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Spiritual Exercises

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Sanctity Through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Let me be as clear as I can. Why speak on this subject of Sanctity through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius? Because, as one modern pope after another tells us, our century is the most sin-laden century in human history. Ordinary Catholics will not survive. Ordinary bishops will not survive. Ordinary priests and religious will not survive. Ordinary fathers and mothers will not survive. Only heroic Catholics, I don’t say will survive, but only heroic Catholics can re-Christianize one paganized nation after another, including our own.

What this means, therefore, is, there must be heroic Catholicity, which is my name for sanctity. Why? Otherwise, what is happening in so many countries over the centuries will happen to our own. We need, more than ever, saints to convert a paganized America.

How to do this? I would not be a member of the Society of Jesus, founded by St. Ignatius of Loyola, if I did not share with you my convictions. The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, for now over four hundred years, have been the proven means of sanctifying by now millions of what otherwise would have been ordinary Catholics. To make the Spiritual Exercises means to spend a weekend, a full week, but preferably thirty full days in meditating on the Spiritual Exercises with at least three hours of meditation a day.

My purpose in the present conference is to identify what I call the key features of the Spiritual Exercises. These key features of the Spiritual Exercises I number at seven. In the forty-minutes I have been given to share with you, I would like to communicate both with you and to you what I am convinced is nothing less than a divinely-provided means of performing moral miracles in changing ordinary Catholics into heroic Catholics, the kind that are needed to re-Christianize one once-Christian nation after another, including our own.

Key Features of the Spiritual Exercises

Let me first identify these seven features. First, what I call making a spiritual inventory of our lives. Secondly, recognizing we’ve got a true, truly interior freedom of the will to do one thing: to choose the will of God. Third, in God’s providence we are to be channels of grace to others. Fourth, what St. Ignatius calls the Third Degree of Humility. Fifth, accept the Bishop of Rome is the Vicar of the Truth. We know only as much as God’s revealed truth as we accept the authority of the Bishop of Rome. Sixth, a deep, strong love of the Cross. And finally, strange statement, sin in the providence of God.

Spiritual Inventory

First then, how do the Spiritual Exercises provide us with the means of growing in sanctity? They do so by providing us with the need for making an inventory of the creatures in our lives. No business place, no Pizza Hut, not even the smallest business, I would say, would succeed, would even survive, unless the owner or proprietor would make a daily inventory of how much was sold, how much money was taken in. In other words, it is just common sense to make an inventory and here, as Ignatius makes so clear, is an inventory of the creatures that God puts into our lives. We are constantly, day and night, surrounded, enveloped in what we call creatures. But we’d better know, we’d better know, how these creatures that are such an essential part of our lives, how they are to be used. These creatures include all the people. They include everything we see, everything we read, every experience we have in life. St. Ignatius classifies all these creatures in four categories.

  • Some of these persons, places and things, some of these thoughts and desires are to be enjoyed. We’d better, we’d better identify which of these persons, places and things God wants us to enjoy. And, thank God for providing these enjoyable creatures in our lives. But first, make sure you know what persons, what places, what books, what experiences God wants you to enjoy.

  • God puts into our lives, hear it, deliberately, this is God, God puts persons, places and things into our lives that He wants us to endure. Father, are you saying there are persons in our lives placed there by God for us to endure? Yes! And we’d better know which creatures God wants us to endure. After today’s sessions, you wives, please don’t go back to your husbands and tell them, “I learned something I never knew before. God put you into my life, that by enduring you, I might reach my heavenly destiny.”

  • There are creatures in our lives that God wants us to get rid of, remove. Why? Oh, they may be very pleasant, but they are the occasions of sin. Find out what are these creatures? What thoughts, what desires, what reading, what radio and television programs are occasions of sin and remove, and the word is remove, these creatures from your life.

  • And finally, what creatures does God want me, not to remove because they are occasions of sin, but that God wants me to sacrifice, to give up. Not because I have to, but because out of love for God, I surrender, give up, in other words, sacrifice. So far, No. 1.

Free Will

No. 2. St. Ignatius was a contemporary of Martin Luther, born and died almost at the same time. If there is one principle of the spiritual life that Martin Luther and his Protestant followers denied, no exception, they all denied that we have true freedom of the will. In other words, in classic historic Protestantism, those will reach heaven who are pre-destined for heaven. Those will not reach heaven who are pre-destined for eternal damnation. Don’t you dare talk about a free will with which you can either cooperate with God’s grace or resist God’s grace. Martin Luther broke with the Catholic Church in 1517. Already in 1520, Pope Leo X condemned Martin Luther’s writings and among the condemned heresies was Luther’s claim we do not have true freedom of the will. As Catholics, we believe we have a free will. And the purpose of that free will is to choose. To choose what? To choose what God wants us to choose. Does it mean to choose what we don’t like? Sure! What we like has nothing to do with what God wants us to choose. The key is to choose what God knows we need. But let me tell you, my fiftieth year in the priesthood, how much I’ve learned. The happiest people on earth are those who use their free wills to choose what God wants them to choose. And the most unhappy people in the world are those who choose what they want. The pro-choicers are all unhappy people. If by pro-choice, as we know, they mean choosing what you want.

Channels of Grace

Third feature of Ignatian spirituality: If I spoke for the next ten hours, I could not spend too much time or be too explicit in explaining that sanctity, hear it, sanctity is not an end in itself. We’re not to become holy just to be holy. No! We are to become holy in order that God might use us as channels of communicators of His grace to others. Only holy people sanctify others. No one else does. Only patient people are used by God as channels of His grace of patience for others. Only humble people are used by God to bring others the virtue of humility. Only chaste people are used by God to bring chastity to others. You parents, in the name of Jesus Christ, live, live your married life, with, what the Church calls, marital chastity. And the two principal sins against marital chastity are infidelity and contraception. Do you hear me? Only chaste persons are used by God to bring chastity to everyone whose lives they touch. And so on down the litany of the virtues. Holiness is not an end in itself. God wants us to become holy so that we might then be used by God to bring sanctity to others.

Third Degree of Humility

Fourth feature of Ignatian spirituality: What St. Ignatius calls the Third Degree of Humility. The first degree is to avoid mortal sin. The second degree is to avoid venial sin. The third degree of humility is not only to avoid what is sinful, but to choose and hear the word, to choose what is more pleasing to God, even though no sin is involved. When I left my widowed mother all alone and told a wonderful girl who already had a wedding date set for our marriage that I was entering the Society of Jesus – I still can’t believe that I made the choice to sacrifice what naturally speaking, I would have preferred. I repeat, I still cannot believe, that with God’s grace, I made the choice. The Third Degree of Humility means choosing what is more pleasing to God. Choosing what is more difficult, more demanding, more self-sacrificing, not because you have to under the pain of sin, but because you love Jesus Christ, and out of love for Him, you want to be like Him in choosing what He chose. As St. Paul tells us, having joy set before Him, He chose the Cross. How today’s world needs, dear God, how today’s world needs Catholics who are aware of God’s great love for them, shedding His blood on Calvary out of love for us. And therefore, love wants to repay the one it claims to love. If God became man, hear it, a man in order to show His love for us, dying on His Calvary, we, if we really, really, really love Jesus Christ, we will follow His example and dare I say it, prefer the Cross because the God who created us out of nothing became man and chose the Cross out of love for us.

Obedience to the Bishop of Rome

Fifth feature of Ignatian spirituality and bedrock to the Spiritual Exercises: Believing and acting on one’s faith that the Bishop of Rome is the Vicar of Truth in the world. It is no wonder that St. Ignatius, when he founded the Society of Jesus, told his professed members to take a fourth vow besides the standard vows of consecrated chastity, poverty and obedience, a vow of obedience to the Bishop of Rome. Only God knows, only He, the price I’ve paid over the years of my Jesuit life, for striving with God’s grace to remain faithful to the Vicar of Christ. Last night I read, and by the way, in a Detroit publication, a long article by Andrew Greeley, not just criticizing, but blasting Mother Angelica. Don’t you know, he told her that we’ve got a conscience, we’ve got a conscience, and that conscience is our highest norm of morality? Who do you think you are, said Greeley to Mother Angelica, appealing to the Bishop of Rome? It’s our conscience we are to follow. Well, as Catholics, let’s be clear. Of course we are to follow our conscience, but our conscience must be enlightened, must, I repeat the imperative verb, must be enlightened by the Vicar of Christ. No wonder Andrew Greeley sometime ago published a thick book – I will never forget the title of one of his chapters. The chapter was on Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humane Vitae. And the title of this chapter in Greeley’s book was “That g--d---- Encyclical.” It is not just at the heart of Ignatian spirituality, it is the heart of our faith as Catholics to recognize that when God became man, and identified Himself by saying “I am the Truth,” that when He appointed Peter as His visible ambassador on earth and the successors of Peter as the Bishops of Rome, they are the Vicars of Truth! Oh, how many Catholics need to re-examine their consciences and ask themselves how faithful are they to the recognizing the Bishop of Rome as Christ’s divinely-ordained ambassador for the truth.

Love of the Cross

Sixth feature of Ignatian spirituality: Love of the Cross. Over the years of my priesthood, I can tell you, I’ve grown and am growing theologically, I trust, everyday. I didn’t used to talk this way, but I do now. Notice, it is not merely enduring the Cross. It is not merely suffering the Cross. It is not merely resigning myself to the trials, the sufferings, the pain in my life. No! No! It is loving the Cross. And the reason is obvious. In most people’s vocabulary, “cross” as a word is a noun. But in God’s vocabulary, it is a verb. The Cross is the will of God crossing our wills. And God is a divine mathematician. How often He will cross our wills, not at 75, or 80, or even 85 degrees, or 89.1 degrees, He will cross our lives and the more He loves us – I say this from the depths of my heart – the more He loves us, the more He will give us the privilege of crossing our wills at 90 degrees. Embracing the Cross, not because we love pain. In fact, in the theological definition of pain, in case you haven’t heard, is pain defined as whatever contradicts the human will, but – what an important adversative this is – when you love the one who is sending you the pain, the one who is behind, beneath, around the suffering in your life, once you believe it is the loving God, then – and I believe every syllable of the next sentence – your life is changed. There are no more problems in life because then, like the Christ whom we claim to love, we embrace what we call the Cross and thus repay the God whom we claim to love with the most precious possession in our lives, our wills. Let me be as plain as I can: this is how God redeemed the world, by dying on Calvary out of love for us. And sanctity is meaningless unless the virtue that we cultivate is meant as a communicator of grace to others. And most precious communication of grace that God can use us to share with others is the love of His Cross.

The Providence of Sin

I still have a No. 7. Strange closing to this conference – the providence of sin. Whatever else St. Ignatius understood, he understood sin. He was a deep sinner until he was converted. He knew that most people, with almost no exception, who would make the Spiritual Exercises would be sinners who, please God, had come to their senses and were converted. Sin is part of God’s mysterious permissive providence. Hear it and please, don’t forget. God allowed us to sin, maybe very deeply, maybe over a period of years for this purpose, the more deeply we have sinned, hear it, the more holy God wants us to become. Most of the saints in heaven, the Church teaches, are converted sinners. Remember what Christ asked Peter after Christ’s Resurrection? Peter had denied the Master three times. He was sorry. Christ asked Him, “Simon, do you love Me more than these do?” and He pointed to the other apostles. How could Peter know how much the other apostles loved Jesus? He couldn’t. But he knew how much he should love the Savior. Having sinned so deeply, he was to love Jesus with extraordinary depth and generosity. Sin in all of our lives has a twofold purpose – to keep us humble and to inspire us to grow in sanctity. Having indulged our own wills by sinning, we are to spend the rest of our lives sacrificing our own sweet, oh how saccharine sweet, self-will to the will of God in becoming saints.


Lord Jesus, we thank you for giving us the converted sinner Iñigo, who became Ignatius of Loyola, to teach us through his Spiritual Exercises that what Christ most wants from us is that we become saints. But dear Lord, you know how blind we are. You know how weak we are. We beg you, give us the light for the mind to see Your will and strength for our free will to conform our own selfish wills to Your divine will so that through us, dear Jesus, we might bring others to heaven with us because none of us will reach heaven alone. We shall either bring others to heaven with us, or we shall not reach our eternal destiny ourselves. Amen.

Assumption Grotto Church, Detroit
March 16, 1996

Copyright © 1996 Inter Mirifica

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