475 years ago, St. Ignatius of Loyola became the leader of the Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits. Their motto, Ad majorem Dei gloriam, translates to For the greater glory of God. Over the centuries, the Jesuits have become known for their scholarship and their bold evangelization. (Pope Francis is a Jesuit priest.)
This boldness is no surprise, given their founder. Ignatius of Loyola was a soldier who brought the fervor of battle into his spiritual life. He developed a series of exercises to help the men he led develop in their relationship with God, just as a commander might help those who serve under him to become stronger soldiers. The Spiritual Exercises continue to help Jesuits form their priestly lives. One writer describes this spirituality as practical:
Ignatian spirituality is adaptable. It is an outlook, not a program; a set of attitudes and insights, not rules or a scheme. Ignatius’s first advice to spiritual directors was to adapt the Spiritual Exercises to the needs of the person entering the retreat. At the heart of Ignatian spirituality is a profound humanism. It respects people’s lived experience and honors the vast diversity of God’s work in the world. The Latin phrase cura personalis is often heard in Ignatian circles. It means ‘care of the person’—attention to people’s individual needs and respect for their unique circumstances and concerns.
The Jesuits’ strong desire to evangelize has sent them all over the globe. Many have been martyred in their desire to “set the world ablaze” with Christ, as their founder, St. Ignatius of Loyola, enjoined them. Fr. Walther Ciszek, S.J., an American, joined the Jesuits in the early 20th century. He volunteered to go to Russia, even as the Soviet regime was taking control. It was not an easy time for the young priest.
He didn’t mind the hard work and harsh conditions of that camp in the Ural Mountains. But he was frustrated and disillusioned to find no outlets for his priestly ministry. It was “almost a non-apostolate,” he said, for even the Catholic workers feared Communist informers and refused to speak or hear of God. And so, as Ciszek and a fellow Jesuit said their furtive Masses in the forest, he wondered: “Have all my work and sacrifices been for nothing? Should I give up?”
He needn’t have worried. Ciszek was soon arrested as a spy, and sentenced to the infamous Siberian Gulag for 15 years. It was here that Ciszek found his mission field.
[I]n this nightmare realm, Fr. Ciszek knew the joy of bringing Christ to his fellow prisoners. In secret, he baptized, heard confessions, tended the sick and dying, gave homilies and retreats, said Mass, and distributed Communion. With quiet heroism, he built “a thriving parish,” though it cost him. He was punished with assignments to the dirtiest work. He shoveled coal for fifteen hours straight, hauled logs out of a frozen river, crawled through dangerous mine tunnels, and dug sewer trenches with a pickaxe in subzero temperatures.
“How did you survive?” people asked him later. “God’s providence,” he always replied. And abandoning himself to this providence — to God’s will, as revealed in each day’s situations — was his priority.
Many people, including lay persons, have over the centuries found Ignatian spirituality helpful in their own lives. The many brave Jesuit priests stand as awesome examples of awareness of Christ in the world and a strong desire to serve others.