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“God works through non-programmable events: ‘that’ happened to me by chance,” says Pope Francis

Pope Francis continues his catechesis on discernment. On this second occasion he takes the example of an episode in the life of St Ignatius of Loyola.

Javier García·10 de octubre de 2022·Tiempo de lectura: 4 minutos
Papa Francisco

Original Text of the article in Spanish here

Translated by Charles Connolly

Pope Francis has begun a catechesis on discernment. His catechesis is a reflection on the workings of providence in ordinary life. Behind the apparent casualness of many daily actions lies the hand of God.

After being wounded in the leg while defending the city of Pamplona, Ignatius had to convalesce for several months. Lacking a TV or a film screen to entertain him during the hours of recuperation, he could only turn to reading as a means of entertainment and escape. So he asked his relatives for books of chivalric adventures, as he was very fond of them, but as there were only books of a religious nature in the house, he had to be satisfied with this literary genre. Thanks to this situation, he began to learn more about the life of Christ and the saints.

Pope Francis, a spiritual son of St Ignatius, remarked how the founder of the Jesuits “was fascinated by the profiles of Saint Francis and Saint Dominic, and felt the desire to imitate them. But the world of chivalry also continued to exert its fascination on him. Thus, he felt within himself this alternation of thoughts—those of chivalry and those of the saints—which seem to be on par with one another.”

“But Ignatius also began to perceive some differences,” the Pope continued. “In his Autobiography (written in the third person) he wrote: ‘When he thought of worldly things’—and of things of chivalry, of course—‘it gave him great pleasure; but afterward he found himself dry and sad. But when he thought of journeying to Jerusalem, and of living only on herbs and practicing austerities, he found pleasure not only while thinking of them, but also when he had stopped’ (no. 8);” they left in him a trace of joy.

Pope Francis explains the action of grace

Glossing this story, the Holy Father underlined the contrast between the emptiness left in the human heart by certain desires that present themselves in an extremely attractive way, and the things of God, which may not be very appetizing at first but then do fill a person. Something like this happened to St Ignatius when he was saddened by the religious literature offered him.

The Pope quoted a famous text from the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius in which he explains how the devil acts differently when faced with different people, some better, and some worse:

“In the persons who go from one mortal sin to another, the enemy usually proposes apparent pleasures to them,” (to reassure them that everything is fine) “making them imagine sensual delights and pleasures in order to take hold of them more and make them grow in their vices and sins. In these persons the good spirit uses the opposite method, pricking them and biting their consciences through the process of reason” (Spiritual Exercises, 314).

Listening to the heart

“When Ignatius was lying wounded in his father’s house, he wasn’t thinking of God at all, or of how to reform his own life. No. He had his first experience of God by listening to his own heart, which presented him with a curious reversal: things that were attractive at first sight left him disillusioned, whereas in others, less dazzling, he perceived lasting peace. We, too, have had this experience: very often we begin to think about something, and we stay there, and then we end up disappointed. Instead, when we carry out a work of charity, do something good and feel some happiness, a good thought comes to us, and happiness comes to us, something joyous. It’s an experience that’s entirely our own. He, Ignatius, had his first experience of God by listening to his own heart; this showed him a curious reversal. This is what we must learn: to listen to our own heart, to know what’s happening, what decision to make. To pass judgement on a situation, we have to listen to our own heart.”

But listening to the voice of the heart is no easy matter, among other things because we are bombarded by so many stimuli. “We watch the television, we listen to the radio, to the cell phone,” the Pope went on, “we’re experts at listening, but I ask you: do you know how to listen to your heart? Do you stop to say: ‘But how is my heart? Is it satisfied, is it sad, is it looking for something?’ To make good decisions, you need to listen to your heart.”

The appearance of happenstance

To prepare oneself to listen to one’s inner voice, we have to read the biographies of the saints. In them, it is easy to see how God acts in the lives of people, so that their example can guide us in our daily decisions. By interiorizing the Gospel and the lives of the saints, one learns to see how “God works through un-plannable events that happen by chance: by chance this happened to me, and by chance I met this person, and by chance I saw this film. It wasn’t planned but God works through un-plannable events, and also through setbacks: ‘But I was supposed to go for a walk and I have a problem with my foot, I can’t…’ Setback: what is God saying to you? What is life telling you there?”

Following this supernatural logic, the Pope advised the faithful to be “attentive to unexpected things.”

“It’s in the unexpected events that God often speaks. What is life telling you there?… Is it the Lord who’s speaking to you, or is it the devil? Someone is speaking. But there’s still something to be discerned: how do I react when faced with the unexpected? I was relaxing at home and then, Boom!—my mother-in-law arrives. And how do you react to your mother-in-law? Is it with love, or something else? You must discern. I was working well in the office, and a colleague comes along to tell me he needs to borrow something: how do you react? Take note of what happens when we experience things we weren’t expecting, and learn to know how our heart reacts. Discernment helps us recognize the signs with which the Lord makes himself present in unforeseen situations—even unpleasant ones, as it was for Ignatius, wounded in his leg.”

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