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Faith that does justice: The mission of Pope Francis and Jesuit teaching

Francis has taken the world by storm with his compassion, ministry to the poor and vision of the Church that takes it out of the sacristy and into the world.

Pope Francis has taken the world by storm with his ministry to the poor and efforts to take the Church out of the sacristy and into the world. Powerful images of Francis as a servant leader -- shunning ostentation, washing the feet of prisoners in a pre-Easter ritual -- have provided us with a new vision of the papacy. It is a vision reminiscent of the Gospel story and its message of reconciliation, love, and service to the marginalized and forgotten.

At Xavier High School, the 168-year-old, all-boys Jesuit high school in Lower Manhattan where I serve as chaplain and senior religion teacher, our students are heirs to the tradition that Pope Francis studied, practiced, and lived as a young Jesuit in Argentina. It is the Ignatian tradition, named after St. Ignatius Loyola—the Jesuits’ founder and first Superior General—in the mid-sixteenth century.

The heart of this tradition is found in St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, which teach those who do them—religious and lay people alike—to pay attention to their interior movements, their feelings and thoughts, to discern what God is doing in their lives and respond accordingly. Above all, the Exercises cultivate a proper sense of gratitude for the gifts one has received, whether from loved ones, strangers, or yes, from God. This is the tradition that informs Francis’ teachings and actions as pope, and it is the bedrock of Jesuit education, which encourages students to "find God in all things," the motto of the Jesuit order.

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Jesuits -- and the students we and our lay colleagues teach -- learn early on that we are called to a faith that is alive in a world that suffers, toward which we have a responsibility over and above our own needs and desires. Every year I teach, I am reminded of just what this spirituality can accomplish. At Xavier, we began this year’s Social Justice course by reading Martin Luther King’s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." As I usually do, I asked students about their first impressions of this seminal document in modern American history—what struck them and moved them in the reading. I was not disappointed.

The first student to raise his hand said, “I was moved by the passage where Dr. King described the plight of an African-American father having to explain to his little girl why she could not go to an amusement park recently opened in their Southern town. I was upset that a child so young had to learn so early in her life that she was not accepted, or feel that there was something wrong with her.”

This young man, all of 17 years old, focused not on the glaring forms of physical violence Dr. King describes in his letter, but on a subtler form of violence: that which harms the human spirit. This is true empathy and understanding. This young man had already learned to see with his heart and not just with his eyes.

Another student who raised his hand in response to the same question looked visibly shaken. I asked him what was the matter. He responded, “So much violence, so much suffering, and so much hatred. It is very sad to see that ordinary people can treat others in that way.” I could see in his response something every teacher at a Jesuit school longs to witness: the development of a deeply-human response to the sufferings of others. Clearly, this student did not just read the text; he allowed it to speak to him and move him toward an understanding that comes from his depths, moves outward into the world, toward a faith that does justice.

As the course proceeds, both students will learn how to analyze, study, and act in response to injustices they will encounter in their lives. In the meantime, they can learn from Pope Francis how to become “men for others” -- at the service of the world, the care of creation, and that justice which is indispensable to peace. They are well on their way. 

Rev. Ralph Rivera, S.J. is chaplain and senior religion teacher at Xavier High School. He earned degrees at Columbia University, Loyola University Chicago, and the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley. Before entering the Jesuits, he worked as associate director of the National Labor Committee for Worker and Human Rights in Central America in New York and as development director and educator for the Hunger Action Network of New York State.