Jesuit delegates from across the world attending the General Congregation in Rome were looking forward to Pope Francis’s address yesterday with a mixture of excitement and trepidation.

Excitement, because this is — let’s not forget — the first time a Jesuit pope has addressed the governing body of the Society of Jesus, and very likely to be the last, at least in most Jesuits’ lifetimes.

Trepidation, because no pope has known the Jesuits better than Jorge Mario Bergoglio, one of its most influential yet also challenging leaders, known as ‘provincials’ (the Society is divided into provinces, each headed by a provincial).

No pope, in other words, has ever known the Society’s gifts, strengths, weaknesses and temptations as Francis does, from the inside.

Equally, no General Congregation (‘GC’ in Jesuitspeak) has ever sat through an address by a pope who has actually attended previous GCs as a Jesuit.

As Argentina’s provincial, Bergoglio was at the historic 32nd GC in 1974-75, called by Father Pedro Arrupe to settle the disputed post-Vatican II direction of the Society. Eight years later, as an elected delegate, he was at the 33rd GC in 1983 that elected Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach (at which, incidentally, Bergoglio got to know the Jesuits’ just-elected new General, Father Arturo Sosa.)

In between those two GCs the Jesuits went through their most turbulent period in modern times, a time of collapsing vocations amidst sharp divisions over some Marxist undercurrents of liberation theology and the place of justice in the Jesuits’ faith mission. The low-point came with Pope St John Paul II’s notorious intervention in the Society in 1981 following Arrupe’s debilitating stroke.

(Rather than accept the Jesuits’ nomination of a vicar-general to run the order until a successor could be found, the pope named his own ‘pontifical delegate’ to serve as the Jesuits’ interim leader for two years.)

In all of this, Bergoglio was no mere spectator. When Paul VI addressed the delegates at the opening of GC-32 on December 3, 1974, he gave what Argentina’s then-provincial regarded as the most beautiful address ever made to the Society by a pope. Yet within the love letter was a sharp concern, shared by Bergoglio, that the Jesuit renewal had led them away from their core identity and mission.

Many of the delegates were mystified and angered by Paul’s urging them to get back on track, which they took as a warning against the direction they eventually endorsed at GC-32. Ignoring Paul’s admittedly indirect pleas, GC-32 voted to amend the society’s purpose to make the “promotion of justice” an “absolute requirement” of the “service of faith.”

Bergoglio objected to that amendment (known as ‘Decree Four’), because of fears that it would make the Jesuits vulnerable to ideology and a loss of priestly identity, reducing them to activists and campaigners.

Returning to Argentina, he would often quote Paul VI’s address and studiously ignored Decree Four. As provincial and later rector of the Colegio Máximo in charge of the formation of hundreds of young men, he pursued a deliberate policy of isolating the Argentine province from the rest of the Jesuits in Latin America.

A couple of years after Kolvenbach’s election, Bergoglio (in the 1980s by far the dominant figure in the province) was dethroned and sidelined in order to re-integrate the Argentine Jesuits. Rome’s policy divided the province, leaving long-lasting wounds.

In 1990 Bergoglio left the Society, at least formally, when he was made auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires. The legacy of hurt and misunderstanding was only dissolved after his election as pope.

Given the suspicion with which most Jesuits worldwide regarded him in March 2013, the growing love and affection between Francis and the Society since then has been nothing short of extraordinary.

Read in the light of this history, Francis’s speech yesterday to GC-36 was a chance to articulate a vision of the Jesuits’ purpose and mission that — in his view — they abandoned despite Paul VI’s warning in 1974.

Of course, much of the Tiber has run under the Ponte Sisto since then, and successive GCs — not least number 35 in 2008, which re-aligned the society with the papacy — have restored the Jesuits’ identity, to the point where these days those debates are largely over.

But it was still significant that Francis began yesterday’s address by quoting Paul’s at GC-32, in which the then pope invited the Jesuits to “walk together: free, obedient.” In effect Francis’s address fleshed out that invitation, arguing that in the discerned tension of freedom and obedience lies the authentic Jesuit charism.

The address helped to heal two wounds: not just the one left by the 1970s derailing, but by the humiliation that followed — lectures by papal nominees which confused the Jesuits’ famous Fourth Vow of obedience to the pope with St Ignatius’s rules in the Spiritual Exercises for thinking with the Church.

A famous example was the homily of Cardinal Franc Rodé, then prefect of the Congregation for Religious, at the opening Mass of GC-35 in 2008, which implied that the Jesuits’ mission was narrow conformity. That address hurt, because it showed little understanding of St Ignatius’s understanding of obedience as docility to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.

As Bergoglio always did as provincial, to make his case Francis yesterday reached for primitive sources from the Jesuits’ early days, quoting St. Ignatius of Loyola and his companions, as well as the original Formula of the Institute drawn up by Pope Paul III in 1540. (Returning to that formula, so often revised since then, is typical of Francis’s ressourcement — reforming by restoring.)

Through these he showed that Jesuit freedoms — from the obligation to recite the Divine Office, for example — are “mobility aids”, designed precisely to allow the freedom for obedience properly understood. That didn’t spell conformity, he implied, but the very opposite: a holy fervor that was a means of “awakening those who are dormant.”

In case the point was lost, Francis quoted a description of the famous Chilean Jesuit saint, Alberto Hurtado, as “a thorn in the flesh of the dormant Church.”

Equally pointed was the absence of the the word “justice” in the address, which appears only once, as part of the phrase “the practice of faith and mercy” (a rather different idea from the “promotion” of justice in Decree Four). Francis reminded the Jesuits that St. Ignatius saw the society’s means of attaining the “the greater and more universal good” — the magis — as always including, and never preventing, concrete works of mercy.

(For Argentine Jesuits who remember Bergoglio as provincial, this was like going back in time. Bergoglio was always convinced that for well-educated priests, advocacy of justice in the abstract was a spiritual temptation away from the incarnational demand of Christ that service be firstly to the concrete person in need.)

Francis then gave a three-point recipe, drawn directly from the Spiritual Exercises, for “overcoming the impediments which the enemy of our human nature tries to put in our way when we are in the service of God and seeking the greater good.”

The first, “to ask consistently for consolation,” makes clear that Jesuit spirituality is about seeking and asking for the joy that Christ offers his disciples in prayer. In what will surely be a future Society of Jesus slogan, Francis observed that “the Jesuit is a servant of the joy of the Gospel.”

His second invitation is to be close to those who are suffering, by depending more and more on God’s mercy and grace, “which we, many times, dilute with our abstract formulations and legalistic conditions.”

Quoting the part of Decree Four at GC-32 that he strongly approved of, Francis observes that only when Jesuits experience this healing power in their own lives will they be able to walk with those who suffer, “learning from them the best way of helping and serving them” (rather than applying to the poor abstract formulas, he did not need to add.)

The third part of the recipe is “doing good led by the Good Spirit, thinking with the Church.” Here Francis quoted his favorite early Jesuit (whom he canonized on his birthday in 2013), St. Peter Faber, who noted of the Lutherans that “those who wanted to reform the Church were right, but that God did not want to correct it through their means.”

But in case that could be read as an endorsement of Cardinal Rodé’s narrow critique of Jesuit independence, Francis adds: “We do not read the rules for thinking with the Church as precise instructions about controversial points,” but rather “to open up a space so that the Spirit can act in its own time.”

St. Ignatius, Francis reminds the Jesuits, used to make a special effort when he saw sinful structures in the Church to make sure he was acting “in the Good Spirit” when he spoke or acted.

Be reformers and frontiersmen, in other words, but watch out for the temptations of ideology and egotism, and remain true to your original charism.

The address is just five pages, yet in its careful re-balancing helps heal decades.