Friday, July 31, 2015

Ours on St. Ignatius' Day.

Today is the Feast of St. Ignatius, a day when I typically find myself honoring the memory of the founder of the Society of Jesus by praying and breaking bread with my brother Jesuits. I've celebrated this feast with other Jesuits in a variety of different cities - San Jose, Santiago, Philadelphia, Innsbruck, Vienna, Toronto, and now Paris, where today's festivities began with a solemn Mass at the Église Saint-Ignace, seen in the photo above, followed by a festive lunch at a Jesuit residence nearby. Though I would be the first to admit the reality of Jesuit subcultures, celebrations like this remind me that, in some ways, Jesuits are the same everywhere: we were all formed by the same spiritual tradition and share in the same charism, but we also tend to discuss similar topics at table and to tell similar stories, and there are certain Jesuit "types" who show up in every community I've lived in, regardless of the cultural or national context. I find these similarities very consoling; they have helped me to feel at home among Jesuits in various places, reminding me of the truth of Jerónimo Nadal's classic maxim that "the world is our house."

For me, there is also something special about celebrating the Feast of St. Ignatius in Paris, the city where the Society of Jesus was born. Though Ignatius' conversion and desire to serve the Lord were solidified before he reached this city in 1528, the seven years he spent studying here served to transform his vision of service from an individual call to a corporate enterprise. The example of Ignatius' charisma and personal devotion made him the center of a small group of friends gathered from among the thousands of students at the University of Paris. On August 15, 1534 - the Feast of the Assumption - this group gathered in a small chapel in Paris to collectively promise to serve the Lord and to take vows of poverty and chastity, with a third vow to go to Jerusalem if possible and, if this couldn't be done, to put themselves at the disposal of the Pope in Rome. Since going to Jerusalem proved impossible, the group that became known as Ignatius' First Companions eventually went to Rome instead and, after further discernment and with papal approbation, they became a new religious order.

The First Companions took their vows at the Crypte du martyrium de saint Denis, a subterranean chapel marking the place where St. Denis, the first bishop of Paris, is traditionally believed to have been martyred in the third century. The Martyrium gave its name to the area where it was located - Montmartre - and it was a well-established place of pilgrimage by the time Ignatius and his companions gathered there in 1534. Though the Martyrium was destroyed during the French Revolution, a copy of the crypt chapel was built on the presumed site of its predecessor later in the nineteenth century. Some might quibble that the new Martyrium isn't really the place where Ignatius and the First Companions took their vows, but it nevertheless serves as a place of pilgrimage for Jesuits and for others who want to establish a tangible bond with the founding experience of the Society.

As I suspect some readers can well imagine, there is something deeply moving about seeing a place like the Martyrium; I made a brief visit to the place the day after my arrival in Paris, taking the photos that I have shared here. At the time, I thought that I might return at some point during my stay in Paris to celebrate Mass in the chapel; that has not happened, both because I quickly got busy with other things and also because of the logistics involved in saying Mass there - the Martyrium is only open to visitors a few hours a week, and Mass is not regularly celebrated there, so the various accoutrements of the liturgy would have to be brought in from elsewhere; a spare key to the chapel is held by one of the Jesuit communities in Paris (albeit not the community where I've been living) and ultimately the whole thing proved complex enough that I never got around to it. I have no regrets, though, as simply seeing the site was enough for me.

Being in Paris has given me the opportunity to visit the virtual birthplace of the Society of Jesus, but the experience has also touched me in other ways. When I celebrate Mass each day, I usually do so facing a crucifix which hangs on the wall of the sacristy in my Jesuit community. This crucifix is a sort of double relic - it contains a small relic of St. Ignatius, just behind Christ's head, but the whole crucifix is itself a relic insofar as it belonged to Father Pierre Olivaint, a French Jesuit who was executed on May 26, 1871 by the forces of the Paris Commune. Offering Mass before Father Olivaint's crucifix offers a particularly vivid reminder of the implications of my vows as a Jesuit and as a priest - martyrdom may seem like a far-off and purely abstract possibility for most of us, yet it remains just that: a possibility. A character in one of Flannery O'Connor's short stories famously held that "she thought she could be a martyr if they killed her quick." As members of an order that has produced many martyrs, Jesuits are also invited to reflect on the meaning of martyrdom for ourselves: could we also die for our faith, regardless of whether or not "they killed [us] quick"?

Father Pierre Olivaint is buried in a side chapel at the Église Saint-Ignace, joined by four other Parisian Jesuits who also died as martyrs during the time of the Commune. The physical presence of their remains offers a reminder - perhaps little heeded by regular visitors to the church - of what living under the standard of the Cross entails.

Finally, returning to a theme that has featured in some earlier posts on St. Ignatius' Day - the beginning and the end of the Jesuit vocation - it strikes me as particularly appropriate that the remains of Father Olivaint and his companions are interred below an altar dedicated to St. Paul Miki and the Japanese Martyrs. The choice to place these two groups of martyrs in close proximity is far from incidental: burying a group of Jesuits who were killed for their faith in nineteenth-century France beneath a memorial to a group of Japanese clergy and laypeople who were martyred in the sixteenth century provides a reminder of the intimate bond that unites all martyrs in spite of differences in outward circumstances. The decision to link the two groups of martyrs also makes me wonder whether the example of earlier Jesuit martyrs and other saints led Father Olivaint and his companions to enter the Society of Jesus and, eventually, to accept the crown of martyrdom. This seems a rather poignant thought for the Feast of St. Ignatius, but it is an important one as well. Prayers for all who read these lines. AMDG.


At 8/01/2015 11:44 AM, Blogger Archbishop Terry said...

A beautiful reflection, Fr. Joe; one of my favourite Ignatius Days was at the rue de Grenelle. Thanks for evoking the memories; enjoy the rest of your time in Paris.
Terry Prendergast (Ottawa)

At 8/02/2015 3:59 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...

Thank you, Terry - oremus pro invicem!

Joe K


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