Last week, one of my Jesuit professors at the Gregorian University spoke about Blessed Peter Faber (sometimes written Favre, like the quarterback) as a key to understanding the style of Pope Francis. Here was the story he told of the first priest ordained for the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits):
In the city of Cologne, the bishop was worried by the great influence and spread of Protestantism, and especially of the great number of priests that were going over to the Lutherans. Nothing he did to try to reform the clergy and bring them into line seemed to be working. In 1541, Peter was sent to Germany, where he began to give the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola to priests and laity.
The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius come in many different shapes and sizes. A 30-day silent retreat, an 8-day silent retreat, a daily period of prayer while staying in our everyday occupations (called 19th annotation, from the book The Spiritual Exercises). But the basic thrust of the Exercises is the encounter with Christ in the Gospels. This encounter is facilitated by the imagination, wherein we place ourselves in the Gospel scenes, listen to Christ teach, watch him perform miracles, identify ourselves with those whom Christ chooses and calls.
In Cologne, the reform of the clergy began to take root, and the Church was strengthened. The encounter with Jesus Christ gave the priests the strength, the desire, to change their lives. What was the issue? Many of the priests did not want to give up their concubines (their woman on the side), and the Protestants were telling them that they would not have to if they “converted”; they would be able to marry. So, the encounter with Christ enabled these Catholic clergy to be faithful to the vows they had made at their ordination, to live a celibate life in service to the Lord.
One of the seminarians who made the Spiritual Exercises with Peter Faber was Peter Canisius. Struck by the encounter with Christ in the Gospel and the charism of the Jesuits, he joined the Jesuits and became one of the greatest preachers and teachers of the faith in Germany. Peter Canisius is sometimes called the second apostle of Germany (Saint Boniface being the first, from the 8th Century).
Peter Canisius has long been a saint. Ignatius of Loyola and Francis Xavier, the two most famous Jesuits, have long been saints. But what about this first Jesuit priest, a Frenchman, who came to Germany, who also preached in Portugal and Spain, and who died (of exhaustion at age 40, in the arms of Ignatius) in 1546 at Rome?
Pope Francis has spoken of the inspiration that Blessed Peter Faber is for him personally, and of course as a Jesuit priest. In his interview with La Civilta Cattolica, Pope Francis held up these attributes of Blessed Peter:
His dialogue with all, even the most remote and even with his opponents; his simple piety, a certain naïveté perhaps, his being available straightaway, his careful interior discernment, the fact that he was a man capable of great and strong decisions but also capable of being so gentle and loving.
Sound familiar? It is obvious to see the resemblance of this 16th Century Jesuit in the first Jesuit pope. “His dialogue with all, even the most remote and even with his opponents”–we think of the Pope’s interview with Scalfari and his continual call for us to go the “periphery” of existence to find the lost sheep.
“His simple piety”; “his being available straightaway”; “his careful interior discernment”–these traits become evident for anyone who watches the Pope pray (just find a YouTube video of him saying Mass) and who has been struck by his ability to connect with so many different people.
“Strong, gentle and loving”–characteristics that often do not go together, but that coincide in an amazing way in Pope Francis.
Lastly, we think of the insistence of Pope Francis that the moral teachings of the Church must be presented and lived within the context of a personal relationship with Christ. The modern world (even the priests!), maybe even more than in the 1500s, does not just want to be told what to do or what not to do. Morality springs from a relationship, as a response to the one who has loved us “to the end” (John 13:1). What gave those priests the will to follow Christ and stay faithful to their commitments? Wonder–the amazement before a Person who gives life a new horizon and a definitive direction (as the last Pope said–continuity!). Peter Faber preached Christ in a convincing way, so convincing that concrete changes became visible and the Church began to reform.
I am excited to learn more about Blessed Peter Faber throughout the pontificate of Pope Francis, and precisely through the pontificate of Pope Francis. We will all be hearing more about this saint in the coming weeks, as the word on the street (not 100% official yet) is that Faber will be canonized in December.
Blessed Peter Faber, pray for us!