Ignatius on Discernment (1552)

Pope Julius III was asked by Emperor Charles V to make Francis Borgia a cardinal. Borgia asked for Ignatius’s advice on whether to accept the position. In the following letter, Ignatius describes a three-day process of interior discernment that he underwent to determine his own position on the matter. In setting out what happened to him as he tried to decide his own position, Ignatius describes elements of all three “times” of election as set forth in the Spiritual Exercises. This letter also includes the famous statement that the same Holy Spirit could move one person to favor something for a particular reason while moving another person to oppose it for a different reason. Ignatius ultimately preferred Borgia reject the cardinal’s hat. Yet, in his letter, he confesses that while he has no doubt that God wanted him to oppose the cardinalate, it might still be God’s will that Borgia receive it. When Ignatius asked for Borgia’s own opinion, the latter hesitated until he finally decided not to accept such dignity.

For more sources from Ignatius, please visit the Letters of Ignatius of Loyola.



May the sovereign grace and eternal love of Christ our Lord be always our constant protection and help.

In the matter of the cardinal’s hat, I thought I would give some account to you, as if to my own soul, regarding what took place within me, for God’s greater glory. As soon as I learned for certain that the Emperor had nominated you and that the Pope was willing to make you a cardinal, I immediately had this impulse or spiritual movement to oppose it in any way I could. However, being unsure of God’s will because of the many reasons that occurred to me on both sides, I ordered all the priests in the community to say Mass and those not priests to offer their prayers for three days that I might be guided wholly to God’s greater glory. Over this period of three days, there were times when, as I reflected and conferred about the matter, I experienced certain fears, or a lack of that freedom of spirit for speaking out and opposing it. I thought, “How do I know what God our Lord wants to do?” and did not find within myself total certainty about opposing it. At other times, when I went to my regular prayers, I felt within myself that these fears receded. Repeating this petition at intervals, sometimes with this fear and sometimes with the opposite, I finally found myself, during my regular prayer on the third day and continuously thereafter, with a judgment so complete and a will so calm and free to do all I could with the Pope and the cardinals to oppose it that if I failed to do so, I would be, and am, quite certain that I could give no good account of myself to God our Lord, but instead a wholly bad one.

However, I held then and hold now that there would be no contradiction in its being God’s will for me to take this course while others take a different one and the dignity be conferred upon you. The same divine Spirit could move me to this course for one set of reasons and move others to the opposite for different ones, with the outcome being what the Emperor indicated. May God our Lord act everywhere as may be always for his greater praise and glory. I believe it would be useful for you to answer the letter Master Polanco is writing about this on my behalf, and to state what intention and will God our Lord has given or may give you, so that, receiving it in writing, we could show it where needed, leaving the whole matter in the hands of God our Lord, so that he might fulfill his holy will in all our affairs.

Your last letter, dated March 13, is being answered in another. God our Lord grant that your journey and the entire outcome have gone as we had hoped for here in his Divine Majesty, and that this letter may find you in perfect health, both interior and exterior, as is my desire and constant petition to God our Lord in my poor unworthy prayers, for the greater glory of his Divine Majesty. May he in his infinite mercies always be our constant protection and help.


From Rome




Original Source (English translation):

Ignatius of Loyola: Letters and Instructions, ed. John W. Padberg, et al. St. Louis, Mo.: Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1996, “To Francis Borgia, Rome, June 5, 1552,” pg. 376–377.

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