In August of 1534, a small group of seven companions gathered in the little chapel of the Crypt of Saint Denis in Montmartre, Paris, to celebrate the Eucharist. There they pronounced their vows, and promised to go to Jerusalem to spend their lives in the service of their Lord. As a result of the prevailing armed conflicts and disruptions in 1537, their desire to travel from Venice to the Holy Land turned out to be impossible. Two years later, in the spring of 1539, this expanded group of now ten “Friends-in-the-Lord” gathered in Rome for a crucial and decisive meeting and discernment, known as “The Deliberations of the First Fathers.” The outcome of this discernment would change their lives forever, including the lives of thousands of Jesuits that would later follow in the same pathway of seeking and finding God.
These ten foundation members of the Society of Jesus, shepherded by Ignatius of Loyola, came from various countries, each with a different family, cultural and social background. Their perspectives and previous experiences in life were also quite different, one from the other. However, one important thing glued them together: the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. Their personal experiences of the full Ignatian retreat left an indelible imprint in their lives. Each of them fell in love with Jesus! What is even more—each one of them discovered that Jesus not only loved him intimately, but that Jesus was also passionately in love with him!!
The story of these first Jesuits is not too far off from those of the 214 Jesuits gathered these days and weeks in the aula of GC36. We come from about 66 different countries; and we speak about 50 diverse languages! We come from as many varied cultural, social, political and educational backgrounds as you can imagine. Yet, the glue that holds all of us and our diverse backgrounds together is our common experience and language of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.
Every day, when I look around the aula, I behold many faces—faces of all shapes, sizes, colours and styles of beard, or of lack of beard! What an amazing and consoling richness of diversity in unity! Many and different as our faces may be, we are all united as one single body, one apostolic body. Our diversity, spread across the face of the earth, enhances our ability and availability for universal mission in the Church.
“To help souls” was the fire that was burning in the heart of Ignatius and in those of the first companions. This fire has not quenched in the sons of Ignatius today, nor in all the women and men and young people who follow the Ignatian pathway to God. Though our faces may be many and different, we are all engaged as one apostolic body in the same faith that does justice, for the greater service and glory of God.
Chuks Afiawari, S.J.