During this Ignatian Year, we are publishing a series of homilies that Fr. General Kolvenbach held on the feast days of St. Ignatius. In this homily, Fr. Kolvenbach focuses on the position of Ignatius as man of and for the Church.
Church of the Gesù, Rome, July 31st 1986
This evening’s liturgy in honour of Saint Ignatius reminds us that the Lord conceived Ignatius in the Church and for the Church: Ignatius, a man of the Church and for the Church. His love for the crucified and risen Lord found its expression in his love for the Church. Although Ignatius clearly saw all the weaknesses and flaws of the Church of his time, nothing could divide him from the love Christ manifests for his Church, the love, as Saint Paul expressed it, of a groom for his spouse. How could a love for Christ which did not include Christ’s love for his Church be authentic? Everything in Ignatius the man of the Church’s example condemns an attitude of the type “Christ, yes; the Church, no”. And to insist that he did not speak of a dream Church or an ideal Church but of the Church in its factual reality of strong and weak men and women, of saints and sinners, Ignatius expressed his loving devotion for the Church through its “Romanity”, stressing in particular that the mystery of the Son’s incarnation, the work of salvation of the Father, continues under the Spirit in the visible Church of Peter.
Ignatius’ faith was indissolubly one which proclaimed the humanity of the Word of God and asserted the divine dimension of his sinning Church. And at the centre of this divine-human reality which is the Church there lies forever the mystery of Peter of whom the gospel reveals that he was a sinner who was called to confirm his brothers, a very human and weak man called to be the corner-stone of the Church. With all the contingency of her history, Rome is the expression and privileged sign of the mystery of the incarnate Church.
Ignatius suffered at the hands of men of the Church and the inquisition and was convinced, on the eve of the counter-reformation, of the need for the conversion of many ecclesiastic institutions of his time; and yet, in his faith and love for Christ, he welcomed his Church as God’s Word wished it to be. A human Church, not because she is inevitably composed of men, and sinning men, but because her Spouse loves her as she is and wants her as she is, transforming our human realities into a true path towards the Kingdom which the Church has already started living today. This is the sense of the expression dear to the Holy Father: from the beginning of his papacy: he has presented man as he is: as a road, a path for the Church.
During the last period of his life, when he was no longer a tireless pilgrim but permanently “Roman”, Ignatius devoted himself to drawing up the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus. Ignatius the man of the Church’s love for the Church had grown in depth. He remained an ardent and enterprising apostle, but he was also quiet and luminous. He no longer used only the Pauline wealth of military metaphors of the Exercises: “military”, “conquer”, “struggle under Christ’s banner” for the Church, kingdom of light, against darkness. Ignatius now talked about working in the Lord’s vast vineyard to help souls, serve them, nourish them. Ignatius had planted and irrigated God’s field which is his Church, but it was God the Father, the master of the vineyard, who made the holy vine of Christ our Lord grow. In order to draw out this patient love for the Church in a worker in Christ’s vast vineyard, Ignatius often presented her as Mother, “holy Mother Church”. The Church is called our mother because she is Christ’s true spouse. A person possesses the Lord’s Spirit only insofar as he loves the Church of God as Mother. Thus feeling with the Church not only means knowing and appreciating the Church because she defends human rights, peace and justice, life and love, in the world today. For Ignatius feeling with the Church meant growing in love for holy Mother Church, glimpsing in her earthly and human face the divine mystery she contains and which attracts Christ’s own love.
Underlying his rules for feeling with the Church lay Ignatius the man of the Church’s conviction that doubting the Church’s and Peter’s concrete visibility in the heart of this Church was, in short, doubting the mystery of the incarnation, the mystery of the Word who dwells among us. In this sense both of faith and love, in this Eucharist here among us, Ignatius dares ask more than mere sympathy for the Church, more than a cordial relationship of service to the Vicar of Christ on earth; he dares ask for the eucharistic gift of the whole person for the work of salvation of the entire people of God which God continues among us in the visibility of the Church, in the visibility of Peter and his successors.
I hope that Saint Ignatius will illuminate us so that, with constantly growing enthusiasm and creativity, we may know today how to accomplish his mission of feeling with the Church. This evening, with Ignatius, the man of the Church, we ask that, from the depths of our persons, this vocation may constantly become more fully the “Sume et suscipe”, the expression of the passionate love of our holy father Ignatius for Christ and for the Church his spouse.
Read the other homilies here.