven and earth.’ God asks the Franciscan, ‘Son of Saint Francis, what do you believe?’ The Franciscan says, ‘I believe in your son, Jesus, who came to work with the poor.’ Finally God turns to the Jesuit, and from his great throne asks, ‘Son of Saint Ignatius, what do you believe?’ The Jesuit says, ‘I believe…you’re in my seat.’”