In the Mother Church of the Jesuits

rooms of St. IgnatiusAs I write this, the Society of Jesus meets in Rome for their 36th General Congregation. It amazes me that despite being founded by St. Ignatius in 1540, the Society has held just 36 general sessions since then.

I stood next to Ignatius last April, when I visited his apartment in the building next to the Church of the Gesu, the mother church of the Jesuits in Rome. There sits a bronze cast of the mask made at Ignatius’s death, and it stands on a pedestal set to his exact height. At six feet, I towered above him in the room where the first meetings of the Jesuits were held.

At first I couldn’t imagine 30 men meeting there. But a noisy tour group arrived, and clearly 30 people easily fit in the room.

I expected as a writer to find it easy to dialogue with Ignatius as I pulled up a footstool in front of his writing desk and looked up at a beautiful woman who inspired him: Our Lady of the Desk. The portrait’s inspirational value for me was short-lived. I’d prefer a picture of the laughing Christ at my desk.

My most inspirational moments, instead, were not in that room which I desired to see so much. One occurred the morning before, in the Gesu, when I expected to tour Ignatius’s apartment. Visitors: beware! The rooms are only open to the public from four to six p.m. But Mass was about to start—in Italian—in a small chapel. I stayed. The familiar cadence ran through me like the blood in my veins. I knew exactly where we were in the liturgy despite not knowing Italian; I recognized my place of belonging, where strangers are Eucharist to each other.

The next day held another blessing. Before entering the place where Ignatius wrote and prayed, visitors pass through a remarkable hallway whose flat walls are painted with a perspective that makes it appear three-dimensional. When my friend Susan and I entered this long anteroom, the late afternoon light dimmed the paintings somewhat. I paused in awe and burst out singing “Take, Lord, Receive,” by John Foley, SJ.

I sang with passion and meant every word. As our feminine voices blended in the empty hall, a disembodied male voice joined in. My eyes widened. I imagined that Ignatius sang with us.

The singer turned out to be Albert from Spain, a recently ordained Jesuit who sat in the next room as attendant to the sacred spaces. Singing in that hall was a graced and memorable moment. I can still see the space and hear the echoes.

Kevin Leidich, SJ, once told me how I could know something originated with God: Its effects are long-lasting, it’s outwardly good, you have a desire to serve, you have a talent for it, and others profit. I suppose I have a talent for music and a lack of fear for sharing that gift. I hope others profited! It certainly had long-lasting effects on me.

Because here in October, I continue to receive the gift I prayed for in April: to have a pilgrim’s heart.

I travel in memory to the Gesu and pray for “my brother Jesuits” as they consider the renewal of their mission in this complicated world. As a woman and a non-Jesuit I am not of their company. But as one who embraces Ignatian spirituality, I am.

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Loretta Pehanich
Loretta Pehanich is a Catholic freelance writer and the author of 2022: A Book of Grace-Filled Days, Women in Conversation: Stand Up!, and Fleeting Moments: Praying When You Are Too Busy. A spiritual director since 2012, Loretta is trained in giving the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. Her involvement in ministry and parish life includes 20 years in small faith-sharing groups and Christian Life Community. Loretta gives retreats and presentations on prayer and women’s spirituality and is commissioned as an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist. She and her husband Steve have four children and 10 grandchildren.

3 COMMENTS

  1. What a way with words you have, Loretta! I have also been to the places you mention and you brought back such memories for me. The Mass in the little chapel was in English and I was moved beyond words.
    I pray the new General Father will be another Holy Spirit surprise as was our pope, Francis.
    Thank you for this. Suzanne

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