Francis eau de cologne and the odour of sanctity

POST BY JHellings

Incense burner in stained glass at St Ignatius Church Chestnut Hill Massachusetts

Francis – Created by Excelsis to celebrate the Petrine succession of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis, Pontifex Maximus, 266th Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church. Francis is an engaging, fresh fragrance with a citrusy top note of bergamot and a soft, woody drydown of sandalwood. Smooth and soothing, A grand aftershave.

One wonders what Pope Francis would make of this advertisement for the Excelsis Fine Fragrances Company’s latest creation, ‘Francis Eau de Cologne’. The business-house’s flagship product, ‘The Pope’s Cologne’, released in 2005, was apparently made from ‘the private formula of Pope Pius IX’ and paved the way for the launch of the ‘Benedictus Eau de Cologne’ with the election of its namesake in 2006. The latest scent followed, as expected, in 2013. ‘He is more humble and down to earth than the previous popes,’ the Excelsis CEO said of Pope Francis. ‘So I tried to fit the perfume to the personality.’

To brand a fragrance with the name of His Holiness may not be as strange as it seems. Scent and sanctity have been associated for centuries. In the Middle Ages, people renowned for extraordinary holiness were reported to have ‘the odour of sanctity’ – both metaphorical and actual, in life and in death. ‘This odour of sanctity was regarded as a sign that one’s holiness had been recognized on high, and as the first post-mortem miracle it catalyzed a quest for relics cut off from the perfumed cadaver.’

Reports of olfactory phenomena are found in hagiographies of saintly men and women. St Thérèse of Lisieux (known as ‘the Little Flower’), for example, was said to have produced a strong scent of roses at her death in 1897, which was detectable for days afterwards. The Blessed Maria degli Angeli, an 18th century Italian nun, apparently left traces of her beautiful smell throughout her convent. Maria was so embarrassed that she would place foul-smelling objects nearby, but to no avail.

Francis eau de cologne by ExcelsisUntil a few decades ago, the ‘odour of sanctity’ was a cliché in Jesuit novitiates. This phrase may sound obnoxious to modern ears, but it did once appeal to young Jesuits’ spiritual aspirations. It reinforced the sense that holiness spills out from its source when one opens up to compassionate love and service so that its ‘presence’ can be sensed by one and all, just as bottled perfume can be sensed when it is opened.

Fr General Adolfo Nicolás, while addressing a gathering of Jesuits in Cameroon last April, said that a Jesuit wears three scents: the scent of the sheep, the scent of the library, and the scent of the future. How do these signify the identity and mission of the Jesuit today?

The ‘scent of the library’ is more than a metaphor; the mustiness of books does rub off on those who spend a lot of time in their presence. But as a characteristic of Jesuit identity it is important in a richer sense. We are challenged by our very vocation to pursue knowledge relentlessly in both the spiritual and professional fields. It is a fundamental part of the Jesuit mission to acquire wisdom and to share it creatively through the diverse channels of communication available today.

A Jesuit wears the ‘scent of the future’ because his sights are on the far horizons that beckon to him. He is a pilgrim compelled by the Ignatian magis.

With courage and confidence, a Jesuit moves out of his comfort zone to travel the highways and byways of humanity. His mission: to have a heart on fire so as to kindle other hearts.

A crucial component of Jesuit identity is to wear ‘the scent of the sheep’, which Pope Francis defined as the authentic clerical perfume early in his papacy. This is the fragrance that comes from ‘being shepherds living with “the smell of the sheep”… the poor, prisoners and the sick… those who are sorrowing and alone.’

The cry of the poor was heard by Ignatius and the first companions in an entirely natural and, of course, entirely spiritual way. They could not have imagined introducing themselves as companions of Jesus without assuming his preferential love for the poor. Ignatius wrote to the Jesuits in Padua (1547) that our commitment to follow a poor Lord quite naturally made us friends of the poor.

The same love and compassion of Christ, ‘impels us to be near people and with them in their daily life, like the first Jesuits to take once again to the streets of our cities, in order to read there in the very heart of people’s existence the signs of the times, the signs of the Spirit’s action.’ Our mission demands seeing ‘the world from the perspective of the poor and the marginalized, learning from them, acting with and for them.’

So the scents of the sheep, the library and the future combine to make the ‘Eau de Jesuit’, traces of which can be found all over the world thanks to the variety of ministries in which those who wear this scent are engaged. ‘You may dress the shepherd in silken robes, but he will still smell of the sheep,’ goes an ancient Bedouin proverb. A Jesuit, likewise, in whatever guise, will always smell distinctly like a… Jesuit!

Hedwig Lewis SJ is the author of Jesuit Roots and Shoots (2015) and several other books. He belongs to the Gujarat Jesuit Province, India. His website: