The patron saint of young people, and of Jesuit scholastics (students for the priesthood), we celebrate the life of Saint Aloysius Gonzaga SJ in a special way this year with a Jubilee Year to mark the 450th anniversary of his birth. Why is his life worth celebrating?
Aloysius, or Luigi, gave up a privileged background to enter the Society of Jesus. While studying for the priesthood, he died while caring for plague victims on the streets of Rome. Rather than flee the daunting realities of his time, he faced up to them, found Christ in them and brought Him to those in most need. His life was not one limited by ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ nor hidden behind convenient excuses or empty, unrealised promises. His was a life lived out to the full, a “radical surrender of one’s life to Jesus Christ and to the cause of the Gospel” (Fr General Arturo Sosa SJ). This ‘lifestyle choice’ is one that is as relevant today as it was then, and it is a life that continues to inspire young people, as well as us Jesuit scholastics, 450 years on.
At Manresa House, Birmingham (the Jesuit novitiate where we begin our formation journey), we have a letter, written by Saint Aloysius Gonzaga SJ, six months before his death. In it, Aloysius writes to a close friend Anton Guelfucci, a fellow Jesuit scholastic. Like many of us contacting friends after we have allowed too much time to pass since being in touch, Aloysius begins with an apology, but it is an apology that spoke to me about one of the meaningful experiences in my own formation process so far:
I had resolved not to write to you till first I had had one of your two letters… but my affection for you and my desire to derive consolation from a conversation with you by letter… make me fail in my resolve
A difficult yet necessary aspect of our Jesuit formation is that, when embarking on the journey, we have to leave behind our friends and family. Not forever, not entirely, but certainly for a period of time, as we create the ideal conditions to discern what it is we are called to give our lives to, whether that be life in the Society of Jesus or elsewhere. A part of my own journey was not only to leave home in a physical sense but also to leave it in a digital one – I ‘left’ Facebook. For me, this radical decision was also the right one. It gave me a breathing space from the various subconscious social pressures that are placed on us in such a vibrant and infectious social media environment: how to look, what to say, where to go, who to be… In separating myself from what can become artificial and manufactured, I dared to seek a truer version of myself.
There I learnt a first lesson in Ignatian spirituality (the way of thinking, praying and living like St Ignatius, the co-founder of the Jesuits): a deeper freedom can be found in detaching ourselves from excessive affections, the things we spend too much time considering.
Then came my ‘Aloysius Gonzaga letter moment’: After two years of digital silence, having made my First Vows and joined the Society of Jesus, I ‘rejoined’ Facebook. In the words of the saint (version 2018): “my affection for you and my desire to derive consolation from a conversation with you by Facebook messenger … make me fail in my resolve”.
This wasn’t a decision taken lightly, nor was it a ‘caving in’. It was a discernment that I could best serve Christ, best fulfil the will of God for my life, in using Facebook once more. It was a choice, like the decision to leave, that I made in freedom, with a calm conviction that it was right for me.
Here was a second lesson in Ignatian spirituality: there’s no place for binary thinking, no one-size-fits-all choice that must be clung to at all times by everyone. There is the right decision, at the right time for a particular person. And, by remaining patiently in tune with the Holy Spirit, our spiritual fingers on the pulse of our desires and our interior movements in prayer, we can trace how God invites us to act in the circumstances we find ourselves in.
So was it the right decision? Do I regret returning to Facebook? Does such a place have a role in the spiritual life? For the moment I can respond positively to the above questions. Just as St Aloysius had hoped in contacting his friend after an extended break in communication, I experienced a deep, profound consolation. Did this come from the regular updates of what friend x was having for breakfast or from friend y’s holiday selfies? Not quite, but there is something to be said about being able to share in the daily lives of others, to marvel in their joys, offer support in their difficulties, to see what breaks their heart or what builds them up. Seen through the Jesuit lens of gratitude for the gifts given by God on a daily basis, there is something to be said for enabling people to share in the manifold blessings of those they know, to allow ourselves to be touched by how God is working in lives of others.
On a more personal level, rejoining Facebook has led me to reconnect with people I may never have seen or heard from again, again a chance to give thanks to God for the experiences of my life that have made me who I am. I have reconnected with childhood friends, school teachers and distant family members. I have also received touching messages of support for my decision to enter the Society and train for the priesthood, often from the most unexpected of people. I have even experienced friends confiding in me, seeking support in difficult personal moments.
Here we arrive at the third and final lesson I learnt in Ignatian spirituality, some great criteria to check if a decision continues to be the right one: am I still being the truest version of myself? Am I free? Has this decision brought life to me and to others? Does this contribute to my service of God with my life, or is it an obstacle to His light?
My instinct remains that if Facebook is where people ‘are at’ then the Church needs to be there too. And so we, young people of today, can return once again to Aloysius Gonzaga SJ for inspiration: face up to the realities of the time, attempt to find God present in them and bring this Good News to others through our own radical witness to a life lived to the full following the example of Jesus Christ.
Christopher Brolly SJ,
Paris, May 2018