Rome – Twenty-first-century ecclesiastical heraldry may strike some as an arcane hangover from a long-gone past, when bishops were lords temporal as well as lords spiritual. Still, the rich vocabulary of heraldic symbolism adds a little class to a world of Twitter hashtags, and the mottoes that Catholic bishops — and popes — choose for their coats of arms can provide important clues about their character and formation. John Paul II’s “Totus tuus” (Entirely yours), as well as the composition of his stemma papale (a large “M” beneath a gold cross on a blue field), spoke volumes about his Marian piety and his conviction that his life was guided and protected by the Mother of the Church. Benedict XVI’s rather complex coat of arms was a nightmare for the Vatican gardeners who maintain a floral representation of the reigning pontiff’s stemma just behind St. Peter’s Basilica; but his motto, “Cooperatores veritatis” (Coworkers of the truth), signaled that his would be a pontificate of clear teaching rooted in deep and broad scholarship.
What, then, shall we make of the episcopal motto that Pope Francis, the former Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio, S.J., took during his service as archbishop of Buenos Aires – “Miserando atque eligendo” (Lowly and also chosen) — and will retain as pope?
Foremost, expect an evangelical humility. In the first days of his pontificate, “humble” was the adjective most frequently applied to the new bishop of Rome, and rightly so. It’s important to recognize, however, that Pope Francis’s humility has a distinctive character. It is evangelical humility, a Gospel-centered and Christ-centered humility. And it has been shaped over the course of his life by classic Jesuit (or Ignatian) spirituality: the rigorously disciplined commitment to selflessness-in-Christian-mission that was inculcated in members of the Society of Jesus before Jesuit formation became one of the victims of the Catholic Revolution That Never Was. Jorge Mario Bergoglio, S.J., became a sign of contradiction — a persecuted sign of contradiction — within his own religious order, as too many of his Jesuit brethren were seduced by the solipsistic zeitgeist of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Pope Francis’s approach to the spiritual life and his understanding of Christian discipleship is, by contrast, the polar opposite of this faux spirituality of self-absorption, in which self-esteem displaces selflessness, and commitments to both ecclesial obedience and mission crumble as a result.
The new pope’s more authentically Ignatian approach to the interior life is nicely captured in a famous prayer, the Suscipe, of Saint Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus — a prayer that also offers an interpretive key to Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s self-abasing episcopal motto:
Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding,
and my entire will,
all I have and call my own.
You have given all to me.
To you, Lord, I return it.
Everything is yours; do with it what you will.
Give me only your love and your grace.
That is enough for me.
At the very center of this prayer is the sacrifice of one’s “entire will.” Submission of one’s will, to the divine will and to the will of one’s superiors, was crucial to the original Jesuit charism, or genius. The Catholic Church took an enormous gamble in accepting Ignatius Loyola’s offer to build a self-consciously elite corps of intellectual shock troops to meet the challenge of the Reformation and to bring the Gospel to the ends of the earth: to “set all ablaze,” as the inscription beneath the statue of Ignatius at Jesuit GHQ near the Vatican sums up the Basque saint’s intention. Self-consciously elite bodies can revivify flaccid institutions; they can also corrupt them. It all depends on the will, and on the direction in which it is bent.
The Catholic gamble on the Society of Jesus was that the distinctive fourth Jesuit vow — radical obedience to the pope and complete availability for whatever mission he gave the Society or individual Jesuits — would bind this elite to the body of the Church so that it could be a true intellectual and evangelical leaven. And that is precisely what the Society was for centuries. But when the confusions of the post–Vatican II Church met the turbulence summed up in that epigrammatic year, 1968, things quickly unraveled. And a community of vowed religious that had long prided itself on its defense of orthodoxy now took the lead in challenging Catholic orthodoxy and orthopraxis at every conceivable turn, in an embrace of fashionable enthusiasms that ran from Marxism to environmentalism to radical feminism and gay liberation.