Francis in conversation with Jesuits in Portugal
by Antonio Spadaro, SJ
On August 5, 2023, during his apostolic journey to Portugal for World Youth Day, Pope Francis met with Jesuits at the Colégio de São João de Brito, a school run by the Society of Jesus. He arrived at 5 p.m. and was greeted by the provincial, Fr. Miguel Almeida. “Holy Father, dear Pope Francis, first of all we thank you from the bottom of our hearts for taking the time in such a full and busy schedule to be with us. Thank you for being with your brothers; we really feel we are all brothers.” He then briefly described the province. “Historically,” he said, “we are an ancient province; we have been expelled from Portugal three times and as many times we have returned. They say that weeds never die out… Maybe due to being expelled, we became a province short of money, and historically we have had a strong missionary character. And it seems to me that two things in particular are part of the identity of the province: first, creativity. Perhaps this is because we have had to adapt so many times. And secondly, our works are informal, small, but always close to the people. I think this is a characteristic of our pastoral work, and we consider it a great grace. We are just over 130 companions. Eighteen are not yet ordained, and as many have not yet made their final vows. There are almost 40 in formation. In the European context, we can thank God; we are really grateful to him.” He then presented the ministries of the Portuguese province: education, university pastoral work, parishes, social work, and engagement with the world of culture. He then spoke about how the Ignatian community and its many friends, colleagues and benefactors share the mission and are a grace for the province.
Finally, he spoke about the Jesuits and the Jesuit communities. There is a good environment, but “it is true that some relationships among us have been strained. We have had some crises that have caused deep wounds in some of us. That is why I ask you to pray for us, because we are in a process of forgiveness and reconciliation, and it is not easy; we are all human.” The pope responded:
Thank you for everything, but especially for the last thing you said, admitting that “Yes, there are problems here, too,” and so you gave a touch of reality. Otherwise it would have been a description of a museum, where everything is in order and placed on display. I thank you for that, for the realism. Thank you for being here. I am ready to dialogue with you. Ask me questions! Ask whatever you want. Do not be afraid to be imprudent in your questions. If nothing else, I will tell you what is on my mind! Really, let’s have a fraternal and open dialogue.
From those words spontaneous questions flowed:
Hello, Holy Father, my name is Vasco, I study philosophy. I am the youngest in the province, and that is why I was asked to speak first: the last will be first! I would like to ask you a question. Faced with the challenges of our generation, looking at our sexualized, consumerist society, according to your experience as a Jesuit, do you think our formation is structured to face these challenges? And how can we always best take care of our formation as Jesuits at the affective, sexual, bodily levels?
You’re actually asking two questions, aren’t you? In fact, one statement and one question. We live in a worldly society, which worries me a lot. It worries me when worldliness makes its way into consecrated life. Just today a letter I wrote to the priests of Rome about clericalism, which is a form of worldliness, was made public. Look, spiritual worldliness is an often recurring pitfall. You have to learn to distinguish: it is one thing to prepare for dialogue with the world — as you do with dialogue with the worlds of art and culture — it is another thing to compromise yourself with the things of the world, with worldliness.
I was deeply struck by the conclusion of a book by Father de Lubac: he dedicates the final four pages of Meditation on the Church — it’s only four pages, read it — to spiritual worldliness. Have you who do discernment ever questioned yourselves about your own personal spiritual worldliness? Am I worldly, spiritually? That is a question I leave you with. And do you know what de Lubac says? He says that this is the worst evil that can penetrate the Church, worse even than in the era of the libertine popes.
Be careful, though: we need to dialogue with the world for we cannot live as though preserved like pickled food. We must not be introverted religionists, smiling inwardly, talking inwardly, protecting our environment without engaging with anyone. We have to go out into this world with its values and faults. And in a way, you pointed out the problem of the easy life, the bourgeois life, even an “eroticized” life, as you call it, and it’s true.
This past year I gave a speech – or, rather, I spoke briefly, and then they asked questions – to all the priests working in the Curia. Most of them are young. And at one point I said to them, “Here is something that hasn’t been mentioned, the use of cell phones and pornography on cell phones. How many of you watch pornography on your cell phones?” After I said that, they told me that one commented, “You can see that he has spent hours in the confessional.”
When I was a novice, they used to talk to us about chastity, holy chastity. They used to ask us not to be looking at pictures that were a little bit racy… I mean, those were other times, times when the problems were not so acute, and when, moreover, they were hidden. Today, thank God, the door is wide open, and there is no reason for problems to remain hidden. If you hide your problems, it is because you choose to do so, but it is not the fault of society, or even your religious community. That’s one of the current virtues the Society has: it does not shelve problems; it talks about them. You talk both with your superiors and among yourselves.
Today the serious problem is about the hidden refuges of self-seeking, which many times involve sexuality, but also other matters. What to do? I find help in the examination of conscience, as St. Ignatius asked. St. Ignatius dispensed from this obligation very rarely. He dispensed you from prayer if you were sick, if you couldn’t pray, but he didn’t dispense you from the examination of conscience, because its aim is to see what’s going on inside you. And there are consecrated people who have their hearts exposed to the four winds, with their windows open, their doors open. In short, they have no internal consistency.
To what you ask. I answer, “Ask yourself a question: what spirit moves me? What is the spirit that habitually moves me, and which one moves me today or moved me that other day?”
I am not afraid of sexualized society. No, I am afraid of how we relate to it. I am afraid of worldly criteria. I prefer to use the term “worldly,” rather than “sexualized,” because the term encompasses everything, for example, the eagerness to promote oneself, the eagerness to stand out or, as we say in Argentina, to “climb.” Remember that those who climb end up hurting themselves!
My grandmother, who was a wise old woman, told us one day, “In life you have to progress, buy land, bricks, a house…” Clear words, they came from the experience of an immigrant. Dad was an immigrant, too. “But don’t confuse progressing,” Grandma added, “with climbing. In fact, he who climbs goes up, up, up, and instead of having a house, setting up a business, working or getting a position, when he is at the top the only thing he shows is his butt.” This is wisdom.
Good evening, Your Holiness, again many thanks. My name is Lorenzo and I work with children and youth in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Lisbon. You have spoken many times about how important closeness and friendship with the poor and migrants are. I would like to ask you what we Jesuits can do personally and in our communities so that our way of life and our witness will be more and more a prophetic sign, so that we have a greater impact in the lives of the poorest. Thank you.
Work with the poor, which is implicit in the Ignatian Formula, has followed various paths, various tracks in the Society. There have also been some mistakes, but it has been a very intense search, especially over the last century.
I remember that in Argentina when I was a student, one of the fathers went to live in a villa miseria, and they looked at him a little sideways, as they did with Father Llanos in Madrid. He was considered a madman. Now that is no longer the case. Today we see that spirituality itself is leading us in that direction, toward an engagement with those on the margins, not only on the margin of religion, but also on the margin of life.
Then, in the time of Father Janssens, there came the centers for research and social action, which at that time opened a beautiful path of reflection, and finally came direct “insertion,” the choice to live with poor people. So I mentioned that priest, one of those who had the courage to become inserted. Today insertion among the poor helps ourselves, evangelizes us. St. Ignatius calls us to make a vow not to weaken the rules concerning poverty in the Society, but rather to make them stricter. In this there is an insight, a spirit of poverty that I think we must all have.
In short, what is there in Ignatian spirituality? Yes, there is the option for the poor and to accompany the poor. But is it the only way in which social justice is achieved? It is not the only way. There are a thousand ways to approach social problems. Insertion probably has a wonderful authenticity because it means sharing. And it allows us to know and follow the wisdom of the people.
Let me tell you something. I liked to go to the villa miseria when I was archbishop. One day I visited there, John Paul II was very seriously ill. I took the bus to go to one of the villas, and when I arrived, they told me that the pope had died. I celebrated Mass with the people, and then we stopped for a talk. An old lady asked me, “Can you tell me how they elect a pope?” I explained, “And you, can they make you pope?” I said, “They can make anyone pope.” She replied, “I’ll give you a piece of advice: if they make you pope, buy yourself a little dog.” “Why?” I asked her. “Feed the little dog first,” she replied. The old woman was poor, from a villa miseria, but she knew a lot about the facts of the Church….
This is an interesting thing. The poor have a special wisdom, the wisdom of work, and also the wisdom of taking on work and its condition with dignity. When the poor become enraged because they cannot stand their situation – and that is understandable – then resentment and hatred can set in. That, too, is our job. In accompanying them, we must prevent the poor from becoming overwhelmed. We must work with the perspective of helping them walk, to make progress and to recognize their dignity. There are serious problems in poor neighborhoods, which are no more serious than those that sometimes exist in other residential areas, except that these remain hidden.
There are serious problems, but there is also a lot of wisdom in people who live by their work, who have had to emigrate, who suffer, and you can see it in how they endure illness, how they endure death. Ministering to the people is an enrichment, and so those of you who are called to do it, put your hearts into it, because it is a good for the whole Society.
Pope Francis, I would like to ask you a question as a religious brother. I am Francisco. Last year I spent a sabbatical year in the United States. There was one thing that made a great impression on me there, and at times made me suffer. I saw many, even bishops, criticizing your leadership of the Church. And many even accuse the Jesuits, who are usually a kind of critical resource of the pope, of not being so now. They would even like the Jesuits to criticize you explicitly. Do you miss the criticism that the Jesuits used to make of the pope, the Magisterium, the Vatican?
You have seen that in the United States the situation is not easy: there is a very strong reactionary attitude. It is organized and shapes the way people belong, even emotionally. I would like to remind those people that indietrismo (being backward-looking) is useless and we need to understand that there is an appropriate evolution in the understanding of matters of faith and morals as long as we follow the three criteria that Vincent of Lérins already indicated in the fifth century: doctrine evolves ut annis consolidetur, dilatetur tempore, sublimetur aetate. In other words, doctrine also progresses, expands and consolidates with time and becomes firmer, but is always progressing. Change develops from the roots upward, growing in accord with these three criteria.
Let us get to specifics. Today it is a sin to possess atomic bombs; the death penalty is a sin. You cannot employ it, but it was not so before. As for slavery, some pontiffs before me tolerated it, but things are different today. So you change, you change, but with the criteria just mentioned. I like to use the “upward” image, that is, ut annis consolidetur, dilatetur tempore, sublimetur aetate. Always on this path, starting from the root with sap that flows up and up, and that is why change is necessary.
Vincent of Lérins makes the comparison between human biological development and the transmission from one age to another of the depositum fidei, which grows and is consolidated with the passage of time. Here, our understanding of the human person changes with time, and our consciousness also deepens. The other sciences and their evolution also help the Church in this growth in understanding. The view of Church doctrine as monolithic is erroneous.
But some people opt out; they go backward; they are what I call “indietristi.” When you go backward, you form something closed, disconnected from the roots of the Church and you lose the sap of revelation. If you don’t change upward, you go backward, and then you take on criteria for change other than those our faith gives for growth and change. And the effects on morality are devastating. The problems that moralists have to examine today are very serious, and to deal with them they have to take the risk of making changes, but in the direction I was saying.
You have been to the United States and you say you have felt a climate of closure. Yes, this climate can be experienced in some situations. And there you can lose the true tradition and turn to ideologies for support. In other words, ideology replaces faith, membership of a sector of the Church replaces membership of the Church.
I want to pay tribute to Arrupe’s courage. When he became superior general, he found a Society of Jesus that was, so to speak, bogged down. General Ledóchowski had drafted the Epitome – do you young people know what the Epitome is? No? Nothing remains of the Epitome! It was a selection of the Constitutions and Rules, all mixed up. But Ledóchowski, who was very orderly, with the mentality of the time, said, “I am compiling it so that the Jesuits will be fully clear about everything they have to do.” And the first specimen he sent to a Benedictine abbot in Rome, a great friend of his, who replied with a note: “You have killed the Society with this.”
In other words, the Society of the Epitome was formed, the Society that I experienced in the novitiate, albeit with great teachers who were of great help, but some taught certain things that fossilized the Society. That was the spirituality that Arrupe received, and he had the courage to set it moving again. Somethings got out of hand, as is inevitable, such as the question of the Marxist analysis of reality. Then he had to clarify some matters, but he was a man who was able to look forward. And with what tools did Arrupe confront reality? With the Spiritual Exercises. In 1969 he founded the Ignatian Center for Spirituality. The secretary of this center, Fr. Luís Gonzalez Hernandez, was given the tasks of traveling around the world to give the Exercises and to open this new panorama.
You younger ones have not experienced these tensions, but what you say about some sectors in the United States reminds me of what we have already experienced with the Epitome, which generated a mentality that was all rigid and contorted. Those American groups you talk about, so closed, are isolating themselves. Instead of living by doctrine, by the true doctrine that always develops and bears fruit, they live by ideologies. When you abandon doctrine in life to replace it with an ideology, you have lost, you have lost as in war.
Holy Father, you are for me the pope of my dreams after the Second Vatican Council. What do you dream of for the Church of the future?
There are many who question Vatican II without naming it. They question the teachings of Vatican II. And if I look to the future, I think we have to follow the Spirit, see what it tells us, with courage. Last week I read the document that takes stock of the state of the Society of Jesus, De statu Societatis. It talks about today, but always with openness. It indicates the possibility of moving forward, the need to continue on that path. So, my dream for the future is to be open to what the Spirit is telling us, open to discernment and not caught up with functionalism.
I am well aware of Arrupe’s “testament” delivered when in Thailand he addressed the Jesuits who were in charge of refugee centers. What did he speak to them about? About prayer. To those people who were completely engaged in working with refugees, he spoke about prayer. On the return trip he had a stroke, so that was his testament.
With prayer the Jesuit goes forward, afraid of nothing, because he knows that the Lord will inspire him in due time as to what he must do. When a Jesuit does not pray, he becomes a desiccated Jesuit. In Portugal one would say he has become a baccalà, a dried and salted codfish.
Your Holiness, thank you very much for coming to visit us. I am Federico, and recently the provincial appointed me novice master. You mentioned the Exercises. St. Ignatius at the beginning describes them as a time to reorder one’s life, not to be determined by disordered affection. What disordered affections do you think are most common in the Church, and especially in the Society?
The letter on worldliness and clericalism was published today. It is these two points that I want to highlight to our clergy. The first is clericalism that creeps into priests, but worse when it creeps into the laity. The clericalized laity are frightening. I respond to you by mentioning these two spirits, worldliness and clericalism, which can do a lot of harm to the Society.
What spirit has moved me? I had a great spiritual master, Father Fiorito, author of many books. It was he who introduced me to the works of an 18th-century spiritual director from the scholasticate of Chantilly, a Jesuit, Father Claude Judde, to whom we owe a very fine text on the discernment of “motive words,” i.e., the words I say to myself to make a decision, or which direct me on one path rather than another.
I come back to this topic. The concern of the great Jesuits about what spirit tends to creep in can be helpful to us. Yes, today you are probably led by the good spirit, and you have to thank the Lord. But tomorrow that other spirit can creep in. Don’t forget the gospel parable. When the bad spirit comes out of a man, he wanders in the wilderness and is bored. Meanwhile, that man begins his conversion, changes everything. After time has passed, the spirit one day says to himself, “I want to see the house I had before again, let’s see what condition it is in.” He looks through the window and can’t believe his eyes: all in order, all clean. So he goes and finds seven worse than him, and with those little devils, with another seven demons, he enters the house. But he enters politely, without being noticed.
Thus, a serious examination of conscience must warn against demons ringing the doorbell, asking for “permission,” looking like nonentities and then taking over the house. Jesus concludes that the man’s condition is ultimately worse than before. In other words, take care not to slip gradually. There is a very beautiful Argentine tango called Barranca abajo, “down the ravine.” When a person starts sliding down the ravine, he is lost. He slides down, and from underneath he draws you, he draws you. Hence the importance of the examination of conscience, so that the “educated” demons do not enter in quietly.
Many people – you may have seen them doing the Exercises, good and zealous people – after some time end up in desolation, they end up living in a worldly way, in a non-Christian way. How did they get there? Because of this lack of introspection, a failure to examine one’s conscience, which is being on the alert to see if there are seven demons, worse than the first one.
That’s why I recommend this: do the examination of conscience seriously. Don’t neglect it, and be honest, because it’s not just about sin – leave that to confession – because the examination is an everyday thing: what happened in my heart today? You must not abandon this practice.
Dear Holy Father, I am Brother Jose, the youngest brother in the Portuguese province. I am 56 years old and have been 32 years in the Society. The Society of Jesus is going through a great crisis of vocations of brothers, all over the world, particularly in Europe, and of course also in Portugal. Right now, according to statistics from the General Curia, brothers make up only 5 percent of the Jesuits in the Society. I would like to ask you: what do you think the Society of Jesus can do in the field of vocations to overcome this crisis and perhaps live in peace, so that we have more young people who want to be Jesuit brothers?
Last year Father General invited me to speak at a gathering of brothers from all over the world. They were really excited not only to live as brothers, but also to make this vocation known. Yes, there was a time when there were many, many brothers in the Society.
When I was provincial, the best reports in view of ordination of a scholastic were given to me by the brothers or women who worked in the formation house. I remember one brother, a true man of God, who hardly ever spoke, performed his duties always with a smile, and prayed a lot. Once I asked him to talk about a case. He came to see me and said, “Look, don’t ordain the scholastic. Don’t send him away, and don’t let him be ordained, just watch.” Six months later the scholastic in question left the Society, because he had not been able to bear not being ordained in the allotted time. He turned out to have a very confusing emotional life.
The brothers have a good eye; they are somehow the memory of the Society, the memory of every day. At La Civiltà Cattolica recently Brother Carlo Rizzo died. How old was he, Antonio? That’s it, 97! And that holy man knew everything that happened to the intellectuals with whom he lived! He served in silence.
I would say that for the vocation of brothers, we do not need to look for candidates – the Lord will take care of that – but we must open the doors to let many young people know of this possibility.
Holy Father, I am João, I hugged you in Rome a few years ago, but I didn’t tell you my name then because I was too excited. I work in the university center in Coimbra. I want to ask you a difficult question. In your speech at last Thursday’s welcoming ceremony here in Lisbon, you said that we are all called as we are, and that there is room for everyone in the Church. I do pastoral work every day with young university students, and among them there are many really good ones, very committed to the Church, to the center, very friendly with the Jesuits, and who identify as homosexuals. They feel that they are an active part of the Church, but they often do not see in doctrine their way of living affectivity, and they do not see the call to chastity as a personal call to celibacy, but rather as an imposition. Since they are virtuous in other areas of their lives, and know the doctrine, can we say that they are all in error, because they do not feel, in conscience, that their relationships are sinful? And how can we act pastorally so that these people feel, in their way of life, called by God to a healthy affective life that produces fruit? Should we recognize that their relationships can open up and give seeds of true Christian love, such as the good they can accomplish, the response they can give to the Lord?
I believe there is no discussion about the call being addressed to everyone. Jesus is very clear about this: everyone. The invited guests did not want to come to the banquet. So he sent out to the streets to call in everyone, everyone, everyone. So that it remains clear, Jesus says “healthy and sick,” “righteous and sinners,” everyone, everyone, everyone. In other words, the door is open to everyone, everyone has their own space in the Church. How will each person live it out? We help people live so that they can occupy that place with maturity, and this applies to all kinds of people.
In Rome I know a priest who works with young homosexuals. It is clear that today the issue of homosexuality is very strong, and the sensitivity in this regard changes according to historical circumstances. But what I don’t like at all, in general, is that we look at the so-called “sin of the flesh” with a magnifying glass, just as we have done for so long for the sixth commandment. If you exploited workers, if you lied or cheated, it didn’t matter, and instead sins below the waist were relevant.
So, everyone is invited. This is the point. And the most appropriate pastoral attitude for each person must be applied. We must not be superficial and naive, forcing people into things and behaviors for which they are not yet mature, or are not capable. It takes a lot of sensitivity and creativity to accompany people spiritually and pastorally. But everyone, everyone, everyone is called to live in the Church: never forget that.
I take a cue from your question and want to add something else that concerns transgender people. The Wednesday general audiences are attended by a Charles de Foucauld sister, Sister Geneviève, who is in her eighties and is a chaplain at the Circus in Rome with two other sisters. They live in a mobile home next to the Circus. One day I went to visit them. They have a little chapel, a kitchen, sleeping area, everything well organized. And that nun also works a lot with people who are transgender. One day she said, “Can I bring them to the audience?” “Sure!” I answered her, “why not?” And groups of trans come all the time. The first time they came, they were crying. I was asking them why. One of them told me, “I didn’t think the pope would receive me!” Then, after the first surprise, they made a habit of coming. Some write to me, and I email them back. Everyone is invited! I realized that these people feel rejected, and it is really hard.
Hello Your Holiness! I am Domingo. I am beginning the regency stage of formation. You always ask us to pray for you… Could you share with us what weighs most on your heart at this time? What is it that pains you the most? On the one hand, what is weighing on your heart, and on the other hand, what joys are you experiencing at this time?
The joy that I have most at present comes from the preparation for the synod, even though sometimes I see, in some parts, that there are shortcomings in the way it is being conducted. The joy of seeing how from small parish groups, from small church groups, very beautiful reflections emerge and there is great ferment. It is a joy.
In this regard I want to reiterate one thing: the synod is not my invention. It was Paul VI at the end of the Council who realized that the Catholic Church had lost the sense of synodality. The Eastern part of the Church maintains it. So he said, “Something must be done,” and he created the Secretariat for the Synod of Bishops. From then on there has been slow progress, sometimes imperfect progress. Some time ago, in 2001, I participated as president delegate in the synod dedicated to the bishop as a servant of the Gospel of Jesus Christ for the hope of the world. At the time when I was preparing things for the vote on what had come from the groups, the cardinal in charge of the synod said to me, “No, don’t put that in. Take it out.” In short, they wanted a synod with censorship, a curial censorship that blocked things.
On the route there were these imperfections. They were many, but at the same time it was a path that was being traveled. When fifty years had elapsed since the creation of the Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops, I signed a document drafted by theologians who were experts in synod theology. If you want to see a good result after fifty years on the road, look at that document. And in the last 10 years we have been continuing the progress, until we reach, I think, a mature expression of what synodality is.
Synodality is not about going after votes, as a political party would. It is not about preferences, about belonging to this or that party. In a synod, the principal figure is the Holy Spirit. He is the protagonist. So you have to let the Spirit lead things. Let him express himself as he did on the morning of Pentecost. I think that is the strongest path.
Speaking of concerns, of course one thing that worries me a lot, without any doubt, is war. Since the end of World War II, all over the world, wars have never ceased. And today we see what is happening in the world. It’s useless to add more words.
Thank you very much, Your Holiness, for coming to Lisbon. My name is Francisco, too. You have really changed the environment of this city and this country, and I would say of the whole Christian world. I was one of the last three to take final vows. I feel very much the awareness of working alongside you. So I ask you: what is our mission as a Church, as a universal Society, and as a Portuguese province? What role do we have in reaping the fruits of this World Youth Day? Things are really changing; people are really getting excited: what do we need to do in order not to miss the great opportunity the Church has given us?
The World Youth Day involves many Portuguese youth. You must welcome the restlessness of young people generally and help them develop it, so that that restlessness does not turn into a memory of the past. In other words, restlessness must be allowed to develop little by little. World Youth Day is a planting in the heart of every young man and woman. And so it cannot end up becoming the memory of a past feeling. It must lead to a fruitful outcome and that is not an easy thing. I ask you to continue, with the young people who are here, but also with those who have not participated. Here the water has been agitated, and the Holy Spirit is taking advantage of it to touch hearts. Each of these young people comes out different; this diversity must be maintained. And now it is your turn: accompany them so that the diversity is maintained and grows. It is time to cast your nets, in the gospel sense of the image.
Thank you, Holy Father, for coming!