A Simple Yet Profound Experience

St. Ignatius' shoes from the restored rooms of St. Ignatius in Rome
November 17, 2022
Dan Nailen/Gonzaga University News Service

Sometimes the smallest, simplest things can have the most impact on a person. Even something as small as a single brick in a city of nearly three million people.

When Gonzaga's acting Vice President of Mission Integration Ellen Maccarone first visited Rome in 2008, the rooms of Saint Ignatius were under renovation, so the opportunity to tour the spaces during a Gonzaga delegation’s pilgrimage to Italy this fall gave her the chance to see the founder of the Jesuits’ humble space in person for the first time.

Given the enormity of Saint Ignatius' influence, the small suite of rooms originally constructed in 1543 is remarkable in its simplicity. His bedroom, his office, the space where he said Mass – they could, together, fit inside a good-sized suburban living room. And while the diminutive space certainly struck Maccarone, more stirring was seeing some of the tools Ignatius used in establishing the Society of Jesus. His shoes. His desk. Artwork that inspired him as he wrote the Jesuit Constitutions.

“You’re in this room where you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s the desk where he wrote to Francis Xavier,'” said Maccarone. “Ignatius sat at that desk and wrote letters to people.”

On the floor of the room, a single, small brick marks the location where Ignatius died on July 31, 1556. It says, in Latin, “HIC OBIIT PATER IGNATIVS” (“Here died Father Ignatius”).

“And for me, that was one of the most powerful things to see, because I always think of him as ‘Ignatius of Loyola,’ or ‘Saint Ignatius,’ not just the kind of common thing of the time, ‘He was an ordained priest, we call him Father,’” Maccarone said. “That was a very humanizing moment to see where his bed was, to see, yes, Ignatius’ feet were in those shoes.”

Saint Ignatius’ rooms, adjacent to the Church of the Gesù, are just small pieces of the incredible history welcoming visitors to Italy’s capital city. For the Gonzaga delegation of 24 Trustees, the recent pilgrimage to the home of the Society of Jesus brought them into what GU Vice President of University Advancement Joe Poss called “the hub of the Jesuit world.”

While soaking in some of the local history was certainly part of the agenda, the work put in by the Board of Trustees on the trip – and the messages heard from Jesuit leadership in Rome – placed the reason for the journey squarely in the here and now, and on the future of both the Jesuit mission and the university.

A Fulfilling Journey

The five-day pilgrimage at the end of September was in the works for several years, ever since Gonzaga concluded its first Mission Priority Examen Process in 2019 and GU’s Board of Trustees was extended an invitation through Fr. Douglas Marcouiller, S.J., who serves as Consultor and North American Assistant to Father General Arturo Sosa, Superior of the Society of Jesus. The opportunity to meet with Jesuit leaders, visit historic Jesuit sites and partake in a once-in-a-lifetime formation experience was, naturally, hard to pass up. Ultimately, 22 of 30 voting Trustees, two Trustees Emeriti and 19 spouses and family members signed on to the trip, joined by eight Gonzaga employees and Fr. Bob Niehoff, S.J. (’77), the provincial assistant for higher education.

The invitation from Father General Sosa was proof positive of the recent emphasis by Jesuit leadership of the importance of governing boards and the role they play in promoting the distinct mission of Jesuit universities, working alongside local Jesuits, administrators, staff and faculty. The Gonzaga Board of Trustees takes that role seriously, so much so that they and generous benefactors not only paid for their own expenses on the trip – they covered all the costs for the Jesuits and employees involved with the trip as well.

Planning a trip for more than 50 Americans – the Trustees, as well as administrators, staff members family and friends – is a logistical feat made even more impressive given the challenges of COVID-19 that delayed the journey until this fall. Once the delegation arrived, though, the group experienced an immersive experience full of inspiring discussions, heartfelt reflections and positive tension as the Gonzaga team was challenged to pursue and pass on the Jesuit mission into the future.

“For me, there were many wonderful moments of inspiration along the path of this journey,” said President Thayne McCulloh after returning home to Spokane.

“People welcomed us with open and enthusiastic arms – which is the experience I have always had, especially of Jesuits who have always been welcoming of me, as lay companion in the work.”

Every day for the Trustees started with a reflection, and discussion as a group about the day ahead, some of the Jesuit spiritual exercises they’d been tasked with, and a look back at the day before. That check-in seemed to Poss like a connecting point between the Trustees and the new generation of Zags on campus in Spokane.

“It was reinforced to them that this is something we want our students to come away with after their time at Gonzaga,” Poss said. “The importance of discernment on a daily basis. To evaluate each day to find where God showed up, to find where you had struggles, and to commit to a new and refreshed day the next day.”

The days were filled with formative experiences, whether touring the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica or hearing presentations from the likes of Fr. Tom Smolich, S.J., executive director of the Jesuit Refugee Service, and theologian Dr. Nuria Calduch-Benages, who spoke about working on issues surrounding the role of women in the Catholic Church.

A Little Homework

For many on the trip, meeting with Father General Sosa at the Jesuit Curia (or headquarters) was an experience that stood out, and not just because of their host’s welcoming demeanor. Although, his presence was notable.

“He literally just walked in the room with a laptop, sat on the perimeter until it was his time to talk, and then walked down,” Poss said. “If we had not known his image from the media, nobody would have known who he was. He was so humble and so discreet. And then he took the platform to speak, and it was really powerful.”

Father General Arturo Sosa
Father General Arturo Sosa, Superior of the Society of Jesus, speaks to the Gonzaga Board of Trustees.

Father General Sosa emphasized the importance of higher education in pursuing the Universal Apostolic Preferences, four areas the Jesuits see as vitally important in today’s world:

• Showing the Way to God

• Walking with the Excluded

• Journeying with Youth

• Caring for Our Common Home

Pat Reese, GU’s senior principal giving officer for University Advancement, said Father General Sosa’s talk was particularly inspiring in how he pushed universities to “take risks” in their work and in how he cited higher education as one of the only areas capable of touching on all four Universal Apostolic Preferences. He also connected education to a healthy democracy.

“He said ‘Universities that contribute to giving full meaning to human life necessarily include a political dimension. Democracy requires the humanities,’” Reese recalled. “I found this really powerful as an American, and I felt like this really resonated with our Board.”

For Laura Gatewood, assistant vice president for donor relations, Father General Sosa’s message – and the trip as a whole – was renewing and inspirational for someone who’s been at GU for decades.

“This was really seeing the Jesuits in action,” Gatewood said.

“What resonated with me was that preparing for the future requires discerning the present. We talked after [Sosa’s presentation] about the university’s need to be bold, and that healthy tension we all talk about. What does that look like? How can that show up? How can we be leaders in this work?”

A Special Meeting

In the middle of the trip, much of the traveling group attended a General Audience with His Holiness Pope Francis outside St. Peter’s Basilica. The Gonzaga delegation was publicly recognized before the Audience began, and Board Chair Christy Larsen was afforded the opportunity to greet Pope Francis personally on behalf of the Board delegation. She asked that he pray for Gonzaga and guide the school in its work, and Pope Francis in turn asked for the Gonzaga community to pray for him.

For Pat Reese, the pope’s entrance and accessibility was startling. She recalled Pope Francis entering the grounds in a tiny Mercedes-Benz, “almost like a golf cart,” and move among the throngs of people in attendance – an image she won’t soon forget.

“It’s not enclosed, it’s not protected,” she said. “The square is set up so he can literally drive through the people who are only standing six or 10 people deep. He’s doing this, and people are handing him their babies. He would take the baby and kiss them and bless them. It was unbelievable.”

Unbelievable is a good word for this pilgrimage to Italy, a week full of work and wonder for the Board, their families and Gonzaga representatives.

Maccarone recognized just how seriously all involved took the trip as she reflected on how thoughtfully the questions and comments evolved from the beginning of the trip toward its end.

“Everybody was physically exhausted, but people’s minds were sharp,” Maccarone said. “Everybody was like, ‘I’m so tired. I need more coffee. But I’m so anxious to talk more about these things.’”

Stay tuned for more stories of this transformative journey in the coming months.