The church of St Ignatius in central Rome boasts a frescoed ceiling by the Jesuit brother Andrea Pozzo, that celebrates the work of the saint and of the Society of Jesus throughout the world: Ignatius is being welcomed into paradise by Christ and the Virgin Mary, surrounded by allegorical representations of Europe, Asia, Africa and America, the four continents known at that time.
During Ignatius’ time, the known world expanded by an astonishing degree: Ignatius was born in the year before the arrival of Columbus in America, and during his year in Manresa, Magellan circumnavigated the world for the first time. So did Ignatius’ plans: at first he was convinced that God was calling him to spend his life as a pilgrim in the Holy Land, living off alms, but this slowly changed as he discovered that his call was a universal one.
This change was based on his conviction that his master’s mission was truly universal. Christ came to save the whole world, and the last mission he gave his small group of disciples sounds unbelievably bold: ‘Go and teach the Gospel to all nations’. To choose to be one of Christ’s disciples means sharing in this universal mission, and that is the origin of Ignatius’ phrase that the more universal an initiative is, the closer it is to the divine will, hence the more divine.
So when he founded the Jesuit order, Ignatius gave it a clearly universal mission: he placed himself and the Jesuits at the total disposal of the Pope, the one who has the responsibility for the universal Church, and at the time of his death there were Jesuits in all the continents depicted on the San Ignazio ceiling. This option was never easy to carry out, for the world and its needs are very diverse while the numbers and abilities of Jesuits are never enough. Yet the Jesuits and those who follow in the steps of St Ignatius still endeavour to be faithful to this universal understanding of mission.
Those who follow what is happening at the Jesuit General Congregation <gc36.org> know that after electing the new superior general, the congregation is now grappling with issues of governance: how to best organise its leadership structures to be able to carry out its universal mission, a theme that resurfaces in every congregation.
Sometimes the fast pace of change and the complexity of the world around us can feel intimidating for us who live our daily normal lives, which usually seem anything but universal. Universality lies more in our hearts than in our actions: are my concerns bigger than my immediate surroundings, or do I feel unable to feel for anything that lies beyond my small world? Ignatius spent all of the last eighteen years of his life in a few small rooms in central Rome, yet his heart was wide open as he sent out the members of his young order far and wide.