Fr Pulickal’s Four-letter Word

If you ask Loyolites “What comes to your mind when you think of Fr Pulickal?”, various students will use different words to describe him. But if you ask Loyolites “What comes to your mind when you hear ‘AMDG’?”, all students will tell you the same thing: Fr Pulickal.

Source: Pulickal taught me history in high school, and on every question paper he set for us, he inscribed “A.M.D.G.” in the end. There it was: centre-aligned, in Courier typeface, on the cyclostyled paper. (The typeface would vary on the odd occasion that Fr Pulickal keyed in the question paper on butter paper by using his own typewriter in the Residence.) I thought of celebrating his anniversary by doing what he might approve of — go beyond the question paper, explore the history of the abbreviation he introduced to us, and in the process combine the twin axes of this blog — history and Loyola.

AMDG is mentioned in dictionaries and encyclopaediae, but even in specialist works like encyclopaedia of Christianity, the explanation is almost always limited to “Abbreviation of ad maiorem dei gloriam, Latin phrase meaning ‘to the greater glory of God’. Motto of the Society of Jesus.”

Wikipedia has the longest explanation of AMDG I have come across. In contrast, Encyclopaedia Britannica does not even have an entry on AMDG. A blogger tells us that the phrase and the abbreviation were not created by Ignatius of Loyola. Another tells us that “for hundreds of years, this esoteric acronym [sic] has been used by many Catholics as either a prefix or suffix to practically any written work and, in it’s colloquialism, has stood for ‘All My Duties to God’ (AMDG).” Judging the state of AMDG today in popular and authoritative reference works, I would argue that the decision of St Ignatius to make it the motto of Jesuits explains AMDG’s survival into the 21st century.

The usage of AMDG has changed over time, noted Walter Ong S.J. in his 1952 article in the Catholic journal Review for Religious. A note on Ong’s article informs

In the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, A.M.D.G. means the moment of decision after one has searched one’s soul trying to make a difficult choice. When faced with these difficult choices, St. Ignatius directs his readers, one should make one’s decision based on which option will be ‘for the greater glory of God’. To use this expression as a dedication in a book or on a building, Ong asserted, is inappropriate, for no particular decision has been made. It is sufficient to pronounce that the book or building exists simply ‘for the glory of God’, without the addition of the word ‘greater’.

Ong seems to have argued that the use of AMDG in dedicatory fashion was not wrong, but that the essence of AMDG was soul-searching.

In Loyola, if Fr Pulickal was the most celebrated user of AMDG, outside the school it was Pope John Paul II. When Time magazine awarded the Man of the Year title to the Pope in 1994, it reported,

Every morning, before his private and general audiences, John Paul devotes an hour or so to writing or – increasingly, as age and injuries have taken their toll – to dictation. When he can, he composes quickly, in Polish, with a neat, flowing hand, using a black felt-tipped pen. On the top left of every page he prints the letters AMDG.

Other well-known names associated with AMDG, the Wikipedia tells us, have been the music composer Bach, and the novelist James Joyce. From that tip-off, I set off on the trail of the latter.

James Joyce studied at a Jesuit school, which is the backdrop for much of his semi-autobigraphical novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, published in 1916.

In Chapter 2 of the novel, a para begins,

The next day he sat at his table in the bare upper room for many hours. Before him lay a new pen, a new bottle of ink and a new emerald exercise. From force of habit he had written at the top of the first page the initial letters of the jesuit motto: A.M.D.G.

We know from an autographed manuscript at the Cornell University Library that Joyce himself wrote “AMDG” at the top of each page in one of the weekly compositions for his English class at Belvedere College in Dublin, the Jesuit school he attended.

Around the same time that Joyce wrote A Portrait…, another novel appeared, this time with the title AMDG. Published in 1910, and written by the Spanish novelist, poet and critic Ramon Perez de Ayala, AMDG is a “bitter satire about the author’s unhappy education at a Jesuit school”, says Encyclopaedia Britannica. Here again, I am struck by the close association of AMDG with Jesuits, and the probable death of the phrase and its abbreviation, but for its use across centuries by Jesuits.

“Many Jesuit schools ask students to write the initialism at the top of their papers, to remind the students that their schoolwork is ‘For the Greater Glory of God’,” the Wikipedia tells us. This is consistent with Joyce writing AMDG in his English class, and later describing the act as a “force of habit” in one of his novels.

The Jesuits in our school did not follow this practice. Fr Pulickal was the only priest, in my years there, who wrote AMDG in public documents like question papers of exams. Nor did the priests advise or insist students to inscribe AMDG in notebooks or answer sheets. The priests probably felt it better to promote and project cosmopolitanism, rather than invite allegations of Christianisation. After all, in modern Kerala, despite the Malayala Manorama, and the extensive network of Christian educational institutions, any recommendation like inscribing AMDG on every page or notebook would have provoked the ever-suspicious Malayali and invited bad press.

It could also be that the use of AMDG is not the norm among Jesuits in Kerala. In the letters and e-mails I have received from Jesuits over the years, I have not seen AMDG in every correspondence, but only in a few.

There is some evidence, however, that a few smart Loyolites wrote AMDG at the end of answer papers, to score brownie points with Fr Pulickal for they were “hoping against hope that those 4 letters would compensate for an almost blank history answer paper coupled with the strictest valuation possible and save us from sure failure.” Jiby’s collection of Loyola anecdotes, where this is mentioned, fittingly ends in nostalgia with an AMDG inscription.

Tailpiece: At times, Fr Pulickal used to have quizzes in his classes. He would come with his pink or yellow scroll of notes, and shoot one question after the other. Here’s a question he never fired at us. Who is the patron saint of Jesuit students?


  • Great article, Ashok Chetta…

    If my feeble memory is to be trusted, I remember having seen many A.M.D.Gs in lots of previous question papers. And, by the way, almost every one of Fr. Edassery’s Geography exam question papers sported an A.M.D.G.(He used to teach us Geography in the 10th.)

    Some of us (myself included) use the ‘four letter word’ to sign off, after rather heated up debates pertaining to Loyolish issues in Instant Messaging sessions/conferences!!

  • I agree with Hari chettan. I seem to have heard that Fr. Edassery also used to use that. He no longer teaches any class nor sets papers. So cant say for sure.

    Great article. Was something i always wanted to know since reading Jiby chettans post 😀

  • Hari, thank you for updating us on the use of AMDG from the 1990s.

    Deepak, I remember guys from your batch raving about Fr Alappat, the other Jesuit with a French beard. Interestingly, the priests used AMDG in question papers, but not in, say, School Day invites, Sports Day programme schedule, etc. In fact, the School Diary, which is the only document (I recall) with a visible sprinkling of Jesuit-ese, did not have AMDG, right?

    My post and your responses show the changing conditions and practices in Loyola. Fascinating to hear from Hari that guys use AMDG in instant messaging. AMDG, by that account, has passed into students’ popular lingo.

  • Haha…loved the title…”Fr.Pulickal’s four letter word”…lol…was that your dig at the good old man’s occasionally(/regularly) caustic tongue??!! AMDG seems to be like from another world compared to what is automatically taken for the “Four-letter-word” today. I don’t know if my post gave the idea that we used the AMDG word just to curry favour with Fr.Pulickal or other teachers…atleast till school ended and even in college some of my classmates used AMDG in answer papers. We have discussed this in reunions and the interesting thing about AMDG is that it has stayed in our minds for so long. The english translation of AMDG is indeed very powerful and makes you feel great if you can associate an act of yours to the word.

    Ashok, thank you very much for this exclusive series on Fr.Pulickal…like I have told you before, I failed each time I sat down to write an exclusive post on him, then Anand K of my batch promised to take it up on his blog, but he also never got around to it.

    Syam, good work with the googling…you have a future in engineering!

  • One of the lasting impressions Fr. Pullickal left in me was the note he wrote for me in my autograph book, which I later learnt was a quote from poet John Oxenham:

    “For this is love’s prerogative – to give, and give, and give”

    Over the years I have remembered this on multiple occasions and grasped more of what it means. To me this quote, in addition to an ideal he inspired us to strive for, stands for him as well for all his efforts to teach us so many different things.

    Here’s to a life that inspired many …

    ICSE ’91/ISC ’93

  • Ashok, if I remember right, in the façade of the main building where “LOYOLA SCHOOL” is embossed in cement, the “AMDG” phrase also finds place in the bottom right. Current students can probably confirm this.

  • Jiby, I am very bad at fixing good titles for posts. So, when this came up, I used my blogger’s licence (AMDG is not a word, it’s an abbreviation).

    Deepak, yes, now that you say it, I too recall the AMDG there in the new building. You people call it the main building, eh? I refer to it as the Extension of the Main Building.

  • AMDG in school stays in my memory as a footnote of hope while negotiating tricky history and civics question papers.
    A shorter version of the motto followed me to St Stephen’s College in Delhi. Ragging time made sure nobody forgot the college motto Ad Dei Gloriam (To the Glory of God)

  • Thanks jiby. I seriously doubt it though heh. Looking foreward to the post on Fr. Pulikkal.

    And you are right. In that wall which has LOYOLA SCHOOL and the emblem on it(behind the tank), the words AMDG are visible near the bottom right corner. It is rather negleted compared to the rest of the piece.

    Talking about caustic tongues, anyone have anything to say about Titus sir? I think he taught here a year.
    Smart ayirunu:D

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *