The silence at the heart of Pope Francis’s Jesuit identity

For thirty seconds, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims were silent in St. Peter’s Square at the request of the newly … Continued

For thirty seconds, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims were silent in St. Peter’s Square at the request of the newly elected Pope Francis. It was a stunning move by a man whose ascension to the papacy has shocked an institution that has seen it all.

But if you knew anything about Jorge Maria Bergoglio’s religious order, the Society of Jesus, this call for silence made perfect sense.

The Jesuits—the shorthand name for the society—are men who are formed by silent, disciplined prayer.

Their worldwide leader, Father Adolfo Nicolas, recently said that the Jesuits and their companions ought to “be the silence the world hates.”

This lack of silence, Nicolas argues, is leading to a globalization of superficiality—an era in which depth of thought and the authenticity of human relationships is slowly being short-circuited by a combination of rapid social connectivity and a dizzying pluralism of choices and opportunities.

Of this era, Nicolas says:

When one can access so much information so quickly and so painlessly; when one can express and publish to the world one’s reactions so immediately and so unthinkingly in one’s blogs or micro-blogs; when the latest opinion column from the New York Times or El Pais, or the newest viral video can be spread so quickly to people half a world away, shaping their perceptions and feelings, then the laborious, painstaking work of serious, critical thinking often gets short-circuited.

[When] one can “cut-and-paste” without the need to think critically or write accurately or come to one’s own careful conclusions. When…the ugly or unpleasant sounds of the world can be shut out by one’s MP3 music player, then one’s vision, one’s perception of reality, one’s desiring can also remain shallow.

When one can become “friends” so quickly and so painlessly with mere acquaintances or total strangers on one’s social networks – and if one can so easily “unfriend” another without the hard work of encounter or, if need be, confrontation and then reconciliation – then relationships can also become superficial.

As a young priest for the Society of Jesus, Bergoglio fought against this emerging dictatorship of superficiality by leading hundreds of first-year Jesuits on a thirty day silent retreat, a retreat he himself has made at least two times in his life.

In this retreat, which is required for all Jesuits, the participants pray the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, which train people to carefully discern the quiet presence of God in all the gritty experiences of daily living.

This goal of finding God in all things is the trademark of Jesuit spirituality and at the heart of the new pope’s worldview.

His episcopal motto in Latin expresses this: miserando atque eligendo—which loosely translates to “lowly, yet chosen.”

For Jesuits—and in fact—all Christians, the God who created us is intimately caught up in the details of our life. He is especially close to his children when they suffer or are oppressed.

Jesuits are men who live with the world. The early Jeronimo Nadal said it well “[Jesuits] are not monks! The world is our house!”

And Jesuits continually offer a gift to this world of ours: silence.

Silence is the beginning remedy to this emerging dictatorship of superficiality—which is being fueled by life’s ever-increasing pace.

In a world that leaves precious little room for religion or authentic human relationships, silences gives breathing room for God, for prayer and for community.

The silence the Jesuit named Francis called for yesterday was pregnant with meaning for me. In that intimate moment, I felt so clearly God’s closeness to his human family through our new Holy Father.

And Francis is clearly just that: holy. His closeness with all of us during these days of great trial and possibility is so clear.

Yes, Holy Father, as you asked: I’m praying for you

I stand with you and with people of all different traditions, willing to work with you to make of this blessed, but broken world of ours something all the more blessed still.

Christopher Hale is a co-founder of Millennial, a digital journal dedicated to lifting up the voices of young Catholic intellectuals in the public sphere. He did national Catholic outreach for the president’s re-election campaign. Educated by Jesuits, he graduated from Xavier University in 2011. Follow him on Twitter @chrisjollyhale.

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  • RealHumanism

    Wow. What I read in this piece struck me in my core. It resonated. And rings true. Powerful ideas about the risk of drowning (or at least being cast adrift) in superficiality. Makes me want to do the Spiritual Exercises. Seriously!

  • An-Toan

    Yes, our contemporary ways of life are replete with dukkha.

    Sanskrit word: duhkha (Theravada Buddhism)

  • Lynne Golodner

    This is a powerful, poignant column and I couldn’t agree more. Some of what you say is the universal truth of all faiths, diving beneath the superficial surface to find truth at the depths. This is where all people, Catholic and otherwise, are united. Thank you! I’ll be referencing you in a blog of mine soon (