Imagine a time when the Catholic Church was deeply divided by sin and conflict. Now imagine that conflict is compounded by competing calls for reform and intransigent resistance to reform — an age of heretics and skeptics, apostates who claim to be more Catholic than the pope, where the cure is seemingly worse than the disease.
Sound familiar? I am talking about the Reformation, of course, although it says much about our age that one might have thought I was talking about now. Indeed, matters are such that the Holy Father recently chided U.S. Catholics in recent comments at World Youth Day in Portugal.
Perhaps most of us who heard about his words chose to fall back into our trenches, either rejecting or accepting it as it suits our agenda.
But we could also take his words as an exhortation to recover something precious we have lost.
So many of the difficulties we face are crises of belonging: not knowing how to live together, how to live with and for one another. Christians inspired by the legacy of St. Ignatius, and not least Catholics, might be particularly troubled by this state of affairs. Thankfully, that legacy includes valuable resources for times such as these, for they are indeed not unlike the times in which St. Ignatius lived.
Thus we come upon the “Rules for Thinking with the Church.”
The rules come at the end of the Spiritual Exercises, a little-known coda to one of the most famous spiritual texts. For those who have heard of it, many assume the rules are not that important to the Spiritual Exercises, that perhaps they were added by Ignatius out of some kind of obligation or necessity, perhaps “a manifesto of orthodoxy to protect the Exercises” from accusations of heresy. Moreover, the rules can seem so ecclesial or communal in a retreat seemingly (to moderns) to be a private dialogue between the individual and God.
These sorts of interpretations cannot be easily dismissed. But we clearly live in a time when we need to recover how to think with the church, and particularly the church understood as all of us, not just the hierarchy. And so perhaps we might suspend our disbelief about the rules long enough to ask if they have something to teach us.
There are 19 rules, and they are worth exploring individually, but there are a few things to understand about them as a whole. The great Fr. George Ganns, SJ, had some powerful insights into how to read them.
For Fr. Ganns, the rules above all offer an attitude. That’s in part because the word “thinking” is an English translation of the Latin sentire, which is richer and more affective than thinking, although it can include it. “Thinking and feeling” captures the sense that the rules are about belonging to the church, about being a part of it. This is why Rule 1 is as much a rule as it is the end of the rules: They help us to “keep our minds disposed and ready to be obedient to the true Spouse of Christ our Lord, which is our holy Mother the hierarchical Church.” That church is our home, the place where division and conflict can be transformed.
The rules are also part of the Exercises. They contain valuable wisdom for anyone. But they also presume that one has undergone the life-changing experience of the Exercises and wishes to proceed from it with a renewed commitment to devote one’s life to Christ through his church. If the rules sound naïve, then, it is only because St. Ignatius has so much faith in the gift of God to the church that is the Exercises.
To Give Thanks to God Our Lord
To go back to Fr. Ganss, the rules are about a fundamental attitude toward the church of the Christian at prayer. And that attitude is one of praise, argues the late Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, SJ, Dutch priest, linguistics scholar and superior general of the Jesuits from 1983-2008.
As Fr. Kolvenbach points out, St. Ignatius in his rules was concerned not only with reformers who lead people away from the church, but also with Catholics with an inveterately “negative and critical attitude” that tends to tear down the church. Such skeptics often see the faith primarily in intellectual terms, “never undergoing any deep spiritual crisis, never traveling along the road to Emmaus.” As Pope Francis says, these people tend to be worldly, reducing matters of faith to petty games of a doctrine isolated from reality.
We see it every day, particularly on social media: Catholics who stoke scorn and skepticism by their cynicism and hate-mongering. Many of these cynical Catholics are charitable toward people and things for which they have sympathy or are already in agreement. But they treat those who disagree with them as enemies to be refuted rather than brothers and sisters in Christ to be built up in faith.
Praise is a different attitude. Ten of the rules are exhortations to praise, and Fr. Kolvenbach notes that eight of the rules begin with praise. These rules are concrete applications for the joy of the Gospel, the “spirit of thanksgiving” that should animate our life of faith. And St. Ignatius counsels us to “fervour in our adhesion to the Church.”
Thus this praise is profoundly ecclesial. And so, Fr. Kolvenbach argues, St. Ignatius urges us to grow in our holiness by seeing what is holy in the mission of the church. The great saint was not blind to the very real human weaknesses of the church, Fr. Kolvenbach argues, but nor did he doubt the ability of what was strong in the church to make up for any weakness.
For this reason, Fr. Kolvenbach notes, St. Ignatius pairs the word “praise” with an unlikely word, or at least unlikely for us: hierarchy. The church is “hierarchical” in the sense that everyone has a place in the church, and through each place “divine grace” is “mediated” to the world. Hierarchy and mediation are closely linked: The more we recognize the role we inhabit and the vocation we live out, the more we can cooperate with the grace that God wants to share with the world through the church. It’s not a story about the hierarchy in the limited sense of priests, bishops and pope, but the universal call to holiness. We are not on the outside helplessly looking in, but on the inside of a body always seeking its center beyond itself.
Rules for Our Time
What difference would it make to our church today if we were to approach our troubles with an attitude of praise? Those challenges would certainly not disappear. After all, we are well east of Eden. And many of the divisions we face focus on real problems of the church, although certainly not all. We cannot pretend that polarization and division are the only obstacles to utopia.
But seeking to live out the praise enjoined by St. Ignatius in his rules would be a first step in seeing the church as something more than a gladiator’s ring. Learning to approach one another with an attitude of praise would be to welcome each other as children of the same God to whom we are deeply grateful, rather than combatants fighting over finite resources.
With this new disposition, our attention is first seized by gratitude for what is good and worth cherishing and cultivating in our communal living. The fear of what is seemingly bad and a threat to our private, self-enclosed isolation is thus put into its proper place: the background. And the church, in its little way, could be a witness of hope in a world that desperately needs it, a sacrament of Christ. For, as Fr. Ganns notes, the rules are not a bitter attack on the heresies of St. Ignatius’ time, but a positive response to the needs of the age. And the need of the age, above all, is Christ.
A synodal church, if it is to be synodal, must be walking toward Christ. Just as the disciples on the road to Emmaus had to be turned around to walk in the right direction, back to Jerusalem (Luke 24:3), so too might cultivating a spirit of praise, an ethos of love for the church, lead at least some of us to interact with one another with charity, rather than derision.
And for the family of people, clerical and lay, inspired by the legacy of St. Ignatius, the rules ultimately serve as a reminder that Ignatian spirituality is far more ecclesial than we give it credit for. The spiritual gifts of St. Ignatius presuppose the church. To the extent that we embrace them, we open ourselves to graces that make us more fit to live out the abundant life promised to us in and through the church.
Thus can we live out our vocation as light to the nations, a sacrament that points toward he who is the answer to all prayers, spoken and unspoken.
Fr. Bill McCormick, SJ, a native Texan, received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago and a master’s degree and Ph.D. in political theory from the University of Texas at Austin before entering the Jesuits in 2013. He was ordained a priest in June 2023 and now serves as mission and identity officer at St. John’s College in Belize City, Belize, and as priest at a few parishes in Belize City.