St Ignatius’ adventures in discernment

Most stories about St Ignatius are drawn from the 20 years from his conversion to the founding of the Society of Jesus. These were rich and adventurous times. Ignatius, however, lived for another 15 years. By Andrew Hamilton SJ

Most stories about St Ignatius’ life are drawn from the 20 years from his conversion to the founding of the Society of Jesus. These were indeed rich and adventurous years of radical choices, large desires and commitment to a radical way of life.

Ignatius, however, lived for another 15 years. He faced new situations and had to find a way of adapting to them while being faithful to his initial vision. His way is reflected in the recently formulated Apostolic Preferences that will shape Jesuit life and choices today.

Ignatius’ distinctive gift was to combine a passionate desire to serve God through following Jesus’ way with prayerful reflection about how to adapt his service to the diverse and changing situations of his age. That required being open to change.

His initial vision was for himself and his companions to place themselves at the service of the Pope in demanding missions. They were to be like a squad of lightly armed troops running solo missions behind enemy lines, travelling light and moving fast.

Francis Xavier’s journeys to India and beyond, Faber’s work in Germany, the delegation to the Council of Trent, and the Jesuit mission to Ethiopia were some of the faces of this dream.

The keys to this dream were flexibility and freedom from responsibilities to sustain large institutions. But as the number of Jesuits grew, Ignatius was constantly begged to found schools and universities.

He recognised the demand for education and the opportunities for serving God through forming future leaders, and an increasing number of Jesuits taught and administered educational institutions through Europe and beyond.

Each step along this path of change involved self-reflection in the light of Jesus’ values, recognition of new possibilities, and an enthusiastic response to the way seen best to respond to God’s will. In Ignatius’ word, discernment.

The four Apostolic Preferences reflect this process of discernment. Jesuits around the world were invited to pray and speak together about where they see the Society called to focus today. The preferences are places where people found life and saw possibility as they prayed.

The preferences named are for the Spiritual Exercises, for people on the margins of society, for the young, and for the world, our home. Preferences are not defined areas of work, not priorities, but are better understood as rivers of the heart that flow into one another and carry people and ministries on them.

All of us engaged in Jesuit ministries are invited to find enthusiasm and joy in making these preferences part of our lives, whether directly through our work, in our spare time, or as a focus of our prayer.

When they inspire us they will inevitably flow into the ministries undertaken by Jesuits around the world and to the way in which we engage in them.