In a letter to Cardinal Juan José Omella Omella, Archbishop of Barcelona, Pope Francis discusses St Ignatius’ conversion, and the gift of his Spiritual Exercises to the modern world.

By Joseph Tulloch

Exactly five hundred years ago on Monday, St Ignatius arrived in Barcelona, a city which played an important role in his formation.

To mark the occasion, Pope Francis sent a letter to Cardinal Archbishop Juan José Omella Omella of Barcelona, in which he examines the saint’s conversion and his famed Spiritual Exercises.

Setting the scene

Pope Francis began his letter by vividly evoking the event being commemorated.

Five hundred years ago today, he wrote, “Our protagonist, having served the king and his convictions to the point of shedding his blood, was wounded in body and spirit, had stripped himself of everything, and was determined to follow Christ in poverty and humility.”

“It mattered little to him,” the Pope continued, “whether he stayed in houses for the poor, or had to withdraw into a cave to pray, and least of all that this meant being ‘esteemed vain and mad’ (S.E. 167).”

Despite these inauspicious beginnings, however, the Pope noted, “five centuries later the civil and religious authorities of that region … are coming together in an institutional way to celebrate that event.”

War and plague

St Ignatius lived, like us, in a time of war and plague, Pope Francis said, and it is significant that God used both of these to call Ignatius to conversion.

“It was the war that brought him out of the siege of Pamplona and was the trigger for his conversion, and the plague that prevented him from reaching Barcelona and kept him in the cave of Manresa.”

“This is a great lesson for us,” said the Pope, one which should inspire us to take the wars and plagues of our time “as an opportunity to reverse the course we have followed so far and invest in what really matters, whatever the field in which we operate.”

“Through crises,” he continued, “God tells us that we are not the masters of History, with a capital letter, not even of our own histories, and although we are free to respond or not to the calls of His grace, it is always His design of love that directs the world.”

Ignatius’ gift to the world

St Ignatius responded to this call, Pope Francis said. Importantly, however, “he did not keep this grace to himself, but saw it from the beginning as a gift to others, as a way, as a method.”

The Pope compared this technique – St Ignatius’ famed Spiritual Exercises – to “other itineraries of perfection, such as the twelve degrees of humility of Saint Benedict, the Mansions of Saint Teresa, or more simply those proposed to us by the beatitudes or the gifts of the Holy Spirit.”

The Spiritual Exercises, like each of these other spiritual pathways, is “presented to us as that Jacob’s ladder which leads from earth to heaven, and which Jesus promises to those who sincerely seek Him.”