Jesuit Poets

I am belatedly posting about a superb address I heard given at a mass to celebrate the Fourth Centenary of the (then) English Province of the Society of Jesus, held in Farm Street Church, London on 21 January 2023. The mass was celebrated by Vincent Cardinal Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, and the sermon given by Fr Damian Howard SJ, Provincial of the British Province. The music at the mass included the world premiere of James MacMillan’s “Precious in the sight of the Lord” (with MacMillan in the congregation).

The sermon by Fr Howard was oratory of a high intellectual calibre, and included these interesting words about British Jesuit culture:

And the mission [to England] would spill out into other lands, too. First over the ocean to Maryland, where in due course a daughter Province would see the light of day. Then came missions to the Caribbean, Central America, Calcutta, Malta, present-day Guyana, Belize, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. The locations patently shadow an imperial progress, but the longevity of the institutions founded, and the flexibility of the work undertaken testify to the Spirit’s transcendence of a merely British outfit.

That openness to a universal horizon is a sign of an authentic inculturation. An order’s charism, its take on the life of Christ, must put down roots into the native soil if it is to become vital and transformative. Easier said than done. Our founding companions were a distinctly Latin bunch. Ignatius’ secretary, Fr Jeronimo Nadal, used to say “la Compañía es fervor”: the Society is fervour, easier to say with a straight face in Spanish than in English. How would the Society’s congenital Mediterranean warmth, its comradeliness, its ingrained Baroque exuberance take to cooler, damper climes? How do you even utter the word “fervour” in a language of understatement and irony, in which religious enthusiasm sounds embarrassing?

Poetry was part of the answer, consistently helping us find and speak of God in subtler, delicate shades and nuances of affect. Southwell and Hopkins are emblems of a long-standing talent which survives to the present day. That in turn has framed a notable contribution to Ignatian spirituality, discerning, contemplative, earthy. It’s hard not to mention the name of Fr Paul Kennedy whose influence extends so far beyond these shores. A liberal dash of eccentricity has played its part as has a better than average sense of humour. Ignatius’ vision of the man of outstanding virtue and edifying manners ended up looking like an altered gentleman. If not always at the Californian cutting edge, the British Jesuits have been pragmatically resourceful and innovative, Ignatian magnanimity refracted through a British lens usually manifesting as the enthusiastic amateur, that word taken in its best sense (and occasionally not). In the intellectual realm, our peculiar Anglo-Saxon mindset, so suspicious to Roman eyes, has yielded a series of intensely brilliant flashes; Freddie Copleston debating Bertrand Russell on the BBC shines particularly bright. If at times we have suffered from a certain collective low self-esteem, we have masked it consummately.

And if there has been heresy, it has always been the indigenous Pelagianism, that confidence that, to quote the late Fr Michael Beattie, “grit, guts and gumption” will surely carry the day. It is understandable, such trust in human resilience, when we look back to that rain-sodden December day in 1581 when a bookseller’s son was dragged through the mud to the scaffold, from Tower to Tyburn, there to be “made a spectacle unto God, unto His angels and unto men”, to proclaim his innocence, forgive his enemies, ask pardon of any he had injured and to offer a final prayer for Queen Elizabeth, to whom he wished a long, quiet reign with all prosperity. Campion in death is almost too glorious.”

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