A new Pope, a new Primate and a new life for Christianity
The power of prayer is bringing Canterbury and Rome together after 500 years
The new Archbishop of Canterbury and new Pope bring renewed hope for the healing of Christianity's wounds
So far, the combined media knowledge of Pope Francis has not been impressive. We, the public, have been told that he likes travelling on public transport, that he played a controversial role among his fellow Jesuits in the years of the Argentine military dictatorships, and that he “is a conservative but cares for the poor” (that “but” tells you the politics of most ecclesiastical reportage). That’s about it.
I know that the Catholic Church is a huge global organisation, so lots of its cardinals, including Pope Francis, have the cheek to come from funny, faraway places. But one feels that if Jorge Bergoglio had been an Argentine footballer rather than an archbishop, plenty of experts would have been on hand to impart useful information. When it comes to religion, our media are very provincial. We project on to it our Western obsessions, which are mainly sexual. We are alarmed by its breadth and its depth.
Of course, the Church is often its own worst enemy. Its politics can be serpentine, its bureaucracy labyrinthine, its work constantly compromised – as in the sex abuse cases – by its own weaknesses and cover-ups. There are plenty of scandals to report. But I would like to make the radical suggestion that the Pope is a religious leader, and that this is what matters about him. Then I would like to make the further suggestion that this Pope takes up his post at a time when, almost unnoticed, a huge and good change has come upon Christianity.
In the modern world, we are more familiar than ever before with exercise regimes. We jog, we go to the gym, we diet, we try to improve our core muscles. We are increasingly taught to see such exercises not as reserved for prodigious athletes, but as a basic human duty we owe to our own physical health and wellbeing.
The new Pope likes exercise too. But his is spiritual. Francis is a Jesuit and his long, arduous formation as a priest was founded on the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius. Ignatius Loyola was a high-born, handsome, perhaps even narcissistic soldier who fought the enemies of Spain. After being gravely wounded in the legs at the battle of Pamplona in 1521, he was changed in his long convalescence. He burned to cast aside his love of worldly glory, and replace it with complete service to Jesus. He often expressed this service in the military idiom with which he was familiar: Jesus was his king, and he was his spiritual warrior.
The Exercises resulted. They prescribe, over a 30-day regime (which also has shortened adaptations to normal daily life), a way of reviewing one’s own spiritual health, coming to know and imitate Jesus, and a means of discernment between the good spirit and the evil. They are also strong on what would now be called emotional literacy. One must use the actual and moral imagination, Ignatius teaches, to enter into the life and suffering of Jesus. One must learn to feel intense grief for one’s sins, “with abundant weeping”.
From this Ignatian training, the spiritual crack troops of the Counter-Reformation were let loose upon the world. Several of them, led by Francis Xavier – whose Christian name the new Pope has taken – began the conversion of India and the Far East. Over time, the Jesuits became proverbial, at least in hostile propaganda, for power manipulation. More recently, after the Second Vatican Council, some became power manipulators of a different sort. They declared themselves “liberation theologians”, adopting Marxism and cosying up to revolutionary movements. This heresy was identified and resisted by John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and by the man who has just become Pope. As an organisation, the Jesuits have been troubled for decades.
But the original essence has survived. In the ecumenical culture which has been one of the best consequences of Vatican II, Ignatius’s way has become a key spiritual discipline for Christians of all sorts. It is the basis of countless “retreats” and courses in which people learn to examine themselves and to pray. From these, they re-enter the modern world spiritually refreshed. As with practitioners of Pilates, but of the soul not the body, their core muscles have grown strong.
Last weekend, for example, the Chemin Neuf (New Path) community met in Switzerland for a conference on “Baptism in the Holy Spirit”. Topping the bill was a Jesuit, who leads the community. Also speaking, though, was someone described on the programme as “Mgr Justin Welby”. Next week, he will be enthroned as Archbishop of Canterbury.
Half a century ago, the idea that the primate of the Church of England could have gone off to a Catholic-run conference, been called (however inaccurately) by a Papist title and have shared a platform with a Jesuit just before sitting on the seat of Augustine would have caused a national scandal.
Yet the man we are talking about here is not some Anglo-Catholic half-way to Rome anyway, but a low-church Protestant, whose religious background is Holy Trinity, Brompton, the most famous Bible-based evangelical church in England.
What this vast change shows is that the scandalous divisions of Christianity that have existed for 500 years are ending. You might say that Catholics have become more Protestant (in attitudes to the Bible, for instance), and that Protestants have become more Catholic (eg in attitudes to the eucharist). You could certainly say that both have become more Christian in their attitude to the other.
The benefits are only beginning to become apparent. It is hard to exaggerate how much the divisions of Christendom distracted and discredited Christians for so long. For centuries, we measured our virtue by how well we were able to smite the other lot, sometimes with words, sometimes with actual weapons. At last, there is a re-energising of Christian life.
This energy has organisational aspects, but its root is prayer. Prayer is the first, last and strongest language of faith. Once it is shared, and particularly when shared under structured exercises such as those developed by Ignatius, it empowers those who pray. The slogan says “The family that prays together, stays together”. The same applies to the global Christian family.
People tend to associate prayer with escape, and question what it could have to do with the real life of most people. But in the Ignatian tradition, on which Pope Francis and Archbishop Welby both draw, this is not so. Prayer is not an avoidance of life in the world, but a preparation for it. Each person must try to be as like Jesus as possible. Jesus was a man, and loved the world enough to die for its people. So what one Jesuit writer called “the sacrament of the present moment” is holy. The duty to neighbour, to society, to the poor is the urgent result of the duty to Jesus. Ignatius says that every Christian must take the field under his supreme and true captain. That field is the world.
Once one understands that this new unity is emerging, it makes the conventional split between liberals and conservatives in the Church seem very out of date. The liberals have lost, because their acceptance of so many non-religious ideas has debilitated their faith and therefore prevented their renewal. But the conservatives have lost too, if by “conservative” one means the old warriors of the Counter-Reformation. The people who are winning are those who share the desire to bring the story of Jesus to what Pope Francis, in his first speech from the balcony of St Peter’s, called “the end of the earth”. He knows a bit about that, because it is where he comes from.