Ronald Modras: Conversations that Change Lives

May 27, 2008 in General, News

Prof. Ronald Modras at ManresaBelow is the text of Professor Ronald Modras’s address at Manresa, the Jesuit House of Spirituality in Clontarf, on Friday 23 May 2008.

Thank you for the kind introduction and for the warm Irish welcome and hospitality. I remember my first visit to Ireland 30 years ago, in 1978, with Mary Elizabeth, my wife, and our two mothers. On the way to Dublin, we stopped in Westmeath. Mary Elizabeth’s mother wanted to see the town where her mother was born and the church where she was baptized. The sacristan, a lovely lady in her 60s, opened the church for us and then invited us to tea in her cottage, where she boiled water over an open hearth. No stove, whether gas or electric stove, let alone a microwave. But time for strangers, for visitors, and for conversation.

I’m sure you are all used to strangers coming to the Old Sod from the U.S., looking for their Irish roots, and discovering that they are second cousins or third cousins once removed. . You wind up talking for hours with people you just met about great-grandparents, aunts, and uncles. I feel in somewhat the same situation. Unlike my wife, I may not be Irish but I am Ignatian. But we both identify ourselves with the spirituality, vision, and mission of the Society of Jesus. We both consider ourselves part of the Ignatian Family. So being here, meeting and visiting with you Jesuits and lay colleagues is like meeting cousins. You are the Irish side of our Ignatian family.

I’ve been asked to speak a bit about “conversations that change lives.” I love the title. It’s very Ignatian. And I hope my presentation will serve as a catalyst for a conversation here tonight, one that may not change any lives here but perhaps strengthen a conviction, broaden a horizon, or change a perspective.

I remember a rather quirky art film I saw some 25 years ago entitled “My Dinner with Andre.” The movie begins with the protagonist getting onto a New York subway. For five minutes the viewer experiences what he experienced — the subway car, the passengers, the rushing lights, the signs, sights, and sounds. Then he enters a restaurant, where he meets Andre and for the rest of the movie they talk over dinner about theater, art, life. No action, just conversation and a few flash-backs. I don’t remember the details and I confess to dozing off a few times. But what I remember vividly are the last five minutes of the film, which was a reprise of the first subway ride but now back home. There were the same sights and sounds and rushing lights, but now, somehow, everything looked different. I don’t know if it was the director and the lighting or if it was my imagination. But everything seemed brighter, more luminous, more filled with life and energy. Somehow it seemed that the dinner and conversation with Andre had changed everything for the protagonist and for me the viewer,. Everything had changed, or at least his and my perspective, how we both looked at life.

I was told that this evening’s presentation is a little less formal than some of the others, so I would like now for you to stop and think and ask yourself when did you have a conversation that changed your life, or at least your perspective on life? When did a conversation change how you viewed a person or your work or yourself? Think a few moments. Perhaps more than one comes to mind. Without getting too personal, can you share the general circumstances or outlines with the person next to you? Share your own “dinner with Andre” story……

Saint Ignatius Loyola had conversations like that, conversations that changed his life. Maybe that’s why he rarely preached. Instead he would engage in conversation with anyone willing to talk to him — about God and spirituality. He went so far as to leave rules for his fellow Jesuits on how to conduct life-changing conversations. By all means, start off with small-talk but eventually get serious. Talk about your hopes and dreams, your fears and anxieties. Talk about what consoles you or depresses you.

What I’d like to do this evening is to talk about some of Ignatius’ conversations, followed by the conversations of some of the Jesuits I treat in my book. Then hopefully we can have a conversation here and now about conversations.

Ignatius Loyola’s Conversations

Toward the end of his life, relating his memoirs, Saint Ignatius recalled conversations that he had he had with a Moor, with the women of Manresa, and with a Dominican Friar The first, the one with a Moor, a Spanish Muslim, took place after his conversion and months of convalescing from his shattered leg. After having had profound religious experiences, he had set out from Loyola with his sights set on Jerusalem. Riding on a mule, he came upon a Moor also on a mule riding in the same direction.

Ignatius and the Moor chatted amicably until the conversation turned to theology. The Moor said that he believed that Mary did indeed conceive Jesus virginally, but he did not see how she could have retained her physical virginity during childbirth. Ignatius tried to convince the Moor otherwise but without success. The conversation must have become quite heated, because, we are told, the Moor rode away so quickly that Ignatius lost sight of him.

The argument aroused such indignation in Ignatius that he had to stop and ponder what to do. He felt that the Moor had insulted the honor of the Virgin Mary. Was he not duty-bound defend it? His inclination was to catch up with the Moor and stab him for what he had said about the Virgin. But, then again, he wasn’t sure, if this was the right thing to do. There was a fork up ahead, with one road going to the village where the Moor said he was stopping, and the other continuing on to a highway going further. Ignatius decided to leave the reins slack and let his mule choose which road to take. The village road would mean searching out the Moor and killing him. Fortunately on many counts, the mule took the highway, saving the Moor from death and Ignatius from who knows what kind of life as a criminal.

Ignatius told this story as a cautionary tale. Despite his ecstasies and desire to serve God, he was still capable of premeditated murder. He and any number of saints like him have persuaded Catholic tradition that conversion is not a once for all, “I’m born again,” Alleluia experience. Rather it is a long process, a spiritual pilgrimage often filled with initial excitement but open as well to wrong turns and sidetracks, the need to make detours and to change direction. With this realization that he needed to change his way of making important decisions, Ignatius came to see his entire life as a pilgrimage.

Conversations Ignatius had at Manresa were also critical for this thinking. Heading out from Loyola, he knew that he wanted to go to Jerusalem and walk the land that Jesus did. But he didn’t know what he would do after that. He thought maybe he would become a monk. At the Shrine of Our Lady of Montserrat, he exchanged his fine clothes and sword for a pilgrim’s robe and staff. Then we went to the close-by town of Manresa , where he thought he would spend a few days and ended up spending the better part of a year. At Manresa Ignatius fasted, prayed, and had more profound religious experiences. There too he punished his body with penances so extreme that he might have died, if it were not for some women of the town who provided him with food, shelter, and warm clothing. As his health improved, he would converse with them “on spiritual matters.”

Those conversations had a profound impact on Ignatius. Just a few months earlier he was capable of premeditated murder. Now here he was helping these women spiritually, teaching them how to listen for the voice of God in their lives. From both his positive and negative experiences, Ignatius came to believe at Manresa that God was treating him as a school teacher would a student. And like a diligent student, he began writing those lessons down in a notebook. That notebook would become the Spiritual Exercises. He eventually gave the spiritual exercises to some of his fellow student friends at the University of Paris, and they eventually became the first Jesuits. But the point I want to make here is that before there was a Society of Jesus, there was an Ignatian Family.

Were it not for kindness and concern of those women of Manresa, Ignatius might never have survived his extreme penances. And were it not for his conversations with those women, he may never have come to realize that this is what he wanted to do with the rest of his life, to help people get in touch with God. Ignatius had come to the conviction that if God would speak to a scoundrel like him, God will speak to anyone. We just have to learn how to become still and listen. With his spiritual exercises, he helped people to learn to become still and listen. But it all began with those women at Manresa.

Upon his return to Spain from Jerusalem, Ignatius decided that he needed an education, if wanted anyone to take him seriously. After learning enough Latin, he began university studies first at Alcala, near Madrid, then at Salamanca. Shortly after arriving in Salamanca, the Dominican friars there invited him to supper. After the meal one of the Dominicans began to ask him about his conversations. What do you talk about, he asked. About some virtue or other, Ignatius replied, or some vice. But how could Ignatius speak about virtues and vices without an education? Was he getting this information directly from God, like those so-called “enlightened” mystics who had no need of the church or its authorities? Ignatius quickly realized that this was not a friendly conversation and tried to end it. But it was too late. He was arrested on suspicion of heresy and imprisoned for twenty-two days by the Spanish Inquisition.

Experiences like this in Salamanca resulted in the “Presupposition,” a piece of advice Ignatius put into very beginning of the Spiritual Exercises. Though its purpose was to improve the quality of conversation between the director and the recipient, it can prove useful for any conversation and any relationship. It reads: “Be more eager to put a good interpretation on a neighbor’s statement than to condemn it.” To fault-finders and heresy-hunters of any stripe, Ignatius gives the humane advice to judge people and their words generously, in a way that presumes the best, not the worst, one that gives people the benefit of the doubt. That’s a good suggestion for any conversation, but is especially essential for the ecumenical and inter-religious dialogues that have been a feature of Catholic relations with other churches and religious communities since the 1960s. Those are conversations that are changing the church, but they were anticipated by Jesuit missionaries at far back as the 16th century.

B. Conversations with “the Other”

The word “dialogue” has been part of Catholic vocabulary since the Second Vatican Council. Pope Paul VI called it a new way of being church. The old way of being church, the church of the Counter-Reformation, was one of polemical debates, trying to convince the “others” or at least assure ourselves that they were wrong. Dialogue differs from debate because its focus is not winning an argument but on trying to understand the other through sympathetic listening and the willingness to learn, to be enriched and even to be changed. Pope John Paul II went so far as to say that, “As we open ourselves in dialogue to one another, we also open ourselves to God.”

Dialogue is just another word for conversation, a word which comes from the Latin word for turn around. Both dialogue and conversation require listening, a word which has at its root the word list, to bend toward. Turning and bending all imply a willingness to learn and understand. That kind of willingness did not begin with Vatican II. It goes back at least as far as Matteo Ricci in 16th century China.

Although Saint Francis Xavier gets a lot of credit as a missionary, he was not a great linguist. Xavier was not able to converse easily with the people of either India or Japan and had to make do with often second-rate translators. Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci, on the other hand, was the first westerner to master Chinese. He even wrote books that have become Chinese classics. Ricci studied the works of the Chinese philosopher K’ung fu-tzu, translated them into Latin for the Western world and coined the name Confucius. He became so adept at Confucian philosophy that the Chinese came to accept him as a Confucian scholar, so that he eventually came to don the silk robe and high hat of a dress of a mandarin.

The point I want to make here is that before the 15th century sea voyages that discovered new worlds and the routes around Africa to the Orient, European Catholics thought that the entire world had been evangelized. Everyone had had an opportunity to hear the gospel and be saved. If Jews refused to convert and Muslims insisted on being heretics, well, that was their choice and responsibility. But with the age of exploration and the discovery of new worlds and ancient civilizations, there arose the haunting question for Catholic theology, what was the fate of these millions of people who had never had the opportunity to hear the gospel. Christian tradition going back o the Bible insisted that one must have faith in Christ to be saved. But here were millions of people who had never had the opportunity to believe in Christ. Were they all doomed to hell? How could you possibly reconcile that with faith in a merciful, loving God? For Matteo Ricci, the question was not theoretical. Often alone without any fellow Jesuits as companions, Ricci had only the Chinese for conversation partners, and those conversation partners became his friends.

Ricci’s conversations and reading of Confucian classics led to his profound respect for Confucian philosophy and culture. Encounters and conversations like his led Catholic theologians to rethink their ideas on the kind of faith that was necessary for salvation. Besides explicit faith in Christ, they concluded, one could also have an implicit faith in Christ. So long as one had explicit faith in God as a judge of human behavior, couched within it was faith in Christ. One did not have to be a Catholic or a Christian to experience and respond to God’s grace. Those who worshipped God under other names could be saved by their implicit faith.

From Matteo Ricci’s conversations with Chinese mandarins, let me fast-forward 450 years to Karl Rahner and his conversations with German agnostics. Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner had long studied and reflected on the optimism and implications of Ignatius Loyola’s insight that God will speak to anyone. In the 1950s Rahner became involved in discussion groups with fellow academics. One of these academic conversations focused on faith and science, another on faith and Marxism. In those conversations with atheists, secular humanists, and Marxists, Rahner often found himself confronted with persons of integrity, conscience and genuine good will. Those conversations touched him deeply. His relationships with those agnostics were marked by mutual fondness and respect. He openly called several of them “my friends.” He personally encountered what he described as “the distress of a troubled atheistic non-Christian who wants to believe but feels unable.”

Rahner took for granted the church’s teaching that good will alone is not enough, that faith is necessary for salvation. But he located faith at the deepest level of our existence, a level deeper than our conscious intellects. He locates faith at the spiritual core of our beings where we experience ourselves as infinite longing, where we reach out for truth and meaning, where we reach out in self-forgetting love for another human being and are only dimly aware or perhaps not at all reflective of the absolute mystery toward which we are also reaching, the absolute mystery that we call God. In other words, we are saved not by what is in our heads but by what is in our hearts. Rahner went beyond the notion of implicit faith; even people of conscience with no apparent faith in God can be saved.

Rahner’s conversations with bishops at the Second Vatican Council succeeded in convincing them to make this the official teaching of the Catholic Church. Thanks to his influence, the Constitution on the Church speaks of Catholics as being “linked” by grace not only to other Christians and to people of other religious faiths, but also to “those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God, but who strive to live a good life, thanks to His grace.”

In short, we’ve come a long way from the notion that outside the church there is no salvation. The implications of this have yet to be fully realized in our Catholic thinking and practice. It means that we can experience and see God working in the lives of people we once called heretics or pagans, that we can genuinely learn from them. Matteo Ricci admired Confucianism as a philosophy but he had no use for Buddhism, which he regarded as a false religion filled with superstition. The recently elected Superior General of the Society of Jesus, Father Adolfo Nicolas, has expressed profound respect for Buddhism. In an interview after his election, he was asked what areas of Sacred Scripture especially nourish his personal spirituality. Father Nicolas said there were three. First those texts that speak of service, but second those texts that that speak of the life of the spirit. And here he gives credit to Asian spirituality, to Hinduism and Buddhism, which have helped him to see the Holy Spirit not as speaking in his ear but welling up inside him, filling him with a great peace. And third, those Bible texts that speak of detachment, which, thanks to the core of Buddhist spirituality, he understands not as a detachment from persons but a detachment from the results of your efforts. Here is the Superior General of the Society of Jesus saying that his life in Asia and his conversations with Buddhists and Hindus have enriched his Christian discipleship and Ignatian spirituality.

Those conversations of Ricci, Rahner, and Father Nicolas have changed and are changing the Catholic Church on how we look upon people who are “the Other.” We Catholics used to regard “those others” — whether Jews or Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, or non-believers — as foreign to us. Some Protestant churches still see them this way. But thanks to the humanism that is so much a part of Ignatian spirituality, each one of us here can espouse the Latin humanist dictum, nothing human is foreign to me. Those “others” used to be a continent or an ocean away. Now they live in our neighborhoods and work at desks down the hall. At a time when some would like to speak of a clash of civilizations, it becomes imperative for all of us to foster conversations that build bridges and open minds. Peace among nations will only come with peace among the religions and peace among the religions will only come with conversation. If any nation can demonstrates that peace can come through understanding and understanding through conversation, it’s Ireland.

Conversations and Social Justice

A third set of conversations I would like to look at with you began with the life of Pedro Arrupe. Like Ignatius relating his memoirs, Father Arrupe as Superior General was asked about his early life. With exquisite, almost excruciating detail he recalled his student days in Madrid and his involvement with the St. Vincent de Paul Society and its work with the poor. Pedro’s family was not rich but lived comfortably, so that he had no first-hand experience of dire poverty. So he was entering a new world when he met a young boy eating a roll one afternoon. “Are you having your afternoon snack,” Arrupe asked innocently. No, the boy answered. Arrupe recalled smiling as he asked, “Okay, then what are you doing?” I’m having my breakfast, was the reply. “But it’s four in the afternoon,” Arrupe protested, the smile frozen on his face. “I know,” the boy said. “But this is the first time I’m eating today. For you this is snack time; for me it’s breakfast.” Did you skip your noon-meal today? Does your father work? “I didn’t skip it. We never eat more than once a day. And my father does not work, because I don’t have one.”

A second conversation Arrupe recalled in similar detail occurred when he visited the apartment of two women living together in one room with six children, all boys. While one of them went out to earn something, the other stayed behind to watch the children. Mornings they ate garlic soup; in the afternoons, beans and bread. At night all eight of them shared the same bed. If the weather was cold, the boys stayed in bed under a blanket, because they had no clothes warm enough for the outdoors.

Later in life Arrupe once again had conversations such as these when, as the newly elected Superior General of the Society of Jesus, he visited the barrios of Latin America. Once again he entered into the lives of people housed in slums and children who ate only once a day. So it made a particular impression on him when in 1971, Pope Paul VI and the Third Synod of Bishops issued a document on “Justice in the World.” The synod was un-politically blunt in criticizing the “concentration of wealth, power, and decision-making in the hands of a small public or private controlling group.” It also rejected making neat distinctions between the church’s spiritual and social missions. “Action on behalf of justice,” declared Pope Paul and the synod, “appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel.”

The quantity of documents produced at the Vatican is, to say the least, massive. So it’s no surprise that much gets lost or forgotten in the sheer volume of the verbiage. That linkage of justice with the gospel did not get forgotten, however, three years later when Jesuits from around the world gathered at their 32nd General Congregation. There in a watershed document, the Society of Jesus articulated its very mission and identity in terms of “the serviced of faith of which the promotion of justice is an absolute requirement.” All of its ministries and institutions, all of its enterprises, including that of education, were to have at their core the faith that does justice.

In 1995, twenty years after GC 32, the delegates at GC 34 reaffirmed the direction that Father Arrupe had taken them. But in a document on the “Situation of Women in Church and Civil Society,” thanks to the singular efforts of one of your own men, Father Gerry O’Hanlon, who was Irish provincial at the time, GC 34 acknowledged the almost universal “feminine face of poverty” and the “feminine face of oppression.” Nothing like that had ever been said in high places in the Catholic Church before. Nothing like that had been anticipated in the preparation of the General Congregation. . I would love to know about the conversations that Father O’Hanlon had had with women that attuned him to the need for such a document. I would love to know about his conversations with the other delegates at GC 34 that convinced them that he was right. All I know is that that document changed life at the Modras-Hogan house.

The document invited Jesuits to listen to the voices and experiences of women. My wife, Mary Elizabeth, was looking for a topic for her doctoral dissertation, and now she had one, the history of women at Saint Louis University. As part of her research, she set up formal conversations between Jesuits and women at the University on that document on women. I remember sitting in on one of those conversations and being moved as any number of Jesuits, sometimes with great emotion, spoke of the important contributions women had made to their own individual spirituality. I can only say thank you to Father O’Hanlon for the tremendous contribution he made to the Society of Jesus, to the Ignatian Family, to the Modras-Hogan house, and to the church at large. He has given hope to women and to those of us men who align ourselves in solidarity with women. Both in church and civil society women’s issues are much at the heart of what needs to be addressed if we are to take seriously the faith that does justice.


Before closing I would like to return to Ignatius for a moment and some conversations he had with Peter Faber. When Ignatius enrolled into the College of Ste.-Barbe at the University of Paris, he was assigned to share a room with Peter and his much more famous roommate Francis Xavier. Peter was highly intelligent, the best student of the three. He surely helped both Ignatius and Xavier prepare for their exams. Today kids would call him a geek or a nerd. But Peter was also shy, retiring, and suffered from scruples, i.e. anxiety about sin and guilt. Ignatius had suffered from scruples himself at Manresa and he helped Peter get over them. Peter also got Francis Xavier to overcome his initial reluctance to become friends with Ignatius.

What is germane here about Peter Faber is that he was the first of Ignatius’ companions to stay with him. For years Ignatius had been trying to find companions to join him in his enterprise but his efforts invariably proved unsuccessful. Peter was his first success. He was the first to join what would become the Society of Jesus. Faber doesn’t have any churches named after him, but I wonder if we would remember Ignatius Loyola if it were not for that nerdy quiet college kid who was the first to share his vision, to persevere, and to bring his roommate along with him. I wonder too if we would be here, if it were not for Faber. Without Jesuits, there would no Jesuit associates, no Ignatian family.

But there is something else about Faber that deserves mention, the fact that even shy, retiring people can make a difference when part of a community. Faber would never have accomplished anything memorable as an individual. He made a difference, only because he was part of an enterprise bigger than himself. His example should encourage us. There is not much that we can accomplish as individuals. But as part of this community that is the Ignatian family, there is a tremendous difference we can make.

But I think I’ve talked long enough. I hope you’ve heard enough to be convinced about the power of conversation. So let me end this monologue with an invitation to share some of your own “My Dinner with Andre” stories. Chances are more than a few of them have been with Jesuits. They do have the Ignatian knack of changing lives.

Thank you.

Ronald Modras, Saint Louis University