On the Feast of St. Joseph Pignatelli, SJ


At least nowadays, Jesuit spirituality is often presented in stark opposition to the so-called “negative” spiritualities—traditions that emphasized self-emptying, withdrawal from the world, and fulfillment in the life to come (as opposed to the present).  Jesuits, of course, play no little role in crafting their own image, and it’s true that we usually emphasize the “world-affirming” aspect of the Ignatian patrimony (it’s a reputation, after all, that’s much easier to live up to—and everyone appreciates truth in advertising).  Hence, we proudly point to the long tradition of “Ignatian Humanism,” the mysticism of “finding God in all things,” and our “worldly” pragmatism.  There is certainly a great deal of truth in this characterization, and one could spend a lifetime gathering and documenting supporting evidence.

But today’s feast of St. Joseph Pignatelli, S.J. (1737-1811), reminds us that the “world-affirming” element of the Jesuit tradition is only one part of the story.  Pignatelli, born into a noble Spanish family, was notable for his refusal—even during the years of the Society’s universal suppression (1773-1814)—to accept transfer to another religious order or to use his family connections to obtain a sinecure.  He instead dedicated himself to maintaining the union of minds and hearts among the disbanded sons of St. Ignatius.  Though he died in 1811, three years shy of the Society’s universal restoration, he nonetheless managed to form the nucleus from which the post-suppression Society would eventually replicate herself across Europe.

All this is to say that Pignatelli, as heir of the pre-suppression Society and father of the post-suppression Society, is an especially credible interpreter of the Ignatian tradition.  And the Office of Readings for Pignatelli’s memorial, which draws from two letters of his written in the aftermath of the Society’s chaotic expulsion from Spain (the Jesuits there were herded onto ships by the hundreds and for years shunted from one European “refugee camp” to another), suggests that Pignatelli identified “true sons of St. Ignatius” chiefly by their cheerful endurance of hardship:

It is true that, whether in prison or on our long journey, we were never without the sort of troubles which our lower nature would find it almost impossible to bear.  So great is God’s goodness, however, that he made all these things pleasant and gave us in addition great peace of mind freedom from worry.  All the fathers and brothers have very happy faces.  They show themselves true sons of St. Ignatius and are guided by his spirit so that they find nothing distasteful when it is a question of obeying God’s call.  For my part, I render infinite thanks to his divine majesty, for calling me to this Society without any merit on my part, especially at this time when, despite the severe word-wide persecution she endures, she still receives great love from God.

…Recently a message arrived giving leave to go ashore and enter a hospital at Calvi.  We can indeed expect no happiness in this life, but our troubles will not follow us beyond the grave.  If my life is to end in a few days’ time and I can then go to heaven, I promise you that I shall beg God to call you to himself when our lives are ended.

If you send me any more letters, I beg you not to say a word about abandoning my vocation.  I also implore you not to make any moves in Rome to have me transferred to another religious order.  I should never accept such a proposal even though I had to die a thousand times.

Though there is no hint of fuga mundi (“flight from the world”) in Pignatelli’s correspondence, there is a pervasive and unapologetic contemptus mundi (“disregard for the world”).  One could slip Pignatelli’s letters into the leaves of Thomas À Kempis’s Imitiation of Christ, and few would be the wiser.

It seems, moreover, that refounding figures such as Pignatelli set the Society on a notably “otherworldly” course for generations.  This was almost immediately noticed even by outside observers.

An example: when Cardinal Newman began to study for his ordination to the Catholic priesthood at Rome’s College of the Propaganda (1846), which was at that point was staffed by the newly restored Society, he was struck more by the asceticism and the self-denial of the Jesuits than by their proverbial cunning or their broad humanism.   Newman’s foremost biographer, Fr. Ian Ker, sums up Newman’s private reflections on the Jesuits he met in Rome this way:

Newman was highly impressed by the ‘self-denying life’ of the Jesuit staff, who had ‘no enjoyment of life’ and nothing to look forward to but only the consolation of ‘the thought of the next world’ (Newman 326 fn 43; Letters and Diaries, xii, 24).

But …

In spite of the flood of Protestant books on the perils of ‘Jesuitism’, Newman found the Jesuits disappointingly lacking in craft and subtlety.  Clever academically as many of them were, they lacked the originality and intelligence needed for new initiatives; hard working and self-sacrificing, they struck him as ‘plodding, methodical, unromantic.’  He realized that they were unthinking conservatives, astonishingly reminiscent of Anglicans … at the time of the Reform Bill.  He concluded—and the words were to ring through the rest of his life as a Catholic: ‘There is a deep suspicion of change, with a perfect incapacity to create anything positive for the wants of the times’ (Newman 331 fn 61; Letters and Diaries, xii 103-104).

Newman’s descriptions are not altogether flattering.  The restored Society was doubtlessly still a bit traumatized by the experience of suppression and, perhaps for that reason, generally favored “solidity” over “enterprising.”  Still, if forced to choose, evangelical priorities would probably incline us to err more in the direction of “plodding” and “self-sacrificing” than of “creative” and “worldly.”  The former, at any rate, seems to have been more characteristic of St. Joseph Pignatelli’s path.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: