Foreword to new book by Austen Ivereigh

‘First Belong to God’

 ‘First Belong to God’  ING-008
23 February 2024

Pope Francis pens the foreword to Austen Ivereigh’s latest book, “First belong to God: On retreat with Pope Francis”, published on Tuesday, 13 February, by Messenger Publications and Loyola Press. The following is the full text.

Precisely because of his life experience, St. Ignatius of Loyola saw with great clarity that every Christian is involved in a battle that defines his or her life. It is a struggle to overcome the temptation of closing in on ourselves, so that the love of the Father can make its home in us. When we make room for the Lord who rescues us from our self-sufficiency, we open up to all of creation and every creature. We become channels of the Father’s life and love. Only then do we realize what life truly is: a gift of the Father who loves us deeply and desires that we belong to him and to each other.

This battle has already been won for us by Jesus through his ignominious death on the Cross and his Resurrection. In this way, the Father revealed definitively and for all time that his love is stronger than all the powers of this world. But even so it remains a struggle to embrace and make real that victory: We continue to be tempted to close ourselves to that grace, to live in a worldly way, in the illusion that we are sovereign and self-sufficient. All the life-threatening crises that beset us around the world, from the ecological crisis to the wars, the injustices against the poor and vulnerable, have their roots in this rejection of our belonging to God and to each other.

The Church helps us in many ways to struggle against that temptation. Its traditions and teachings, its practices of prayer and confession and the regular celebration of the Eucharist are “channels of grace” that open us to receive the gifts that the Father wishes to pour out on us.

Among those traditions are spiritual retreats, and among those are the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola.

Because of the relentless pressures and tensions of an obsessively competitive society, retreats to “recharge our batteries” have become very popular. But a Christian retreat is very different from a “wellness” holiday. The center of attention is not us but God, the Good Shepherd, who, instead of treating us like machines, responds to our deepest needs as his beloved children.

The retreat is a time for the Creator to speak directly to his creatures, inflaming our souls with his “love and praise” so that we might “better serve God in the future,” in the words of St. Ignatius (SE 15). Love and service: these are the two great themes of the Spiritual Exercises. Jesus comes out to meet us, breaking our chains that we might walk with him as his disciples and companions.

When I think of the fruits of the Exercises, I see Jesus saying to the paralytic by the pool of Bethzatha: “Stand up, take your mat and walk!” (John 5:1-16). It is an order that needs to be obeyed and is, at the same time, his most gentle and loving invitation.

The man was internally paralyzed. He felt a failure in a world of rivals and competitors. Resentful and bitter at what he felt he had been denied, he was trapped in the logic of self-sufficiency, convinced that everything depended on him and his own strength. And as the others are stronger and faster than he is, he has fallen into despair. But it is there that Jesus came out to meet him with his mercy and calls him out of himself. Once he opens to Jesus’ healing power, his paralysis, both inner and outer, is cured. He can get up to walk ahead, praising God and working for his Kingdom, freed from the myth of self-sufficiency and learning each day to depend more on his grace. In this way the man becomes a disciple, able to face better not only the challenges of this world, but also to challenge the world to operate according to the logic of gift and love.

As Pope, I have wanted to encourage our belonging “first” to God, and then to creation and to our fellow human beings, especially to those who cry out to us. This is why I have wanted to keep in view the two great crises of our age: the deterioration of our common home and the mass migration and displacement of people. Both are symptoms of the “crisis of non-belonging” described in these pages. For the same reason I have wanted to encourage the Church to rediscover the gift of its own tradition of synodality, for when it opens to the Spirit that speaks in the People of God, the whole Church gets up and walks ahead, praising God and helping to bring about his Kingdom.

I am glad to see these themes so present in First Belong to God, tied to the contemplations of St. Ignatius that have shaped me over the years. Austen Ivereigh has done a great service in bringing together the retreat talks I gave many decades ago with my teachings as Pope. In this way, he allows both to illuminate, and be illuminated by, St. Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises.

This is not a time to hunker down and lock our doors. I see clearly that the Lord is calling us out of ourselves, to get up and walk. He asks us not to turn away from the pains and cries of our age, but to enter into them, opening channels of his grace. Each of us is that channel by virtue of our baptism. The question is to open it and keep it open. May these eight days of enjoying his love help you to hear the Lord’s call to become a source of life, hope, and grace for others, and so discover the true joy of your life. May you find the magis that St. Ignatius speaks of, that “more,” which calls us to discover the depths of God’s love in the greater giving of ourselves. And please, whenever you remember, don’t forget to pray for me, that I may help us always belong first to God.

Pope Francis

Vatican City, October 12, 2023
Feast Day of Mary of the Pillar