The storm exposes our vulnerability and uncovers those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules, our projects, our habits and priorities. It shows us how we have been allowed to become dull and feeble the very things that nourish, sustain and strengthen our lives and our communities.
—Pope Francis, Extraordinary Moment of Prayer (March 27, 2020)1
In this imaginative prayer, Pope Francis associates the global pandemic with a raging storm. Indeed, in March 2020, schools and offices closed and we were ordered to shelter in place, to take refuge until the dangerous storm passed. But many of us were quickly disabused of the illusion that we all are in the same boat — unhoused neighbors could not shelter indoors, workers who provide essential services could not stay home. The pandemic exposed not only a shared vulnerability of humanity but also the reality of racism and economic inequality that leaves people outside the structures of safety at home, at work, and in their own communities.
We came together as lay women in leadership roles at Jesuit institutions — University of San Francisco, St. Ignatius College Preparatory, St. Ignatius Parish, and the Ignatian Spiritual Life Center at St. Agnes Parish. Although the context of our work is different, we share a mission inspired by a faith that does justice. The resources of this faith tradition gives rise to a particular sense of justice, one built upon the conviction of human interdependence and the irrevocable dignity and rights of each person. For each of us, Catholic social thought (CST) is among the “very things that nourish, sustain, and strengthen our lives and communities.” Yet, it is often made “dull and feeble” in the midst of consumerism and globalized indifference that engenders a throwaway culture. Pope Francis has not only named this uncomfortable reality that shapes our city and world but also put forth its remedy — a culture of encounter that places the marginalized at the center and recognizes them as the agents of social transformation.
We built a weekly reflection series to encourage those of us connected to Jesuit parishes and schools to imagine justice amidst COVID-19 in the context of San Francisco and informed by Catholic social thought. The circle of praxis, often described within the cyclical process of “see, judge, act” provides a way to connect CST with concrete social issues. Inspired by Ignatian spirituality and Pope Francis’s field hospital church, we reimagined the circle of praxis through “encounter, discern, respond.”
We privileged the experience of encounter in the series by identifying speakers who could witness the impact of the pandemic on those who are marginalized through incarceration, homelessness, or inadequate protections as workers. Each week, we emailed a prerecorded dialogue with community leaders and activists and brought groups of parishioners, students, faculty, staff, and families together for small group reflection on each topic. We critically engaged CST by centering anti-racism and the preferential option for the oppressed at each weekly gathering, encouraging discernment and self-examination through consistent small group sharing at each session. The project allowed us to experience the challenges and opportunities as women collaborating across Jesuit works to respond to the signs of the times. We discovered that our experiences of Ignatian spirituality provided the foundation for our collaboration and animated our praxis.
To honor the weight of this historical moment of pandemic and the layered realities that confronted our communities, we chose to be in dialogue with community partners who could move us to a depth of response. While we would not be able to experience the 9 realities of each topic directly, we hoped that through meaningful dialogue, we might be invited to take steps into a deeper relationship with others. In his reflection on encounter, Pope Francis spoke of a call to relationship as we live as faithful people and observed, “when we go into the street, every man thinks of himself: He sees, but does not look; he hears, but does not listen” and consequently, “people pass each other, but they do not encounter each other.”2 The method of conversation followed by reflection intended to create a “pause” within people to consider how they engage with others. The small group reflections offered opportunities to be in dialogue with each other, to wrestle with our questions, to name our fears and vulnerabilities, and to take courage from the witness of the people who shared.
Additionally, because Pope Francis emphasizes mutuality and a recognition that nobody is apart from need and care, we would be missing something essential to see the complex issues of racial justice, incarceration, homelessness, and essential work as completely outside of ourselves. Pope Francis writes, “When we say ‘those in need,’ let us think not only of the homeless,” but also “of ourselves, of those of us, who are in need.” With this in mind, we approached each conversation with humility as we listened to people who closely accompany those most affected by the many crises of this moment. By sharing stories, issues became real to us, stereotypes or simplistic narratives became complicated, and our current moment called then, for our participation in an alive and real reckoning.
Catholic social thought provided the lens through which we approached each encounter and dialogue. This framework of justice has been described as the best kept secret of the church. While there is truth to this observation, we wanted to name and reckon with other barriers to enacting this living tradition that assumes human interdependence and the irreplaceable dignity of every person. Inspired and challenged by Ignatian spirituality, we recognize the constant call to self-examination in the work for justice. We ask:
“Where are my own blind spots in seeing and reverencing human dignity?”
“Where am I free or unfree to act in solidarity?”
We began the series with a conversation on racism not only as a stand-alone topic but as a reality that intersects with each issue of the series. Discerning CST through an anti-racist lens, we critically engaged the Catholic tradition as well as our own identities and experiences. In the midst of these conversations, we decided to emphasize the preferential option for the oppressed in each reflection session. This central principle of CST recognizes how injustices are embedded in history and perpetuated by social structures. From this place, discernment challenges us to ask difficult questions:
“How have I personally benefited from these structures?”
“In what ways do our institutions perpetuate or dismantle oppressive systems?”
“Can we imagine a different society as we move through this pandemic?”
In our conversation on homelessness, our guest speakers expressed that this time of layered crises called for a “radical rethinking of how we are in relationship with each other.” Our work together in this series showed the richness and dynamism that can happen when we collaborate across institutions. Perhaps more profoundly, we each experienced a call within the call to collaborate. Collectively, we felt an invitation to renew our commitments as people of faith by journeying through the spiritual exercises together. Through praying individually each day for nine months and gathering graces every other week as a group, this cycle of encounter, discernment, and response happens in an intimate way now as we pray through the 19th Annotation together.
On May 20 this year, the Ignatian family joined the Society of Jesus in commemorating the Ignatian Year, the 500th anniversary of Ignatius’s conversion. Ignatius’s inner transformation started with a cannonball to the leg, a period of pain and crisis that drew him into the process of conversion. Out of the pain of a year of pandemic comes a cry for renewal in lasting ways. Amid these confrontations with injustices and our own inadequate responses, there may be fertile ground for our own turnings as people of faith, as leaders in Jesuit institutions, to respond more wholeheartedly to the Gospel and to the call of the Ignatian year “to see all things new in Christ.”
ERIN BRIGHAM is the executive director of the Joan and Ralph Lane Center for Catholic Social Thought and the Ignatian Tradition at the University of San Francisco. She earned her PhD in systematic and philosophical theology at the Graduate Theological Union in 2010 and continues to research in the areas of Catholic public theology and social thought as well as post-conciliar ecclesiology and ecumenism. Her books include Sustaining the Hope for Unity: Ecumenical Dialogue in a Postmodern World (Liturgical Press, 2012), See, Judge, Act: Catholic Social Teaching and Service Learning (Anselm Academic Press, 2013. Revised Edition, 2018), Church as Field Hospital: Toward an Ecclesiology of Sanctuary (Liturgical Press, forthcoming 2022), and co-edited with Mary Johnson, Solidarity Toward the Common Good: Women Engaging the Catholic Social Tradition (Paulist Press, forthcoming 2022).
GRACE SALCEANU is the director of the Ignatian Spiritual Life Center for the St. Agnes Church in San Francisco. Prior to her position at St. Agnes, Salceanu co-directed Casa Bayanihan, the University of San Francisco’s alternative study abroad program in Manila, Philippines, for over six years. She has experience teaching at the Nativity Schools of San Jose and holds degrees in theology and anthropology from Fordham University and her Master’s degree in Interdisciplinary Education from Santa Clara University. She is currently training to give the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius through the Jesuit Retreat Center in Los Altos.
- Pope Francis, Extraordinary Moment of Prayer (March 27, 2020).
- Pope Francis, morning meditation "For a Culture of Encounter" (Sept. 13, 2016).