Bishop Fulton Sheen on Saint Ignatius of Loyola

Source: District of Asia

A sermon of Msgr. Fulton Sheen during the Alumni Pontifical Mass opening the Jesuit Quadricentennial-Xavier University Centennial Celebration, St. Francis Xavier Church, Cincinnati, Ohio, September 22, 1940

As one casts his eyes about the world today, one notices throughout Christian Europe an invasion from the East, the invasion of a paganism that is worse than a heresy. Only one country has successfully combated it, and that is Spain, where the civil war came to an issue just a short time ago. Already that paganism has swept through a country which finds it difficult to reconcile itself with other countries who share a Christian civilization. Italy, which might be depended upon to have defended Christian civilization, has, to some extent, sold out to the advent of that paganism. It is remarkable, indeed, to note that these were exactly the conditions that existed about four hundred years ago.

The Turks were then sweeping through Christian Europe. Constantinople had fallen. All the Balkan Peninsula, Africa, Asia and Egypt had fallen prey to the Turks. Rhodes had been captured, almost the last outpost of the Christian Crusades. Only one country at that particular time had successfully combated the Turks, and that was Spain. Italy as a nation did not exist at that particular time, but Venice had a treaty with the Turks for commercial reasons.

There was need at that time of a great man that might meet this paganism as well as the heresy which came in its wake. Just about one hundred years before, a great Dominican Saint, who was preaching penance in Spain, St. Vincent Ferrer, looking into the future, had said: "Within the next hundred years a new society will be founded which will be called the Society of Jesus. Its members will teach, preach, live for Jesus, and even seek death that they may be more intimately united with Him."

On the 20th day of May in the year 1521, a little. Dutch boy was born. The priest came to visit the family, and prophesied over that child that he would one day become a member of a Society of which St. Vincent Ferrer had spoken. On the very day that the prophecy was made in the Netherlands, a romantic soldier fighting against the French at the battle of Pampeluna was struck by a cannon ball. The cannon ball hit his right leg and then rebounded off and left him wounded. That man was Ignatius, of whom Vincent spoke; and that boy over whom the prophecy had been made was to be one of the great saints of the Society of Jesus, St. Peter Canisius.

We are now celebrating the 400th anniversary of the foundation of this Society, and I suppose that the most notable thing that could be said about St. Ignatius was that he was not a man of his times.

We who live so very close to this world are very apt to believe that a great man always belongs to his times. It is the contrary which is true. Men who belong to their times die with their times. If you marry the spirit of this age, you will be a widow in the next one. The modernism of 1940 will not be the modernism of 1943. Blum, the Premier of France, is a man of his times, but he is not a man who will live in history. Freud, the psychologist, was a man of our times, but he can live only in an era of carnality, only in a day when men and women are exclusively wedded to sex. But when men and women get back to the normal course of human living, he will be forgotten.

What in it that makes a classical piece of literature?

It is the fact that it recounts human passions and human motivations which are beyond time. That is why Shakespeare lives today. Why is it great dramas of Sophocles and Euripides live today? It is simbly because they recount the yearnings and aspirations of a human soul for redemption, and these yearnings are not peculiar to any age. "Look not for any end, moreover, to this curse, until some god appear to accept upon his head the pangs of thy old sins vicariously," was in the drama of Sophocles over five centuries before Christ. And so Ignatius was a great man because he did not belong to his time.

If there was anything that characterized his times, it was heresy and doubt. The heresy, that I speak of, came in the wake of that Turkish invasion when Christian unity was broken up, and yet we find practically nothing in the writings of St. Ignatius concerning that heresy. He entered the University of Paris as John Calvin left it, but we find nothing in his writings about John Calvin. He spent a quarter of his life in Rome at the time Michelangelo was giving to the world his works of art, yet as you read over the writings of Ignatius you would never know he had visited the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo is mentioned only once in the life of Ignatius, and that was just in passing, when he said that out of devotion Michelangelo had consented to retouch the murals of the Chapel of Santa Maria della Strada.

When the final acts of the drama of Redemption came to our Saviour, He permitted himself to be stripped of His garments. The clothing localized Him. It identified Him with a certain time, with a certain race. So He stripped Himself of all of those identifying marks, that He might become the universal Man of the world, be unfurled almost like a banner on the cross-roads of the three civilizations of Athens, Jerusalem and Rome. And Ignatius, who was as detemporalized from his time as from ours, can, therefore, preach to our time.

That is why we are gathered here to celebrate the memory of a living man, as far as influence is concerned. And there are two great lessons to be learned from his life, which, I repeat, are just as applicable for this day as any other. The first lesson Ignatius leaves us is that we are to meet the errors of our time not directly but indirectly. And, secondly, there is hope for sinners.

First of all, St. Ignatius reminds us we are to meet the errors of our time not directly but indirectly. I say there is very little in his writings about heresy, but he was very much concerned with heresy. When a man is starving, you need not go to him and tell him to avoid poisons. You need not present to him a piece of research by a Chemical Department of a University, showing there are certain kinds of poison in certain kinds of food. Neither need you go to that man if he be starving and remind him that the Chemistry Department of a well-known University has proven there are vitamins A, B, C, and D in bread. If he is starving, all you need to do is give him the bread. The laws of nature will do the rest. And when the minds and hearts of men have broken down, you need not go to them and tell them how wrong they are. You need only to go to them with the great truth, and the grace of God will do the rest. That was the method of Ignatius.

In other words, instead of trying to prove how wrong heresy was, he set out to make Catholics a little more Catholic. That was the burden of his life, as it was the burden of every great man who has ever lived. If you want to do anything for anyone, you must always be devoted to a higher ideal.

"I could not love thee, Deare, so much, Lov'd I not Honour more,"

said the poet. It is only by living ideals of purity w will ever find a basis for human love. Perhaps no on has ever given as much inspiration for art as St. Francis of Assisi. Yet he wrote nothing about it, nor said anything about it. He sought something else that was higher, and thus indirectly influenced art.

The method of Ignatius was the method of our Lord on the Cross, whose enemies came beneath it and said: "Others He saved; Himself He cannot." Of course He cannot save Himself. No man can save himself who is saving another. The acorn cannot save itself, if it is to bud the oak. The sun cannot save itself, if it is to light our world. Soldiers cannot save themselves, if they are to save their countries. And so we cannot save ourselves directly, if we are to save the world.

St. Ignatius then left as his great contribution to the world a method of prayer. It could all be summed up in some such propositions as these: If you are intensely devoted to this world, you will make a mess of it. The only way to save the world is to be devoted to Christ. In the best of his writings is told his method of prayer and thirty days of contemplation in solitary penance, to bring home to us the true sense of values. That is the way to influence the world.

He was attempting to remind men by that hidden life, a complete and total self-donation, that they could. possess power only on condition that they were indifferent to it; that the only men in the world who should ever be entrusted with power were men who knew how to obey; the only ones in the world who should have wealth, were to be those who were conscious of the stewardship of wealth.

And when it came to the taking of vows, the same Ignatian philosophy pervaded them. Why should he ask his followers to take the vows of chastity, obedience, poverty? Did he ask them to take the vow of poverty because there was something wrong with wealth? Most certainly not. He reminded his followers of that over and over again. Wealth is a creation of God. We have too many in this world who have failed to learn the lesson of Ignatius, selfish poor; too many who hate the rich, and who never earned the right. No man has a right to hate the rich until, like our Blessed Lord and Ignatius, he has proven he is free from the passion of wealth. Every Communist is nothing but a Capitalist without any cash in his pockets, the involuntarily poor man.

Ignatius asked his followers to take the vow of poverty, not because wealth was wrong, but because there were some people in the world who did not know how to use their wealth, because they were consecrated to it as an end. In order to establish an equilibrium in God's universe he asked that some detach themselves from it; then, as it were, bend backwards to make reparation for those who had God's gift and knew not how to use. it.

Why the vow of chastity? Because the flesh is wrong? Most certainly not. Flesh is capable of being elevated to a Sacrament. Anyone who would deny that it is, that it can be elevated to a Sacrament, should be read out of the Church. Why then should he ask that there be detachment from the flesh, if it be not wrong? Because there are some people in the world who know not how to serve it. The only ones who know how to serve the flesh are those who are consecrated to God, either by a vow or by the nobility of their own lives. And in order, therefore, that an equilibrium might be established in God's universe, he asked his own followers to bend backwards, to detach themselves from legitimate pleasures, in order to make atonement for those who had the right to use it and abused the right.

Why the vow of obedience? Because the human will is wrong? There is nothing wrong with the human will. As a matter of fact, the human will is the only thing we can really call our own. Everything else is God's; our wealth, our health, our position, our prestige and our power God can take from us. There is one thing that He cannot take, and that is our freedom, because He would be denying Himself if He took that away.

Freedom, therefore, is the only perfect gift that we can make to God. If, then, freedom is one of the greatest of God's gifts and that gift is the most personal, why should there be a vow of obedience? Because there are some people in the world who know not how to use their freedom. And in order, therefore, that God's purposes might be served, he asked some souls to surrender their own freedom to a superior in the name of Christ, to establish a balance in God's universe.

In other words, the way that Ignatius met the errors of his time was by bringing people back again to God. He attempted to establish something, and he did actually establish something, which Plato wanted established but could not because of the circumstances of his time. The old Greek philosopher was one of the wisest men who ever lived. He had envisaged a republic of great and noble souls. It could never be achieved as Plato envisaged it. It has been achieved as Ignatius saw it, for he did establish throughout this world what might be called an Ignatian Republic. Philosophers are not willing to die for their cause; saints are. That is why Ignatius prospered where Plato failed, and the Ignatian Republic is made up of souls who will first seek the Kingdom of God and His justice, and thus become the leaven in the mass.

That method of Ignatius is probably far more appropriate now than it was in his own time, for I think the day has passed when we can look for any group conversions. We will not see in our lifetime the resurrection of a truly Christian State. The hope of the rebirth of the world will be by and through individuals who will influence the world by the nobility of their lives; and that, incidentally, is why the retreat movement, which the followers of Ignatius are instituting throughout the world, is perhaps one of the most effective remedies for the ills of our time. It is in the spirit of Ignatius and it is in the spirit of Christ, who spoke of His chosen followers as always being few- the salt of the earth, the city on the hill, the leaven in the mass.

And as Ignatius told us how to meet the errors of our time by loving Heaven, so also he taught us hope. as far as our own individual lives are concerned. Ignatius was not what we could call a model youth-and that is putting it mildly-and yet he became a saint. When he was wounded at the battle of Pampeluna, he suffered an injury in both legs. He submitted to an operation, and after the operation, which was very painful, he had a protruding bone. He did not like that protruding bone, because he could not wear high boots; and he submitted to another operation of having that bone sawed off without the aid of an anesthetic. When the bone was sawed off, again vain Ignatius still could not wear his high boots. He permitted his leg, therefore, to be put in a machine and stretched, in order that it might be restored to normal posture. He called these experiences his martyrdom of vanity.

I suppose that the generality of mankind, hearing a story of that kind about Ignatius, wonders how he could ever become a saint. I am not indicating that it was the worst thing he ever did, as St. Augustine certainly did not indicate the worst thing he ever did when in his Confessions he spoke of having stolen an apple. But if we understand character, we will see in the martyrdom of vanity of St. Ignatius the possibility of sanctity.

Too often we think of characters as being passive. As a matter of fact, there are too many people in this world who are getting credit for being good, when they are only passive. They have not enough energy to do anything good, and they have not enough energy to do anything bad. A character is one who has an infinite potentiality for virtue and for vice. Not virtue alone, because how could you be virtuous in this world and in the present order of things without the possibility of being vicious? A man can be a hero only on the battlefield in which it is possible to be a coward. A man can be a patriot only in a country in which it is possible to be traitor. And a man can be a saint only in a church in which it is possible to be a devil.

The icebergs that float in the cold streams of the North deserve no credit for being icebergs. They cannot help it. But let those icebergs come down to the warm streams of the South and remain icebergs- they have character. They are real icebergs.

And so it is with the character of the soul. The great characters of the world are not the mediocre Christian people. Potential saints are in prison, potential criminals are in the convents and in the monasteries. They have tremendous energy, and it could flow in the direction of Christ and it could flow in the direction of Satan. Ignatius was one of those characters. A man who could be vicious, and a man who could be vain.

We canonize the Little Flower. But the Church had to have heroic character to canonize her. The Little Flower tells us that if she had not struggled all of her life to correspond with the great graces God had given to her, she would have been one of the most wicked women who ever lived. In other words, the height to which we climb can be measured also by the depths. to which we could fall.

In the life of Ignatius, therefore, is hope for us all. If we be sinners, there is hope of great sanctity. If we are just passive, there is still hope and the saints are raised upon our altars to be imitated. It is unfortunate that practically all of the lives of saints which we read are, for the most part, the lives of people who cannot be imitated. We can read the life of our Lord in the Gospels, and we feel we can imitate Him who is the Son of God. We then read the life of a saint, and we feel we cannot imitate his life at all. It is not the fault of the saints, it is the fault of the men who wrote their lives. We may each and every one of us see in Christ's Resurrection the potentialities of our own, if we by the grace of God can transform our humdrum existence into great sanctity.

Down in the gutter of the city street was a drop of water, soiled and dirty and stagnant; and way up in the heavens a gentle sunbeam saw it, reached from out his azure sky down to the drop, kissed it, thrilled it through and through with new strange life and hopes, and lifted it up higher and higher and higher beyond the clouds, and one day left it as a flake of immaculate snow on a mountain-top. Just so our own routine lives can be ennobled and perfected, provided we bring together the inspiration of vigor, of apostolic zeal and salt, the inspiration of a Great Captain bearing five wounds in the forefront of the battle.

When we see this, we, like Ignatius, may understand through his method of prayer the meaning of the shape of the human heart. He tried to bring home to us what was our destiny, in his meditations, and in that I see he solved the mystery of the heart. Our human heart is not perfect in shape and contour, like a valentine heart. There seems to be a small piece missing out of the side of every human heart that may symbolize the piece that was torn out of the heart of the universe, of humanity, on the Cross. But I think the real meaning is that, as Almighty God made each and. every human heart, He kept a small sample of it in Heaven and sent the rest of it into this world to be ever reminded that it would never be really happy, never be really peaceful, never be really wholehearted, until it went back again to God to recover the piece that He has been keeping for it from all eternity.