Cannonballs and Conversions
20 May 2021
Homily of Fr Roberto Yap SJ
Opening of the Ignatian Year
20th May 2021
University Church of the Gesù
Ateneo de Manila
Íñigo López de Loyola was born into an aristocratic family in the Basque region of Northern Spain. As a vain young man, he was captivated by military prowess, honor, chivalry, and the pursuit of material wealth. Known to brawl and sword fight (usually after a night of drinking), the hot-headed Íñigo was no stranger to sexual conquest as he worked to arrange a cozy life of pleasure, privilege, and power. When he was 24, a criminal charge of ‘nocturnal misdemeanors’ was on his police record which landed him and his brother, Pedro, in prison. In short, Íñigo was an experienced sinner before an inexperienced saint.
An unexpected shift quickly occurred. While fighting as a military officer against the French in the Battle at Pamplona in 1521, a cannonball shattered Íñigo’s right knee and severely wounded his left. His leg was not the only thing that had been shattered by the cannonball. His image of himself as a handsome, dashing courtier – everything that he had ever lived for – was shattered, too.
After a long and painful year of convalescence, sheer boredom (remember, there was neither Internet nor Netflix), and troubling spiritual doubts and awakenings, Íñigo did some soul searching by way of critical self-inventory and prayer. His convalescence gave him time to reflect and to see that God had different dreams for him. And it profoundly affected him psychologically, socially, ethically, and spiritually.
Íñigo was indeed changing and decided that he simply could not keep living as planned. His body was healing, but his soul was starving. The soldier surrendered and recast himself as a different type of warrior – a scrappy soldier for Christ.
500 years ago on this day, May 20th, St Ignatius was wounded by a cannonball shattering his leg and his life. For him, it was a major failure and a change of plans in what he envisioned for his future, full of riches and worldly exploits. However, this failure turned out to be only apparent. It started a process of conversion, which led Ignatius to have bigger dreams, no longer centered on himself, but rather on God. It led to his “personal encounter with Jesus of Nazareth, which allowed him to discover the essence of freedom: the love that leads to the surrender of one’s own life so that others may have life.”(1) It helped St Ignatius to see all things new in Christ.
Today, the Society of Jesus and the Ignatian Family begin our celebration of the Ignatian Year, a yearlong commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the conversion of St Ignatius Loyola. For this Ignatian Year, we ask: How might we commit to ongoing conversion? How might we learn to recognize and embrace those ‘cannonball moments’ in our own lives?
In his book, Let Us Dream, published in December 2020 in the midst of the pandemic, Pope Francis, faithful son of Padre Maestro Ignacio writes about the ‘cannonball moments’ in his own life. He calls them ‘stoppages’ or his ‘personal Covid.’
Pope Francis writes: “These are moments in life that can be ripe for change and conversion. Each of us has had our own ‘stoppage,’ or if we haven’t yet, we will someday: illness, the failure of a marriage or a business, some great disappointment, or betrayal. As in the Covid-19 lockdown, those moments generate a tension, a crisis that reveals what is in our hearts.”(2)
“In every ‘personal Covid,’ so to speak, in every ‘stoppage,’ what is revealed is what needs to change: our lack of interior freedom, the idols we have been serving” (possessions, power, prestige, pleasure), “the ideologies we have tried to live by, the relationships we have neglected.”(3)
Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s first Covid-like cannonball moment came when he fell deathly ill with a lung infection during his second year in the seminary at Buenos Aires. He narrates, “When I got really sick at the age of 21, I had my first experience of limit, of pain, and loneliness. It changed the way I saw life. For months, I didn’t know who I was or whether I would live or die. The doctors had no idea whether I’d make it either. I remember hugging my mother and saying, ‘Just tell me if I’m going to die’.”(4)
“My nurses Cornelia and Micaela are in heaven now, but I’ll always owe them so much. They fought for me to the end, until my eventual recovery from my lung operation. They taught me what it is to use science but also to know when to go beyond it to meet particular needs. And the serious illness I lived through taught me to depend on the goodness and wisdom of others.”(5)
The coronavirus pandemic, in a way, is like a cannonball, shattering our society and our lives, destroying our old ways of living. Reflecting on the pandemic, Pope Francis has said, “We never emerge from a crisis just as we were. We come out either better or worse, never the same. This is why, at this critical juncture, it is our duty to rethink the future of our common home and our common project.”(6)
Pope Francis exhorts everyone to come out from our Covid cannonball crisis … better, not worse: “This is a moment to dream big, to rethink our priorities – what we value, what we want, what we seek – and to commit to act in our daily life on what we have dreamed of. God asks us to dare to create something new.”(7) A more just economy, inclusive politics, better environmental stewardship.
My sisters and brothers, today, as we begin our celebration of the Ignatian Year, we are invited to ask: How might the cannonballs in our lives be shattering obstacles that stand between us and true freedom? And how might these cannonballs be showing us and our university the way of Jesus, that way that embraces humility, service, and self-sacrificing love?
We celebrate this year to remind us of the daily opportunity to experience a new conversion and to live a transforming experience. It is a call to allow the Lord to work on our conversion. We ask for the grace to be renewed by the Lord. It is a call to allow the Lord to reveal to us a new enthusiasm, a new life, new ways of following Jesus who continues to call us, especially through the poorest and most marginalized, through the cry of the earth, through all that is vulnerable. For this Ignatian Year, we ask for the grace to see all things new in Christ.
To my dear young Ateneans I share the yearnings of Fr General Arturo Sosa: “We want to learn to accompany you. We want to learn from you. Each one of you is unique, born with a special purpose. Ignatius struggled to discover the meaning of his life. In him you can find inspiration as you struggle to make your life meaningful and as you ask how you can contribute to building a better world, where the dignity of people is respected and where you live in a joy-filled harmony with nature.”(8)
In remembering St Ignatius, his cannonball moment, and his conversion, we find encouragement. We realize that “Yes, change is possible. Yes, our hearts can be softened. Yes, our world can find new ways forward”.(9) We place our hands in the hands of Jesus, our brother and friend, and we go forth into an uncertain but hopeful future, confident that He is with us and that His spirit is guiding us.
St Ignatius of Loyola, pray for us!
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