By Divine Providence In Rome
The inspiration for the Society of Ignatians, its vision, spirit and aims, is alluded to in the preface of Heroism and Genius:
“Heroism and Genius took me by surprise. When I arrived to Rome for studies in 2006 neither it, nor the inspiration that has led me to ask the Church for her initial approval for the foundation of a new religious order of priests, the Society of Ignatians, were on the horizon. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9).
“Thanks to Bishop Nicola de Angelis of the Diocese of Peterborough, I had come back to Rome, most unexpectedly, and had begun studying firstly for a licentiate in theology at the Lateran University, and then for a Ph.D. in philosophy at the Gregorian. As those years went by, the mind was quickened and the spirit renewed amid the ancient churches, catacombs, and cobblestoned streets of the Eternal City, where linger not only memories but mystic presence of so many saints and martyrs.
“How naturally a work like Heroism and Genius can be conceived in that setting where so many men and women creatively and heroically poured out their lifeblood for the most sublime and necessary of ideals — the honor of God through pursuit of the eternal salvation of souls! To stand in spirit among these great Christians is to penetrate not only the past but the present; they provoke you to question the status quo in society, Church, and, most urgently, in oneself; to leave their presence is to go forth with the soul invigorated unto emulation.
“Moreover, the closer one gets to these heroes and creators the better one is able to see, through them, and towering above them, the person of history’s one flawless hero and one divine genius. In the most heroic and creative heart that has ever existed, that of the God-Man, one recognizes the source of the ingenuity and courage that, century after century, empowers the Church to have her phoenix hour. One’s conviction that he is the One who matters deepens; and that even a glimpse of him is enough to make life sublimely beautiful while we journey in hope through often dark valleys toward the light of our eternal homeland.
“It was in this state of unexpected wakefulness that there grew in my soul, almost imperceptibly, the inspiration of the Society of Ignatians. Thus in Heroism and Genius I would hope that one can intuit the heartbeat of this embryonic order.”
“Something has to be done”
However, Heroism and Genius appeared at the end of a long and labyrinthine personal journey with astonishing and indeed fierce surprises.
Before Heroism and Genius was conceived, I had already composed and was on the way to completing (or so I thought) a series of seven volumes on the training of diocesan priests. This project had certainly not been on the horizon when I came to Rome. However, living at the center of Catholicism had opened my eyes to the quite dramatic worldwide situation of the Church and particularly of the priesthood. Countless conversations with priests and seminarians from around the world at the Casa and elsewhere alerted me to the need for a training for priests that would integrate all that the wisdom of tradition and the saints has bequeathed to us with the new demands made by the fast-paced, globalized, anti-Christian, secularized society of the Third Millennium.
In one such conversation with two European seminarians one of them painfully explained how adrift he felt: “Give us a wise priest as rector who will tell us with certainty and wisdom what we should do to train ourselves well to be priests; not someone who just gives hints, asks us to dialogue, and share our ignorance among ourselves.” “Something had to be done about this”, I thought to myself as I racked my head to see if there was anything that I could chip in to the solution of this complex and crucial challenge. It occurred to me that a partial solution would be a “self-training manual”, a tiny volume that one could place in the hands of someone crossing the threshold of the seminary that would guide him in acquiring an integral formation in a practical down-to-earth manner.
For the sake of Christlike Priests
As I wrote the “do-it-yourself” manual, I would run my ideas by brother priests at the Casa as well as with the seminarians who would occasionally join us for meals. One priest remarked: “From my own experience, you can never be particular or concrete enough with seminarians nowadays in order to make yourself understood: avoid being abstract”. This confirmed my own hunch so the little manual grew until it became a hefty series of six volumes for the ascetical-mystical, intellectual, and pastoral training of priests along with a tiny volume on the virtue of purity and a Spiritual Exercises retreat.
I spent the summers mostly in Rome working on both the doctorate and the manual in the seventeenth-century rare books room of the Casa Santa Maria library . The summer of 2010 I thrilled to see the manuscript approaching completion. But then on August 10th, the Feast of St. Lawrence, a fiercely hot, muggy afternoon, with high humidity, while on the street outside a musician played his accordion – and always the same piece! ‒ events took a surprising turn.
Lost amidst the chapters on priestly training was a little one regarding some of history’s great priests. It had been growing however, and that afternoon I realized how much it had grown and how indeed a new source of inspiration had appeared: the role of priests in the formation of culture, society and civilization. It suddenly occurred to me that it could form a book on its own and that indeed this book should be published first of all because it conveyed the conviction, the leit-motif of all the other volumes: that the Catholic priest who is an authentic priest, by his very identity, transforms, creates Christian culture, Christian society, and a Christian civilization. Indeed, history is the best confirmation of the truth that a man who gives himself to Christ gains a hundred times over in this life by the sense of fulfillment in seeing through the transformation of individual souls the transformation of society.
Although I was grateful for this new possibility of contributing to priestly vocations, I must confess that the thought of writing another volume was as exciting to me as the sight of a further hundred meters to a mountaineer who had thought himself already at the top. But further reflection in prayer and the willingness of Bishop De Angelis to allow me to dedicate more time to the project pointed to it as the right thing to do and so the work continued.
The Inspiration for the Foundation
The late Cardinal Francis George, to whom I mentioned the book, looked at me quizically and remarked: “Self-training?”. To which I replied “Self-training but not self-directing”. But, of course, this was the big limitation of The Seminarian’s Field Manual: seminarians need far more than a book to guide them to the harbor of ordination; they need mentors who are wise, demanding, authentic spiritual fathers, and radically inspirited with love for the priestly ideal.
However, such an ideal and such a spirit, if it is to remain sturdy throughout the lifetime of an individual, requires the strength and tutelage of a brotherhood, a band of brothers who are bonded in heart and mind by convinced adherence to the truths of the Catholic Faith and by a common mission to be mentors committed to an austere and rugged lifestyle in which they have freed up their hearts, minds and energies for this mission.
This all pointed in one direction: the need for a community of priests, formed in single-mindedness and intensity of purpose through an esprit de corps; and strengthened and perpetually renewed through the classic vows of religious life. It required that they be men who have been carefully singled out in a severe selection process and who have undergone a tough, lengthy, all-round, energetic, and vibrant training to equip them for this mission.
By the Assistance of Our Lady and the Saints
Further reflection in prayer in that lovely chapel of Our Lady in the Via dell’Umilta and at the tombs and relics of St. Ignatius, St. Giuseppe Pignatelli, St. Francis Xavier and of other saints of the Society; invocation of other saints in so many churches of Rome; pilgrimages to the cave of Subiaco and to the Santuario del Divino Amore; and above all the entrusting of all that was occurring to the intercession of Our Lady at the shrine of Our Lady of Good Counsel in Genazzano, led to increasing clarity. The insight broadened and deepened. I began to see with increasing clarity that alongside the task of forming diocesan priests other urgent challenges facing the Church also impelled the need for a new religious order of priests. And so, almost imperceptibly, there grew the awareness of an inspiration: to request permission from the Church to form a new order of priests with ancient roots, the Society of Ignatians, a group of men bonded by the tradition and heritage of St. Ignatius Loyola and the saint who so inspired him, St. Ignatius of Antioch.