Are Jesuits Too Worldly?
Many Jesuits these days have found themselves challenged and made slightly uncomfortable by the lifestyle of Pope Francis. I feel free to mention this fact because it includes myself. His practice as cardinal of not going out to eat at expensive restaurants but only soup kitchens is a challenge not only to any university president or high school president, but also to any well-like scholastic in regency. He will find himself wined and dined by doting and appreciative parents, and it seems the natural thing to accept such offers. Yet because Jesuits so often accept these kinds of offers, they appear to many to be “worldly.” It would be impossible to count how many times I have heard comments about: how much Jesuits like to drink; Jesuit comfortable living quarters; Jesuit poverty, “If this is poverty, bring on chastity!” and the list goes on. People are simultaneously grateful that Jesuits are look and act like them and critical of such behavior and lifestyle.
And let’s be honest: From the beginning, Jesuit Jerome Nadal told us that “the world is our monastery.” We are by definition a “worldly” order. And as a result, Jesuits in the United States usually dress like middle-class white men. We wear North Face and Patagonia and Keens and Chacos. We wear suits and ties and sometimes drive quite nice cars. We have flat screen TV’s and drink middle shelf scotch to relax. Our own Father General, Father Adolfo Nicolas, recently told us: “We work hard, but sometimes our style of life remains middle-class, or even privileged.” He also expresses concern that “in some places, secular, “worldly” values (such as consumerism, careerism, individualism, tribalism) have entered our mentalities and weakened our Jesuit spirit.” Where does this danger come from?
It comes in large part from the challenge by Pope Benedict to the Jesuits to be “on the frontiers.” It comes from Pope Francis’ challenge to priests to be on the “fringes” of society, on the “existential outskirts” of culture, working at the “margins.” Such work is not easy. The result will often be that we appear to be too “worldly.” And sometimes we do become too worldly. Ignatius himself told Jesuits both to “dress in a way that is characteristic of the poor” and to dress in a way that is “ordinary and not different.” His constant goal was that of St. Paul, and Jesuit poverty can be adequately summarized as “becoming all things to all men” (1 Cor 9:22). And that means often looking middle-class.
But is there a threshold of dress or behavior or lifestyle that should never be crossed? Pope Francis seems to think so. Or maybe that threshold is primarily restricted to our own houses where we learn never to grow too comfortable, as Nicolas encourages us. If we live un-worldly lives at home, then our attitudes may not be taken so easily to be worldly to those with whom we work.
So what do you think? Are Jesuits too “worldly?” I would love to hear your input.