Saturday, March 18, 2006

Ignatius the Reformer

Saint Ignatius’ Autobiography, part 50

Besides the catechism, he also preached on Sundays and feast days with much fruit, some coming many miles to hear him. He also made an effort to remove some abuses, and with God’s help he put order into some. For example, regarding gambling, he saw to it that regulations were made and enforced by those who were responsible for the administration of justice. There was also another abuse. In that country young girls went bareheaded and never wore anything on their heads until after they were married. But there were many who became concubines of priests and other men, and remained faithful to them as though they were their wives. This became so common that these mistresses had not the least shame in saying that they had covered their heads for so and so, and they were commonly acknowledged as such.

This custom gave rise to many evils. The pilgrim persuaded the governor to make a law that all those who had covered their heads for anyone but their lawful husbands, should be publicly punished. Thus a beginning was made in the removal of this abuse. He saw to it that some provision was officially and regularly made for the poor, and that the bells were rung thrice in the day, at the time of the angelus, morning, noon and evening, and that people should pray as they do in Rome. At first he enjoyed good health, but soon fell seriously ill. He decided that when he recovered from this illness it was time for him to be on his way to accomplish the tasks laid upon him by his companions, and to set out without a penny. His brother took this very ill, as he was ashamed to see him thus traveling on foot and at evening. The pilgrim was willing to yield to him on this point, and ride a horse to the confines of the province accompanied by his brother and his relatives.

But when they reached the limits of the province, he got off the horse, and refusing all gifts, turned towards Pamplona, and from there went to Almazanum, the home of Laynez. From here he went to Siguenza and Toledo, and from Toledo to Valencia. In all these homes of his companions he refused all gifts, although they were offered in great abundance and with great insistence.

You get the impression that the people of Ignatius’ hometown have become a bit reticent and let things deteriorate. Yet, since things often happen slowly over time, they may not even have been aware of how bad things had gotten. Or, they’d gotten accustomed to looking the other way. Things were in need of reform (Indeed, if you consider the time, we get a little glimpse here into some of the problems addressed by the Council of Trent around this time, and which some of the Protestant reformers were reacting to).

If you think about it, Ignatius was the perfect person to help bring about this reform: Being a native, he knew the place. Yet, having been away a while he had a fresh pair of eyes and could more easily recognize how things had changed. He himself was also changed by his new life of serving God, and thus he saw what was happening from that perspective. He had the courage (some might say arrogance) to name and challenge the abuses that he saw. And, finally, he wasn’t planning on sticking around too long. It was the perfect combination, and Ignatius was aware enough to recognize it.

Like me, you may have seen this very kind of thing happen in some organization you’ve been involved in, or even your parish church. When I arrived at grad school many years ago, this drama was already playing itself out in the Catholic campus ministry. Something had gone wrong under the previous administration, and they’d been invited by the Bishop to leave. There were still a camp of embittered supporters of that group in the congregation. A new priest had been sent in to run the place. He was not exactly the type of priest you’d generally find in a Catholic campus ministry, and soon it became clear what was going on. He had been sent there to turn the place around. He was brought in to be the “bad guy.” It wasn’t important for people to like him. In some ways it wasn’t even important if he offered good ministry to the students (though he tried his best). He was the transition man. He was to be there one, two years tops, and then they’d bring somebody else in who would more fit the type. That’s exactly what happened.

We’d all prefer to be that latter guy who fits the type, and who everyone will love after the last guy. But sometimes God calls us to be the reformer, the transition person, the one who comes in not to be liked, but to bring needed reform. That’s when, like Ignatius, we have to trust in God’s plan for our lives and be aware of the talents that God has given us to face what is sure to be a difficult situation, but that will be of great benefit in the long run. Those who are recognized as saints are not always remembered fondly by the communities to which they were called, but the more astute—often in hindsight—recognize their hard witness of faithfulness.


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