Understanding Pope Francis – Alphonsus Rodriguez, simple and unpretentious


Before a busy few weeks which will take me to Oxford, Rome, Venice, and the U.S. for various lectures and conferences, I spent a few days in Spain to recharge my batteries this past week, eating tapas and drinking good white wine. I have been blessed to have spent quite a bit of time in Mallorca in the last 15 years and have many close friends there. I am not the first to fall in love with the beauty and history of the island.
In 1982, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now known to the world as Pope Francis, visited the Jesuit school of Nuestra Senora de Montesion (Our Lady of Mount Zion) set deep in the labyrinthine alleys of Palma, not far from the Moorish baths and the stunning Catalan cathedral. Bergoglio was there, as I was, to venerate the shrine of St. Alphonsus Rodriguez (in local dialect “San Alonso”). The Jesuits warmly welcomed me and let me spend some private time in prayer in the Baroque chapel alone with the saint’s tomb and relics, as Bergoglio had done decades ago.
Montesion goes back to the period of the founding of the Jesuits in the 1500s, when St. Ignatius was collaborating with Mallorcan native Jeronimo Nadal. Because the building was originally a synagogue, its history and spirituality are deeply intertwined with Mary’s practicing Judaism, and her presentation in the Temple as a dutiful daughter of Israel, steeped in the memories of the Exodus experience and the Hebrew prophets.
Montesion’s most famous resident, Alonso, was first married with children. The newly-named St. Peter Faber (a personal favorite of Bergoglio’s) once visited his family and made a deep impression on Alonso. When his wife and children tragically died, Alonso entered the Jesuits as a lay brother and served as porter, or gate-keeper, there for 47 years. Renowned for his humility and mystical contemplation of Christ, it was here in Palma that Rodriguz told another future saint, St. Peter Claver, that he should consider missionary work in the New World. Claver followed his advice and became “the servant to the slaves” in Latin America.
There are certainly numerous ties here between these figures and Bergoglio’s own humility, spirituality, ethnic background, and vision of the Gospel’s role in the lives of the forgotten.
Today the door that Alonso watched so diligently, famously rushing to answer its bell because the dignity of Christ could be found in anyone who was knocking on it, is elaborately decorated with beautiful stone sculptures as a monument to the sanctification of his simple and monotonous – yet not unnoticed – work.
Alphonsus was famously honored in a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins. It tells of God’s wondrous presence and acts in the universe while this simple and unpretentious man did his duty to all he encountered, even if living a basically semi-cloistered existence. The closing verse reads:

Yet God (that hews mountain and continent,
Earth, all, out; who, with trickling increment,
Veins violets and tall trees makes more and more 
Could crowd career with conquest while there went
Those years and years by of world without event
That in Majorca Alfonso watched the door.

Alonso remains a potential hero to those who have suffered unimaginable losses in life, and to those whose silent and unseen labors glorify God.

Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., of Collingswood, is a Research Associate at Durham University’s Centre for Catholic Studies in Northeast England.