As Pope Francis makes his first trip as Pope to the Americas, he has become a media rock star. As this week unfolds and we see him in Cuba; Washington, D.C.; Philadelphia; and New York, one might wonder about the popularity of this Pope. Certainly many commentators on various new outlets will opine about him, his message, and his style. Indeed, some such as Rush Limbaugh, already have!
I would like to suggest that there is something about Pope Francis, rooted in his Jesuit spirituality, that is an important part in understanding his appeal. St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, was shaped by a distinct spiritual experience, which, in turn, shapes Jesuits to this very day. Ignatius had a mystical experience of God from which he would be able to "find God in all things." This experience not only shaped him, but also has continued to shape Jesuits in the almost 500 years since Ignatius.
For the 16th century, Ignatius' experience was an astonishing one. It meant that God was not only found inside churches or monasteries. Indeed, in Jesuit spirituality, God could be found everywhere.
With this experience of Ignatius, Jesuit priests and brothers quickly moved beyond the walls of a monastery or church. Indeed, in the National Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol, every state has statues of famous people from that state. Among the numerous statues, two are Jesuits: Jacques Marquette and Eusebio Francisco Kino, who were placed there for their works of exploration of North America. Later in their lives, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams corresponded with one another after years of fighting. They wrote about the burgeoning republic they had helped create. Adams was concerned, in 1816, that the Jesuits would be a threat to the new republic: "I do not like the reappearance of the Jesuits...Shall we not have regular swarms of them here, in as many disguises as only a king of the gipsies can assume, dressed as printers, publishers, writers and schoolmasters? If ever there was a body of men who merited damnation on earth and in Hell, it is this society of Loyola's. Nevertheless, we are compelled by our system of religious toleration to offer them an asylum."
Adams was, in part, right. Jesuits do come in many "disguises" and work in many different ways. But the key is that the experience of God is not confined and God can be found in all things. With this framework, ordinary life becomes rich, as it is a place where one can encounter God and the extraordinary can be found.