In the chapel of the oldest continuously operating Jesuit novitiate in the world, in a sleepy village in southern Poland, the likenesses of great Jesuits of the past gaze from the walls above, their faces turned attentively toward the altar—with one exception. Francis Xavier is looking out the window.
It’s not irreverence, of course, that has the saint turned the other way. Xavier, who agreed to leave Europe for the Orient on a day’s notice, was, in addition to being the greatest missionary since Paul, one of history’s great travelers, a man whose desire to plant the seeds of the Gospel where they had never been sown before was extinguished only by death.
There’s something essentially Jesuit in that desire, and hopefully at least a spark of it burns in each one of us. Our formation, you may recall, aims to prepare us to go anywhere in the world, though usually we’re given a bit more notice than Francis Xavier. For me, this summer was no exception and saw me spending July in Krakow teaching English to Jesuit scholastics from Poland, Croatia, and Russia.
It was heartening to meet and live with such good brothers, and equally heartening to be immersed in Polish culture. The Poles are a wonderful people—noble, warm, and very, very Catholic. I realize that this is a bit of a generalization and that one should be careful conflating religious and ethnic identity. (And in fact, at an academic conference I attended earlier in the summer I met a number of young and quite impressive Catholic scholars from such bastions of secularism as Belgium and France.) What makes Poland special, however, is the degree to which Catholicism has penetrated the culture, the ways in which the faith is palpable in all aspects of Polish life. The Poles are unabashedly pious.