It is not easy for us to imagine the state of the Catholic Church in Ignatius’ lifetime. It was being torn apart by the Reformation, with people losing their trust and leaving it in droves. One of the reasons was surely the quality of the Church’s leadership: 16th century Popes were often worldly Renaissance monarchs, more interested in patronising the best artists of their times than in reforming the Church.
Ignatius himself had had his own close encounters with the Inquisition, including two brief periods in prison: the Inquisition did not appreciate what it saw as his affront to talk and write about spiritual matters without having studied theology. Years later, presenting his proposals for the new Jesuit order, he met with serious opposition from unfriendly Cardinals, one of whom later became Pope Paul IV.
Yet he was able to look beyond all this and decide to anchor his service to Jesus in the hierarchical Church. When he and his companions had completed their studies, they took a vow that if their first option to go to Jerusalem did not succeed, they would offer themselves to the Pope to be sent wherever he thought best. This is what in fact happened, and it gave rise to the Jesuit order.
This trust was based on Ignatius’ strong belief that between Christ Our Lord, the bridegroom, and the Church, His bride, there is the same Spirit who governs and directs us for the good of our souls.
The most controversial feature of Ignatius’ proposed new order was a special vow of obedience to the Pope. Were not all Catholics bound to obey the Pope anyway? Yet Ignatius wanted his order to be very clearly bound to the person of the Pope, as the one who symbolised the unity and universality of the Church, and who best knew its greatest needs.
For Ignatius the Church was the true Bride of Christ, our holy mother. In our times, so sceptical of all institutions and even more of all organised religion, Ignatius reminds us of this simple truth. The Church is our family, the family of those who believe in Jesus, where we received our faith, and where we are still called to share it.
We all would like our families to be better, perhaps perfect, but we know that if they ever become perfect there would be no place for us who are so imperfect. And beyond the imperfections there is always much joy and life.
In the company of Ignatius, throughout today I will try to think of the Church with gratitude, especially in those places where its members are suffering for their faith.