The Doctrine of Tribulation

Jorge Mario Bergoglio, SJ

 Jorge Mario Bergoglio, SJ / Church Life / Published Date:3 May 2018/Last Updated Date:24 February 2021

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 Why are we now offering our readers a text by then-Fr. Jorge Mario Bergoglio dated Christmas 1987? Before replying to this question we need to understand something about the context in which it was written.

Fr. Bergoglio signed a short preface to a collection of eight letters from two Superiors General of the Society of Jesus (“Las cartas de la Tribulación,” Buenos Aires, Diego de Torres, 1988). Seven of them were by Father General Lorenzo Ricci, written between 1758 and 1773, and one was by Father General Jan Roothaan, from 1831.

They speak to us of a great tribulation: the suppression of the Society of Jesus. In fact, with the apostolic brief “Dominus ac Redemptor” (July 21, 1773), Pope Clement XIV had decided to suppress the Order following a series of political moves. Later, in August 1814, in the chapel of the Congregation of the Nobili in Rome, Pope Pius VII had the bull “Sollicitudo omnium ecclesiarum” read out and the Society of Jesus was effectively reconstituted.

La Civilta Cattolica

In 1986 Fr. Bergoglio – following a period as provincial and rector of the Collegio Massimo and as parish priest at San Miguel – went to Germany for a year of study. On his return to Buenos Aires, he then continued his studies and taught Pastoral Theology. Meanwhile, the Society of Jesus was preparing its 66th Congregation of Procurators, which took place from September 27 to October 5, 1987.

The Argentine province elected Bergoglio as its procurator and sent him to Rome with the task of speaking about the state of the province, to discuss the conditions of the Society with other elected procurators from the various provinces, and to vote on whether the moment was opportune to call a General Congregation of the Order.

It was in this context that Bergoglio decided to meditate on and propose anew those letters by Frs. Ricci and Roothaan, for in his view they were of current importance for the Society. And so he wrote a preface, signed three months later, little more than 2,000 words, half of them footnotes.

Today, La Civilità Cattolica offers anew this text which had become inaccessible. One feels the absence of the letters to which the text of Bergoglio refers. We will look to make them available soon. Nonetheless, the text remains clear in its meaning. A commentary on the ideas in the text by Fr. Diego Fares, SJ, is due to appear in our English edition in June.


We propose anew “Las cartas de la Tribulación” because the pontiff has frequently referred to it in recent years. These letters and Fr. Bergoglio’s reflections in 1987 were the backbone to his homily for the celebration of Vespers in Rome’s Gesù church, in 2014, marking the 200th anniversary of the reconstitution of the Society of Jesus.

The most recent occasion was the conversation with Jesuits in Peru when Pope Francis stated that these letters are “a marvel of criteria of discernment, criteria of action to not allow ourselves to be dragged down by institutional desolation.”[1]

And he explicitly referred to them when he spoke to priests, religious men and women, the consecrated and seminarians in Santiago de Chile, on January 16, 2018. On that occasion he invited people to find the road to follow “when the tempest of persecutions, tribulations, doubts, and so on, is raised by cultural and historical events” and the temptation is to “keep dwelling on our own desolation.”

Clearly Francis wanted to say a word to the Church in Chile at a time of being bewildered and in a “whirlwind of conflicts.” Once more – again referring to those letters – on this occasion he spoke about Peter. With the question “Do you love me?” Jesus wants to set Peter free from “being upset by opposition and criticism. He wants to free him from being downcast and, above all, negative. By his question, Jesus asks Peter to listen to his heart and to learn how to discern.”

In short, Jesus wanted to avoid Peter becoming a truthful destroyer, a charitable liar, or confused paralytic. Jesus insists until Peter gives him a realistic response: “Lord you know everything; you know that I love you” (John 21:17). Thus Jesus confirms him in his mission. And so makes him definitively his apostle.[2]

Hence we understand that these letters and the reflections that accompany them are important to understand how Bergoglio himself feels he must act as the successor of Peter, that is, as Pope Francis. These are words that he says today to the Church, repeating them first to himself. And above all these are words that Pope Francis considers paramount today for the Church to be able to face up to times of desolation and turmoil, of false and anti-evangelical polemics.

This short text from 31 years ago has generated, for example, one very important text of the pontificate: the “Letter to the Bishops of Chile” following the report given to him by Archbishop Charles J. Scicluna on April 8, 2018. It can be considered, in its own way, a new “letter of tribulation.”

Finally, rereading the preface of Bergoglio means entering into the heart of the pontificate that generated the exhortation “Gaudete et Exsultate” as its mature fruit.

                                                                                    (Antonio Spadaro, SJ)


The following texts were written by two Fathers General of the Society of Jesus: Fr. Lorenzo Ricci (elected General in 1758) and Fr. Jan Roothaan (elected in 1829). Both of them led the Society in difficult times of persecution. During the generalate of Fr. Ricci the suppression of the Society by Pope Clement XIV occurred.

For a long time the Bourbon courts were “demanding” that such a measure be taken. Pope Clement XIII [with the 1765 bull Apostolicum Pascendi – Ed.] confirmed the Institute founded by St. Ignatius, but nevertheless the pounding of the Bourbon courts against the Order did not stop until the publication [by Clement XIV – Ed.] of the brief Dominus ac Redemptor in 1773 when the Society of Jesus was suppressed.[3]

Fr. Roothaan also experienced difficult times: liberalism and the entire current of the Enlightenment which issued in “modernity.” In both cases, in that of Fr. Ricci and that of Fr. Roothaan, the Society was attacked mainly for its devotion to the Apostolic See: it was an indirect attack on the Church. Nevertheless, deficiencies were not lacking within the ranks of the Jesuits themselves.

It is not a matter here of going into more details about the history. What has been said is enough to frame this period of the two Fathers General. What is important is to realize that in both cases the Society of Jesus experienced tribulation, and the letters which follow are the doctrine regarding tribulation that both Superiors recall to their members. They constitute a treatise about tribulation and how to endure it.

In times of disturbance, in which the commotion of persecution, tribulations, doubts, etc., arises as a result of cultural and historic events, it is not easy to discover the right road to follow. There are various temptations proper to such times: to argue over ideas, to not give the importance one should give to the matter, to concentrate too much on the persecutors and keep going over the desolation in one’s mind, etc.…

In the following letters we see how both Fathers General deal with such temptations, propose to the Jesuits a doctrine that forges them in their own spirituality,[4] and strengthen their belonging to the entire body of the Society. This belonging comes first and ought to prevail over all other memberships (to all kinds of institutions internal or external to the Society). This sense of belonging ought to characterize any other commitment which, because of it, is transformed in “mission.”[5]

Behind the cultural and sociopolitical stances of that epoch there is an underlying ideology: the Enlightenment, liberalism, absolutism, regalism, etc. Nevertheless, what captures one’s attention is how both Fathers General – in their letters – do not attempt to “argue” with them. They know full well that in such stances there are errors, lies, ignorance… nevertheless, they leave those things aside and – on addressing the body of the Society – center their reflection on the confusion which such ideas (and their cultural and political consequences) produce in the heart of Jesuits. It would appear that they feared the problem would not be properly approached. It is true that there is a struggle of ideas, but they preferred to go rather to life, to the situation which such ideas provoke.

Ideas are discussed; situations are discerned. These letters intend to give elements of discernment to Jesuits in tribulation. Hence, in the argumentation they prefer to mention confusion rather than error, ignorance or lies. Confusion finds a place in the heart: it is the coming and going of diverse spirits. Truth or falsehood in the abstract is not the object of discernment. Confusion, however, is. Rather than argue about ideas, these letters recall the doctrine, and by means of it, lead the Jesuits to take charge of their own vocation.

Before the seriousness of those times and the ambiguity of particular situations that come about, the Jesuit ought to discern, ought to recompose himself in his own belonging. He was not allowed to opt for any of the solutions that would deny the contrary and real polarity. He should seek to find God’s will, and not seek to find an outcome that would leave him tranquil. The sign of his having discerned well he would find in peace (gift of God), and not in the apparent tranquility of human equilibrium or of opting for one of the contrary elements.

Concretely: It is not of God to defend truth at the price of charity, nor charity at the price of truth, nor equilibrium at the price of both of them. In order to avoid becoming a truthful destroyer or a charitable liar or a confused paralytic, one better discern. It is the job of the Superior to help in discernment. This is the deepest meaning of the following letters: an effort on the part of the head of the Society to help the body assume an attitude of discernment. Such a paternal attitude rescues the body from spiritual helplessness and rootlessness.

Finally, one more point about method. Recourse to the fundamental truths that give meaning to our memberships or belonging appears to be the only way for properly approaching a discernment. St. Ignatius recalls this at all times before making an election: “the focus of our intention ought to be simple, looking only at that for which I am created.”[6] Moreover, it should not surprise us that in these letters the Fathers General refer to the sins of Jesuits themselves which in a merely discursive but not discerning approach would seem to have nothing to do with the external situation of confusion provoked by the persecutions.

What happens is not a matter of chance: there is here a dialectic proper to the situational context of discernment: to seek interiorly within oneself a state of being similar to the external one. In this case seeing oneself solely as persecuted could engender the bad spirit of “feeling like a victim,” like an object of injustice, etc. Outside, on account of persecution, there is confusion… In considering his own sins the Jesuit asks for “shame and confusion for himself.”[7] This is not the same thing, but it seems so; and in this way one is better disposed to do discernment. Thus this jewel of our spirituality is put in the hands of many readers.[8]

Jorge Mario Bergoglio, SJ

December 25, 1987

[1] Pope Francis, “Where have our people been creative? Conversations with Jesuits in Chile and Peru,” February 15, 2018, La Civiltà Cattolica, English Edition, at

[2] Cf. Pope Francis, Address to the priests, consecrated men and women and seminarians, Santiago Cathedral, January 16, 2018, at

[3] There are various historical interpretations about the conduct of Pope Clement XIV. The point of view of each one of them is always based on some objective reality. I do not think that it is always correct to absolutize that truth transforming it into the only interpretative key. A good summary of this theme is found in G. Martina, La Iglesia de Lutero a nuestros días, 4 vols., Madrid: Cristiandad, 1974, Vol. II, 271-287. It also provides an abundant bibliography. The judgment that Ludwig Pastor makes regarding Clement XIV in his History of the Popes (Vol. 37) is extremely harsh. For example: “Clement XIV’s weakness of character is the key for understanding his tactic of conceding in everything possible to the demands of the Bourbon courts and by this means to restore peace…” (p. 90). “The most fatal quality of the new pope: weakness and timidity which were equaled by his deceit and mental slowness” (p. 82). “Pope Clement lacks courage and firmness; he is incredibly slow in resolving issues. He captivates people with pretty words and promises; he deceives and fascinates people. Initially he promises heaven and earth; later he raises difficulties and postpones the solution, in the Roman fashion, remaining triumphant in the end. In this way everyone gets caught in his net. He puts up a good appearance to avoid coming to a decision in answer to the concerns of ambassadors; he dismisses them with nice words and cheerful hopes which then are never realized. Whoever seeks to gain some favor better try to do so at the first audience. Moreover, a perceptive ambassador can discover his underlying insincerity because he is so given to talk” (pp. 82-83). These are judgments that Pastor makes based on documents of the period, and while his opinion of Pope Ganganelli ends up being negative, his opinion about Ganganelli’s secretary, Friar Bontempi, also a Conventual Franciscan, is much more negative. Pastor “charges” Bontempi with being practically the main person responsible for Ganganelli’s errors. According to Pastor, Bontempi attempted to commit an act of simony by soliciting payment in return for the suppression of the Society. Bontempi succeeded in getting Clement XIV to name him a cardinal in pectore but he failed to get his nomination made public when the pope was on his deathbed. Pastor presents Bontempi as an ambitious type without scruples who moves backstage behind the drapes, and tries to be on “good relations with everyone” and thus prepares for his future.

[4] Fr. Joseph de Guibert, SJ, in The Jesuits: Their Spiritual Doctrine and Practice, edited by George E. Ganns, SJ (Chicago: Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1964) states: “In accord with this (he refers to Decree 11 of the 19th General Congregation which elected Fr. Ricci as General of the Order) a series of poignant letters is found addressed by the new General to his religious men as the number of difficult situations piles up and dangers increase. On December 8, 1759, the day following Pombal’s decrees destroying the Portuguese Provinces, he invites prayer for the immediate coming of the spiritum bonum, the true supernatural spirit of vocation, perfect docility to divine grace. Again on November 30, 1761, at the very moment when the storm reaches France, he asks that all one’s trust be placed in God, that the trials be taken advantage of for the purification of souls, and that it be remembered that these trials bring us nearer to God and also serve for the greater glory of God. On November 13, 1763, he insists on the necessity of making prayer more effective through holiness of life recommending above all humility, the spirit of poverty and the perfect obedience requested by St. Ignatius. On June 16, 1769, after the expulsion of the Spanish Jesuits, there is a new call to prayer and to zeal to purify oneself of minor defects. Finally, on February 21, 1773, six months before the signing of the brief Dominus ac Redemptor, in the face of a total lack of human assistance, Fr. Ricci wants to see the effect of God’s mercy which invites those afflicted with trials to trust only in Him; he also exhorts the men to prayer, but only to ask for the preservation of a Society faithful to the spirit of its calling: “If, God forbid, it should lose that spirit, its suppression would be of no importance, since it would have made itself useless for the purpose for which it was founded.” He finishes with a warm exhortation to maintain in their fullness the spirit of charity, of union, of obedience, of patience and of evangelical simplicity. Such are the words with which Divine Providence wanted to close the spiritual history of the Society at that moment of supreme testing of total sacrifice which would be demanded of it. Cordaro, and others after him, have criticized in Ricci an excessive passivity in the face of the attacks of which his Order was the object, a lack of energy and ability to take advantage of all the means at his disposition to frustrate the attacks. This is not the place to discuss whether such a criticism is well founded; but what are certainly preferable are invitations to hear repeated calls for supernatural fidelity, to holiness of life and to the special grace of God in prayer as things that are essential at those final hours of the Order on the eve of death, rather than holding on to human abilities, legitimate, but without a doubt completely useless” (pp. 318-319).

“There is hardly any need to recall the protest that Fr. Ricci near death took pains to read at the moment he received viaticum in the prison of Castel Sant’Angelo on November 19, 1775: at the moment of appearing before the tribunal of the infallible truth, it was his duty to protest that the destroyed Society had given no motive for its suppression. He declared and gave witness to this with the certainty which a well-informed superior can morally possess regarding the state of his Order, as well as to not having himself given any motive whatsoever, no matter how small, for his imprisonment” (Ibid., note 71).

[5] The 32nd General Congregation of the Society of Jesus, Decree 4, No. 66.

[6] Cf. Spiritual Exercises, No. 169.

[7] Ibid., No. 48.

[8] Epistolae Praepositorum Generalium ad Patres et Fratres Societatis Jesu, Vol. 4, Rollarii, Iulii De Meester, 1909, 257-346. The following letters were translated from the original Latin by Fr. Ernesto Dann Obregón, SJ.