King John III of Portugal requested that Diego Miró and Luis Gonçalves da Câmara serve as confessors for himself and his family. The two Jesuits firmly declined, considering such lofty posts to be incompatible with the Society’s prohibition against personal ambition. The men were also aware of the delicacy of the situation. Ignatius had recently removed Simão Rodrigues from that office even as the former provincial was a close friend of the Portuguese king. Ignatius here gives his reasons for overriding the men’s decision. He may have been too sanguine about the ease with which one of the reasons against taking the post, “seeking out honors and dignities,” could be countered. One of the longest-lasting criticisms of the Society was that its members were royal confessors and, therefore, used their access to wield secret power without public responsibility.
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 help and protection.
From various letters which we have received from there, we learn that His Highness has with insistent devotion requested you, and also Father Luis Gonçalves, to be his confessors, but that you have both begged off, not out of any fears for your own consciences in dealing with that of His Highness, which, as you write, you consider holy, but because you think that this is an honor which should be avoided no less than a bishopric or cardinal’s hat in those realms; and I understand that for the same reason Father Luis Gonçalves has even given up acting as confessor to the Prince. Certainly, I myself, when I consider your motives, grounded on humility and safety, which are better found in lowliness than in prominence, can only approve and be edified by your intention. However, all things considered, I am convinced that you did not make the right decision, if we look to the greater service and glory of God our Lord. First, because it is your profession and Institute to administer the sacraments of confession and Communion to persons of every condition and age; just as you are bound to assist persons of the lowest degree, so are you bound by the same duty to give spiritual consolation and help to those of the highest degree. Second, given that from its very origin and commencement our whole Society has been under more particular obligation to Their Highnesses than to any other Christian prince, whether in view of their good works or of the special love and charity which more than anything else ought to win over your hearts, I can think of no excuse to justify our not trying to serve Their Highnesses in a matter which is so appropriate to our profession and which they indicate will bring them spiritual consolation and satisfaction. Then, if we look to the universal good and God’s greater service, these will, so far as I can perceive in the Lord, ensue more strongly from this. For the good of the head is shared by all the body’s members, and the good of the sovereign by all his subjects, so that spiritual benefit given to the sovereign should be rated above that which might be given to others. To give one instance by which you can judge others, consider how important would have been a reminder from a confessor to come to a conclusion in the matter of the patriarch of Ethiopia, involving as it does the salvation not just of many souls but of numerous cities and provinces. Moreover, whether one of you hears His Highness’s confessions or not, be sure to keep on reminding him of this matter and reporting to me, whenever you write to Rome, about what you have done.
However, coming back to the reasons why you should not decline this task, I do not think that even the one about your personal safety is pertinent. If all we looked for in our vocation was to walk safely, having to place the good of souls second to keeping far from danger, we would have no business living and dealing with our neighbor. But it is our vocation to have dealings with all people. Indeed, as St. Paul says of himself, we should make ourselves all things to all people in order to gain all for Christ. If we proceed with a pure and upright intention, not seeking our own interests but those of Jesus Christ, he himself in his infinite goodness will protect us. Indeed, unless his mighty hand held our profession fast, no avoidance of such dangers would avail to keep us from falling into them and worse.
As for the possibility that people would claim you are seeking out honors and dignities, it will collapse of itself under the weight of the truth and the evidence of the facts when people see you preserving the lowliness that you have chosen for Christ our Lord. Thus, you should not allow any considerations or talk from the crowd to keep you from what could turn out to be of great service to God and to Their Highnesses and for the common good. In conclusion, to satisfy my conscience in this matter, I command you and Father Luis Gonçalves, in virtue of holy obedience, that one of the two should comply with whatever Their Highnesses may command you in this regard—unless someone else in the Society seems preferable to you and is also acceptable to His Highness for this post. Have confidence in the divine Goodness that whatever is done this way through obedience will be for the best. You are to make this command known to His Highness and show him this letter, should he wish to see it, or at least give its main points.
Since Master Polanco will write at length on other matters, I will say no more here except that I earnestly commend myself to your prayers and sacrifices. I beg God our Lord to give us all his abundant grace always to know his most holy will and entirely to fulfill it.
Rome, February 1, 1553
Yours in our Lord,
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 Diego Miró, Rome, February 1, 1553,” pg. 409–411.