Keeping Track of Christ

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Seven years ago, my Jesuit superiors missioned me to study theology in Rome. I would live at the college of the Gesù, the Jesuit seminary that houses the rooms of our founder, St. Ignatius of Loyola. Among my occasional community responsibilities was to watch the rooms, guiding tours for any visitors who were stopping by this rather hidden sanctuary. Those tours deepened my devotion to the saint who died on this day almost five hundred years ago.

Visiting the rooms you come first to Ignatius’s office with his desk, a simple table only a few feet high. There Ignatius wrote thousands of letters, as well as the Jesuit Constitutions. He also polished off his Spiritual Exercises, the retreat manual that constitutes his most enduring legacy.

The fruit of his conversion from a vain soldier-playboy living in a castle in northern Spain to a pilgrim dedicated to glorifying the Lord, this little book offers Ignatius’s own time in prayer as a guide for Christians hoping to grow in faith and to know God’s will for them. The Exercises are just that: “workouts” for your soul like the physical exercises a personal trainer might assign you if you want to get in shape. Divided into four “Weeks,” these workouts encourage retreatants to imagine the Christian mysteries: first a careful examination of our sins, then the contemplation of Christ our Savior in His life, death, and Resurrection, and, last, a reflection on the Lord Who offers Himself to us completely and asks our loving self-offering in return.

Seeing Ignatius’s desk, then, reminded me of coming to love Jesus through my own Exercises. When, as a Jesuit novice, I spent those thirty days in silent prayer, I first saw that without Christ I was headed for Hell. Christ’s call, however, rescued me and offered me a place in His mission, as His servant and friend. The Exercises also gave me tools for identifying God’s plan for me, to discern that the Spirit of the Lord was indeed drawing me to the Jesuits and to the priesthood.

Back to the tour. If you proceed past Ignatius’s office and an intervening chapel, you come to Ignatius’s bedroom. In a corner you’ll find his shoes, worn out and picked over by relic-hunters. His shoes represent a second basic feature of Ignatius’s life: his journeys. On foot Ignatius traveled from his home in the Basque country to Paris where he studied, throughout the Holy Land as a pilgrim, and eventually across Italy before he settled in Rome. On foot Ignatius used the Exercises to preach the Gospel even as he served the poor. The shoes reminded me that my vocation as a Jesuit meant a willingness to travel to any part of the world, wherever the Church’s needs are greatest. We Jesuits must be ready for the road.

In this Year of Faith, the life of St. Ignatius can speak to our need to contemplate Christ even as we rush about our daily lives. I like to think that Francis, the first Jesuit pope, shows us how. As the Holy Father moves from deliberations with bishops to preparing documents to care for the suffering, all while celebrating the Eucharist daily with Vatican workers, he keeps constant track of the living Christ. Whether reading at his desk or pacing through the Vatican corridors, Francis finds peace in Jesus. Pope Francis learned from St. Ignatius that the best indication of a well-lived vocation is a slow but steady growth in hope, love, and faith.

Fr. Brian Dunkle, SJ

About Fr. Brian Dunkle, SJ

Fr. Dunkle was ordained a priest of the Society of Jesus (Jesuit) religious order in 2009. He holds a Licentiate in Sacred Theology from Boston College and is currently pursuing a PhD in historical theology at the University of Notre Dame.