“Fools for Christ,” Simão Rodrigues (1547)

Simão Rodrigues, one of Ignatius’s first companions in founding the Society of Jesus, became the founding provincial of the Portuguese province in 1546. In Coimbra, Portugal, his fellow Jesuits opposed Rodrigues’s unique training methods for Jesuit scholastics. Men like Francisco Estrada and others objected to the policy that scholastics had to reproduce the saints’ humiliating holy follies. Rodrigues’s He wrote the following letter to Ignatius a few months later, sometime early in the year 1547, looking for advice and support. Ignatius famously replied with his “Letter of Perfection.” This version of Rodgriues’s letter, translated into English by Martin Palmer, S.J., first appeared in a volume of Studies in the Spirituality of Jesuits.


The grace and love of Christ our Lord be always in our souls. Amen.


The sovereign Wisdom, beholding things before they happen, in its great mercy thus makes provision for them, and teaches us how what is bad can be remedied and what is good made more perfect.


Some time back, after I had not been to Coimbra for a period of seven months because of the prince’s continuous need of my presence, a great dispute arose among the brothers, or among the majority of them. Great as it was, many of those recently admitted were not fully aware of it, although it did cause them confusion and some unrest. My own opinion is that our Lord allowed it for the sake of a greater good and so that more careful provision might be made for what could happen in the future.


Things are normally preserved and maintained by the same means through which they were acquired. Now our Society has a foundation: abjection and contempt of the world. It is through this folly that God our Lord has always aided it and favored it with special gifts. Take this away from us and we will be merely respectable clerics, gradually turning into canons regular.


And merely to go begging does not suffice. When a person is known to be virtuous and good, he always has more than enough and everybody wants to give him more than is sometimes good. No, what has to happen is that they be really fools for Christ and on their own part desire to be considered such. They should desire to be despised by the world. This is the rock the Society was founded on in this kingdom and in these parts where we are all together making our pilgrimage. The good Lord chooses the foolish and the weak things of the world to confound the strong.


For these and other reasons too long to set down, and also because God our Lord inspired me to do so, I decided during a visit to Coimbra about a year and a half ago to indicate to the brothers “as in a riddle” the way they should despise the world and the sort of life they ought to lead after their studies. I taught them many austerities, and how they needed to suffer humiliation before everyone so that, readying themselves for great things, they might grow mightily in courage and seek for it if they did lack it. And I had them do certain mortifications about which I have already had a report sent to you and assume you are informed. (If you are not, I will send you them all in writing, because I have had them written down and intend to leave them as my testament; I earnestly desire that should I die among Christians they be placed with me in the grave.)


The intensity of fervor in the house surpassed anything that could be said or written. It was like seeing a shadow of the fervor which Christ gave to his apostles on the holy day of Pentecost. Conditions were such that the brothers, under this training, thought nothing of requesting these things; and if they fell short, at least they maintained what was indispensable and held that of little account compared to what others had done. Of course, it is quite hard for the flesh to go all the way in this work, and highly conformable to its nature to quit these labors. Would to God our Lord that our superiors had a harder time damping these fervors and longings for humiliations than in persuading the men to undertake them. This leads me back to what I was originally saying.


All the brothers whom I have admitted here were like lions. Right now, by God’s grace, I have a hard time restraining their fervors and coming up with reasons to keep them from being scandalized when 1 do not give them free rein; for I think they would do unheard-of things.


I have always found Santa Cruz and Estrada quite far from sharing this view of things. (I write you this now because I have to, not because I want to.) The result was that, even though they could see that, through my efforts and influence and the sweat of my brow, they lacked for nothing and enjoyed universal esteem and reverence, they nevertheless gradually became convinced that the house’s good reputation was being lost through the brothers’ doing things which the world disapproved of—despite the fact that we should desire only God’s approval and be less concerned with men’s, as Paul well realized when he said, “To me it is a very small thing to be judged by man’s mind, etc.”


Even had my arguments been far weightier, they would have had no effect. These things are reached less by arguments than by inner experience. For example, if I say that St. Francis did this or that, our good Estrada retorts that St. Francis was a saint and acted by a special inspiration: let somebody show him another St. Francis or another divine inspiration. And since I have no answer to this—possessing neither of these two things in myself—I fall silent and say, “Unless you believe, you will not understand.”


These two enjoyed great esteem in the house, one on account of his preaching and my having made much of him, the other because I had appointed him rector of the college. As a result, there was a cooling of the brothers’ fervor in this matter. They began to look down on it and to desire to be altogether “spiritual.” They thought it very improper to speak of mortifications, and despised what I had done. And when they made their views fully known, “there arose a great battle” in the college. Morale began to fall and the credit of Santa Cruz and Estrada to sink in an alarming fashion.


Estrada claimed that he had been with all the first fathers and with Master Ignatius, and that they did not do such mortifications. This I got by hearsay. To me personally he once said that they were doing more mortifications in Portugal than we had done there in Italy. This squares with what I have been told about him.


Santa Cruz quoted Favre as saying that even in Castile he feared being mortified by our mortifications. Thus the mortifications ended up bringing mortification on me as well—more than on the men who were performing them. For they [Estrada and Santa Cruz] were assuring the brothers that the latter were only doing what they had been told and that I was the one who lacked judgment. To this opinion of theirs, conformable as it is to sensual nature, they had drawn some of the brothers, though not many.


As I say, this battle I speak of was only one of opinions. God our Lord conferred great strength on a large number who could think only of Christ crucified and despised. But in this way they threw my whole house into confusion and schism, and were acting like partisans. However, as I said at the beginning, not everyone was aware of this. It was something which God our Lord allowed for the sake of a great good and so that steps could be taken to prevent it in the future. When I left they quieted down considerably, and at present are peaceful. Since the house is large and has a lot of men in it, and each of them is pursuing perfection, there is plenty to do. And indeed, I have learned by experience that no less virtue is needed in keeping them than in recruiting them. If keeping them were as pleasant as recruiting them, the happiness would be so great, I doubt whether there would be any merit in it.


Things are all right now. Santa Cruz is quite able in exterior matters and is indispensable here for business affairs, which are many, in fact more than can be imagined. I have great need for him, because he is a good man. I just do not know how this happened. Indeed, I am convinced that it is not they but the enemy who sowed this bad seed and that God permitted it so that provision might be made. I think it is all right now.


Nevertheless, in order to confirm this state of affairs and make it permanent, I believe that, should God our Lord so inspire you, it would be good to have a letter from you personally. The letter should not mention anyone by name but seem to stem from your wish to say what you think about the mortifications that have been performed. You should not criticize Santa Cruz or Estrada, for they are both indispensable to us; and, as long as they are under someone they respect, there is little danger here; since my influence here is greater, the men look not so much to them as to what I think and approve.


I have put in a different rector, Luís Gonçalves, the one who was in Valencia. He is quite qualified and well grounded in the institute and purpose of the Society. He has a fine reputation both inside and outside the house—indeed, had it before he came to the house. I doubt either Hercules or Isidore will be able to give a full account of these details.


I have taken Estrada along with me to do some preaching at court; he does that well. I am not sending him off. You should know, first of all, that he is not suited to be on his own or in charge of people. His nature is of a simplicity and temperament that is not at all edifying to people who do not know him. In addition, his health is weak; unless he is given special treatment, he will die. Moreover, having the character he does and lacking any visible austerity, he will accomplish nothing. Certainly I doubt much good could come from his going off to Castile in this state. If he argues back against me sometimes, imagine how he will be with others who were not among the first fathers.


In saying that he argues back against me, I refer to at least two points on which I have never been able to change his mind. First, the matter of these mortifications: he wants mortifications that will never offend anybody. The second is his continually pestering me for permission to go and visit his mother. No arguments can dissuade him; namely, that it is more perfect not to be concerned with such things, both in order to give good example to the members of the Society and to avoid the numerous untoward consequences that would ensue: a man ends up under obligation to all his family and all their friends, petitioning kings and princes on their behalf, which is something loathsome. There are other reasons as well, over and above the example of the saints.


Of all the men I have admitted, there are practically none who would not prefer never to see their families again. If I give way on this point and allow one man to go comfort his mother for his father’s death, the relatives of all the rest will ask for the same, and men will be going off in all directions. Santa Cruz has been asking me for the same thing. I had already denied him permission before, since no one who wishes to serve Christ should remember any carnal obligation.


Father mine, I would love to see you and talk over many things with you. In our Society we all have to be either saints or devils. This vocation is very high, and God our Lord makes me feel a great esteem for it. I am eager to die a thousand deaths and suffer a thousand crosses for it, should God grant me so great a grace. I would rather be a member of the Society than king or pope. This brings me enormous joy, and I have greater happiness in serving as cook in the Society than in being tutor and confessor to the prince (which is here considered a great thing indeed).


The paper ends here, and so will I. For the reasons mentioned above, I have said nothing to Estrada, and did not send him right away to Castile, but will wait for your reply. He is doing good work here without risk, helping out with his sermons.


Master Simão




Original Source (English Translation):

Studies in the Spirituality of Jesuits 22.2 (March 1990): 41, “Simão Rodrigues on the Folly of the Cross.”

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