Following the Jesuit trail06 October 2016 | by Elena Curti | Comments: 0 Rome has a special place in the hearts of the members of the Society of Jesus who are meeting there to elect a new leader and consider the state of the order and its work. They are praying, pondering and debating in a city full of the tangible fabric of their history
In a small church in the village of La Storta outside Rome in 1537, St Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) had a vision of God the Father and Jesus carrying the Cross. Ignatius discerned his calling from this vision with a message from God that included these words: Ego tibi Romae propitius ero (“I will be favourable to you in Rome”).
He kept his word because, with the support of the then Pope, Paul III, Ignatius laid the foundations for what was to become the Catholic Church’s biggest male order, the Society of Jesus. Rome was, and is, the world centre of Jesuit mission, learning and spirituality. It is a heritage that cannot fail to resonate with the 215 Jesuits meeting there for the next six weeks or so. Below are some of the key stops on a Jesuit trail of the city.
The Jesuit Curia
Borgo Santo Spirito
Provincials and delegates arrive each morning, briefcase in hand, at the newly restored Aula or hall at the general Curia, the Jesuit international headquarters, for the thirty-sixth General Congregation (GC36). With state-of-the-art technology and modern desks of pale wood arranged in concentric circles, it is everything you would expect of a modern conference venue. The four wall panels painted with bright abstract works by the Slovenian Jesuit artist, Fr Mark Ivan Rupnik, draw on Scriptures and the Spiritual Exercises. Among the quotations is: “In all things, to love and to serve” – a motto of St Ignatius.
Every delegate has an intranet tablet for general discussions. However, for the election of their new Superior General, the assembly is resorting to old-fashioned pen and paper. The acoustics are conducive to discernment and community discussion but also allow for conspiratorial whispers. Individuals can speak to one another privately without risk of being overheard, even by someone less than two feet away.
As befits an order that has not always marched completely in step with the Pope, the Curia is close to the Vatican but outside its walls. It takes up a block in Borgo Santo Spirito, just behind the left colonnade of St Peter’s Square as you face the basilica.
If delegates need to unwind, they can go up on the roof and enjoy unrivalled views of the dome of St Peter’s. Alternatively, they can take a stroll in the beautiful terraced gardens, a haven of peace a stone’s throw from the bustle of St Peter’s Square.
Church of the Gesù
Piazza del Gesù.
Dedicated to the Holy Name of Jesus, this is the mother church of the Jesuits, where the delegates celebrated their opening Mass last Sunday. Afterwards they prayed at the dazzling golden tomb of St Ignatius and lit a lamp that will continue to burn throughout GC36.
The Gesù, built after St Ignatius’ death, is in the high baroque style and became the template for other Jesuit churches around the world. It is on the piazza chosen by the saint as the base for his order.
According to Thomas Lucas SJ in his book, Saint, Site and Sacred Strategy (Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana), it was “a place where papal and civic processions slowed, where people gathered to gossip, shop and pass the time of day. And perhaps to drop into church – especially if they were offered intelligent preaching and good confessors”. Even then, it would seem, the Jesuits wanted to be at the centre of things.
St Ignatius rooms
Piazza del Gesù 45
Next door to the Gesù, you can visit the four rooms where St Ignatius lived and worked for the last 20 years of his life. Here is the chance to glimpse the earliest days of the Society and to understand a little of St Ignatius the man. The small, low rooms with rough plaster and beams were on the top floor of the Jesuits’ first purpose-built headquarters, described by one contemporary as a “shack”.
They are now encased within a huge international Jesuit residence. The rooms contain some original furniture, personal possessions of the founder and first editions of his work. There is the space where Ignatius celebrated daily Mass before a painting of the Holy Family with St John the Baptist, which would move him to tears.
On display is a bronze head of Ignatius made from a mould of his face placed on a plinth at his actual height. After the many heroic portrayals in paintings and frescoes, here is the chance to see Ignatius as he was. A plaque marks the spot where he died in the conference room, the scene of the first General Congregation two years later.
Pontifical Gregorian University
Piazza della Pilotta.
Many of the delegates will have affectionate memories of studies at the “Greg” and are sure to return there during the six weeks of GC36. Visit the piazza, especially in the mornings and lunchtime, and there will be dozens of students clustered around the steps of the imposing entrance. Others can be found in the central atrium just inside.
Among the many seminarians studying theology and philosophy here are students at the Venerable English College, some 20 minutes walk away.
The seeds of the university were sown by Ignatius in 1551 with a free school of grammar, humanity and Christian doctrine at the foot of the Capitoline Hill. For hundreds of years it was known as the Roman College. It was later named after Gregory XIII who endowed the university with much bigger premises in 1583. It now draws some 3,800 students from more than 150 countries.
St Ignatius Church
The Society’s second church, completed in 1650, is a short walk from the Greg and has a long association with the university, originally serving as the chapel of the Roman College that was once next door. Students and staff from the Greg filled the church last Monday for a solemn Mass of the Holy Spirit to inaugurate the university’s 466th academic year.
Built to commemorate the canonisation of Ignatius, the church has frescoes depicting his life and work. These were painted by a Jesuit brother, Andrea Pozzo, whose masterwork is the church’s trompe l’œil dome. Legend has is that either a shortage of funds or local objections obliged Pozzo to paint on a flat ceiling. The result is something that looks exactly like a dome. It could be a metaphor for how Jesuit ingenuity can help the order meet the challenges it faces. The theme of the nave frescoes cannot fail to inspire GC36: they show a light transmitted from God the Father to the Son and then to St Ignatius. From him, the light fans out into four rays leading to four continents.
Caravita, Oratory of San Francesco Saverio del Caravita
Via del Caravita
Just as St Ignatius began preaching in the heart of Rome, so a present-day community is doing the same. There is a warm welcome at the English-language Sunday Mass at the Caravita community, housed in an exquisite seventeenth-century Jesuit church, named after Ignatius Loyola’s companion, St Francis Xavier. There is usually a fine homily and a chance to mingle over a glass of Prosecco afterwards.
The Caravita Community was founded in 2000 by an American Jesuit, Fr Keith Pecklers, a professor of liturgy at the Greg. His aim was to create a centre for lay formation and ministry, and to reach out to the poor and marginalised. Caravita has a special dedication to interreligious dialogue and to ecumenism. This week, it was due to play host to the Archbishop of Canterbury during his visit to Rome.
Elena Curti is a former deputy editor of The Tablet.