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24. TO FATHER DIEGO MIRÓ

On Being Confessors to Kings

 Rome, February 1, 1553

summary | text of letter  | footnotes


          In July 1552 John III of Portugal requested the new provincial, Diego Miró, to accept the guidance of his conscience, but Miró appealed to a long string of excuses, among them that the king did not know him, that he was a foreigner, a Spaniard, that members of the Society were not permitted to accept such honors or dignities, and that it was more fitting for Jesuits to work among the poor, in the hospitals, and so forth. To all this the king simply replied that he was not asking Miró to abandon his humble labors among the poor, all he was requesting was that he hear his confession, that of Queen Catalina, and of their heir. Unable to convince Miró to accept the position the king asked the same of Luis Gonçalves da Camâra,1 but without success. The question was placed in abeyance until they received Ignatius' views on the subject. The letter below is Ignatius' instruction to both Jesuits, and he clearly tells them that it is the part of the Jesuit vocation to hear confessions and to give Communion to all who come to them, whether they be poor or rich. Ignatius also goes on to answer the several objections that both Jesuits had brought up against accepting the position as the king's confessor. Besides being a duty flowing from the Jesuit calling to dispense the sacraments, Ignatius reminds them that the Society owes a great debt to the king since he most generously founded the college in Coimbra and helps support the Jesuits in India, and was now thinking of a mission to Ethiopia. Ignatius felt that in no way could the Jesuits refuse what the king was asking of them. When the discussions were over it was Gonçalves da Camâra who became the king's confessor. The letter was written in Spanish [Ep. 4:625-628].

          The sovereign and everlasting love of Christ our Lord be ever our help and favor.

          From various letters received from Portugal we learn that his highness had asked, with pressing devotion, that you and Father Luis Gonçalves act as his confessors, but that you have both excused yourselves, not on the grounds of conscience or because of scruples in directing his highness, whom you consider a saint, as you say, but because you think that this is an honor which should be refused no less than a bishopric or a royal chaplaincy. For the same reason Father Luis Gonçalves has resigned his post with the prince, I understand.

          I can of course, see your reasons, based on humility and the security which is more easily found in lowly than in prominent occupations, and I can only approve and be edified by your motives. But, all things considered, I am convinced that, when you consider the greater service and glory of God our Lord, you are ill advised in your decision.

          In the first place, it is our vocation and in keeping with our Institute to administer the sacraments of confession and Communion to men of all conditions and ages. And the same duty of giving consolation and spiritual help to our neighbor obliges us to care for those in high position as well as those in low.

          Secondly, the whole Society, ever since its beginning, is under special obligation to their highnesses, indeed, more than to any other Christian prince, whether we take into account their good works or the special love and charity, which more than anything else, ought to win over your hearts. I cannot think of any excuse that would justify our failure to serve their highnesses in a matter that is so much in keeping with our vocation, and in which they show that they will receive consolation and satisfaction of soul.

          Now, if we consider the universal good and God's greater service, even greater good will follow from this, as far as I can see in the Lord, because all the members of the body share in the good of the head and all his subjects in the good of their sovereign, so that the spiritual good which is done to the sovereign should be more highly esteemed than if it were done to others.

          Since you judge one instance by another, consider whether there could be a more important memorial left by a confessor than to bring to a conclusion the appointment of the patriarch of Ethiopia,2 which involves the salvation, not of many souls but of many cities and provinces. Whichever of you acts as his highness' confessor, be sure that you do not fail to come to some understanding on this appointment, and every time you write to Rome be sure to mention this matter and let me know what you have done.

          To return to the reasons why you should not refuse this task, I do not think your security of soul is relevant, because if all we looked for in our vocation was to walk safely, and if we had to sacrifice the good of souls in order to get away from danger, we would not be living and associating with our neighbor. But according to our vocation, we deal with everyone, rather as Saint Paul says of himself, we should make ourselves all things to all men [1 Cor. 9:22] to gain all to Christ; and if we advance with a pure and upright intention, seeking not our own interests but those of Jesus Christ [Phil. 2:21], He Himself in His infinite goodness will be our protection. If our vocation did not take a firm hold on His powerful hand, it would not be enough for us merely to withdraw from such perils and to keep from falling into others that are perhaps greater.

          Whatever people may say about your seeking honor and position will collapse of itself under the weight of the truth and the evidence of the work when they see that you retain the lowliness that you have chosen for Christ our Lord. And so, for whatever the crowd might think or say, you should not neglect anything that can be turned to the service of God, or of their highnesses, and the common good.

          Finally, to satisfy my conscience once and for all in this matter, I command you in virtue of holy obedience, you and Father Luis Gonçalves, to do what their highnesses bid you in this matter; that is, one or other of you, unless someone else in the Society appears better qualified to you, and at the same time is acceptable to his highness. Have confidence in the Divine Goodness that whatever is done in this matter under obedience will be for the best. You must make this command known to his highness, and show him this letter should he wish to see it or at least give him a summary of it.

          As Master Polanco is going to write on other matters, I will say nor more here except to commend myself to your prayers and sacrifices. I beg God our Lord to give us all His bountiful grace always to know His most holy will and entirely to fulfill it.

          From Rome, February 1, 1553.

          Yours in our Lord,

          Ignatius

Footnotes

1 Gonçalves da Camâra was a Portuguese born about 1519, and entered the Society in Lisbon on April 27, 1545. In 1553 he went to Rome to report on the state of the Portuguese province and remained there until October 1555, serving in the meantime, as minister at the Jesuit residence. It was to Gonçalves de Camâra that Ignatius narrated his autobiography. He returned to Portugal but then on the election of Diego Laínez as the Society’s second general, he was made Portuguese assistant. In 1559 he became tutor to the youthful King Sebastian, and died in Lisbon on March 15, 1575.
2 As early as 1546 John III had asked Ignatius to send missionaries to Ethiopia in order to bring the Abyssinian Christians back into the Church. Ignatius thought well of the plan and was willing to offer Jesuits for so noble an enterprise. While the king did nothing to further this plan for the next six years, Ignatius kept his interest in it and whenever the opportunity offered he reminded the king of the harvest waiting in Ethiopia. In this letter Ignatius suggests that the king’s confessor could prove a definite help in promoting the mission and in naming a patriarch. The king’s interest did revive and in December 1553 he wrote to Ignatius requesting a dozen Jesuits for the mission. Those named as suitable to be patriarch were João Nunes Barreto, Melchior Carneiro and Andrés de Oviedo. The first was named patriarch and the other two were appointed his coadjutors. The bishops and missionaries left Portugal in March 1556, but of the three bishops only Oviedo reached Ethiopia.