Pope Francis, SJ

Several prominent members of the Society of Jesus reflect on the election of their fellow Jesuit as pope.

Pope Francis is different. Already in his young papacy, there are many examples of his different approach to matters big and small, personal and public.

On the smaller, personal level, there are the reports of how the Holy Father refuses to ask others to do many things he can simply do himself, like making telephone calls. He surprises local telephone operators when they hear his voice, and his friends in Argentina take a step back in disbelief when he says “It’s Cardinal Bergoglio” or “Jorge” ringing from the other side of the Atlantic.

Some of the differences are occasioned by unusual historical circumstances. On the Saturday prior to Holy Week, he visited the pope emeritus, Benedict XVI, at Castel Gandolfo, an unprecedented meeting. The video footage showed the younger, more animated Francis sharing a warm greeting with his older, increasingly fragile predecessor.

When Francis and Benedict entered the private chapel, the pope emeritus gestured to his successor to take his seat at the white papal chair in front of the altar. But Francis instead knelt beside Benedict in brotherly prayer. What could have been an awkward moment between the two white-cassocked men was masterfully handled by Francis.

The following day at the Palm Sunday Mass in St. Peter’s Square, Francis kept his security detail on their toes when he set out to greet adoring pilgrims. His impromptu personal greetings and blessings have already been much noted and remarked upon. Then there was the news from the Vatican Press Office, last Tuesday, that for the time being Francis “intends to remain in the Domus Sanctae Marthae and stay with the employees…[because] he is experimenting with this type of living arrangement…in community with others.”

More significantly, Francis moved the traditional Holy Thursday Mass and the ritual washing of feet—usually a ticketed event at the Basilica of St. John Lateran—to an intimate location at a Roman juvenile detention center, closed to the media. In another unprecedented action, he washed the feet of 12 inmates, including two women and two Muslims, a fact that sparked a flurry of debate and discussion among Catholics, prompting the Vatican Press Office to release a statement explaining the action as “the very beautiful and simple gesture of a father who desired to embrace those who were on the fringes of society; those who were not refined experts of liturgical rules.”

Getting ready for a Jesuit

Not least among Francis’ papal “firsts” is the fact that he is the first Jesuit ever to be elected pope. In response to questions about Pope Francis’ status within the order following his election, Father James Martin, SJ, contributing editor for America magazine, explained: “A Jesuit is a Jesuit forever, from the day he enters the novitiate until his death, unless he formally leaves the Society of Jesus or, in religious parlance, is ‘dismissed.’”

How will being a Jesuit play out in Francis’ pastoral style and spiritual approach as the bishop of Rome and Vicar of Christ?  What does it mean that he is “hard-wired with Ignatian spirituality” as many vaticanisti now say on a regular basis? Why did it take so long for a pope to rise from the ranks of the Society of Jesus when other great orders, like the Dominicans and Franciscans, have already seen members ascend to the papal throne?

We have had to wait more than four and one half centuries for this historic moment. Much time has passed since 1534, when an ex-soldier named Ignatius met with six other students from the University of Paris—including Francis Xavier, who would become a legendary missionary—to form the Society of Jesus.

Historians and those familiar with the order are not all that surprised by the long wait for a Jesuit pope. This is partly because those six students, who knelt in prayer with Ignatius in the crypt of Saint Pierre in Paris’ Montmarte district, eventually took a vow of strict obedience to the pope to go wherever the Holy Father thought they were most needed in the pagan wilderness. So the Jesuits, historically speaking, have focused their energies and attention well beyond the safe borders of Rome.

It is also well known that Ignatius discouraged his priests from nurturing ambitions for episcopal leadership. Aspiring to become the bishop of Rome would surely have been out of the question.

While it is not uncommon for a Jesuit to be named a Jesuit bishop, the priests of the Society of Jesus have since the Counter-Reformation focused their energies on Catholic culture and education, serving the poor and marginalized, and setting up missions to bring the Word of God to perilous, unfriendly lands.

Ignatius’ vision for the order he founded was one of foot soldiers battling against the spread of Protestantism, being good pastors, founding educational institutions, and going where no one else was willing to go to preach the Gospel:

Whoever desires to serve as a soldier of God beneath the banner of the Cross in our Society…and to serve the Lord alone and the Church, his spouse, under the Roman Pontiff…keep what follows in mind. He is a member of a Society founded chiefly for this purpose: to strive especially for the defense and propagation of the faith and for the progress of souls in Christian life and doctrine, by means of public preaching, lectures and any other ministration… and further by means of retreats, the education of children and unlettered persons in Christianity, and the spiritual consolation of Christ’s faithful through hearing confessions and administering the other sacraments…. [He must] show himself ready to reconcile the estranged, compassionately assist and serve those who are in prisons or hospitals, and…perform any other works of charity, according to what will seem expedient for the glory of God and the common good.

As Vatican spokesman and fellow Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi said following Francis’ election, “Personally, I’m a little shocked to have a Jesuit pope. Jesuits think of themselves as servants, not Church authorities [and] resist being named bishop or cardinal. To be named pope…must have been result of strong call.”

Right man at the right time

Leading American Jesuits in the United States and Rome have commented on Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s election to the papacy and have offered their insights into what it means to be a Jesuit and a pope at the same time.

Father Robert Spitzer, SJ, former president of Gonzaga University and author of several widely acclaimed books on spirituality, philosophy, and science, published a reflection on Francis’ election on his website, saying that the selection “was, in every respect, divinely inspired”:

[He] is the perfect man for the contemporary papacy. His concern for the poor and marginalized, his manifest love of people, and his authentic life of poverty and simplicity have already begun to restore credibility to a Church injured by scandal.         

Spitzer says Francis’ rigorous Jesuit formation and his knowledge of several foreign languages, science, philosophy, and theology have prepared him to engage with the scientific and academic realms; he also believes the pope will be a worthy successor to the evangelization efforts initiated by his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. “This will be very important to the Church in Europe and North America, which have become increasingly s beleaguered by unbelief—particularly among their younger members,” Spitzer said.

Father Kevin Flannery, SJ, an Oxford-trained professor of moral philosophy at the Jesuit-run Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, agrees that Francis was the right choice for today’s Church. He says that Francis is a pope whose background lends great credibility to the Church when defending her teachings in heated legal and political battles in secularized societies, especially concerning critical sanctity-of-life issues. 

“Very often the Church’s teachings on bioethical and life issues are dismissed—at best—as well-meaning exhortations,” Flannery said.  “Some of the bioethical issues can be quite technical. It is reassuring to know that the person who must ultimately sign off on documents having to do with these issues is a trained scientist.”

Not “a professor pope,” but fearless

Father Joseph Fessio, SJ, founder and editor of Ignatius Press, said during a recent interview that it is critical to remember a pope’s roles are first and foremost “priest, prophet, and king,” and that few popes can be expected to be as prolific a writer as Benedict XVI.

“I don’t think [Francis] will be a ‘professor pope,’” Fessio said.

What is important is that Francis understands and can take inspiration from the scholarly work of prior pontiffs.

“We had a period of gigantic theologians in the mid-20th Century—de Lubac, von Balthasar, Bouyer, Congar, Ratzinger, Rahner—after which we had many good theologians who drew from that great heritage of those giants. Then we had two gigantic popes—John Paul II and Benedict XVI—and now I think we will have a pope that will draw on their heritage,” Fessio said.

Father Spitzer believes that Francis’ Jesuit priestly formation will serve as a rock-solid foundation for a successful papacy, which he predicts will be “flexible, pastorally engaging, intellectual, and in some senses, fearless.”

Ignatian fearlessness, according to Father Flannery, is exactly what is needed at this time in history, when Rome needs to wage not a counter-reformation but a counter-cultural battle against militant forms of secular materialism and what Benedict XVI famously called “the dictatorship of relativism.”

Flannery cites the debate over marriage and homosexuality as a prime example of an area in which Francis’ mettle has been tested; he expects the Pope will continue to display great moral courage: “There is widespread pressure on people everywhere to give in on [same-sex marriage]. Many people of sound moral instincts find the arguments in favor of allowing ‘gay marriage’ convincing or at least hard to refute, so there will be continued pressure on the Church, even from some of her closest allies.”

Flannery says that, like the brave and soldierly St. Ignatius, “by all accounts Pope Francis has such courage in spades.”

Of the people, for the people

According to Flannery, Francis’ Ignatian spirituality of material detachment and spiritual enrichment has no doubt influenced his understanding of poverty. For this reason, Flannery says, the Holy Father knows that welfare “is not just [an] economic” matter.

Flannery said that Francis understands that those persons who are well off materially can be nevertheless “starved of the truth, of love, and in dire need of precisely what Christ, through the Church, can give them.”

Fessio said that the cardinal electors’ choice was a “brilliant” one when speaking of the symbolism of Francis’ namesake, who was the great saint of the poor.

“He really tried to be a man of the poor, not just someone who had an interest in the poor,” Fessio said, referring to Francis’ humble apartment, his cooking for himself, and his refusal of chauffeured limo service during his tenure as archbishop of Buenos Aires.

“This pope by his very being is a bridge-builder. He is of the Old World—his parents were born in Italy and immigrated to Argentina, so he’s part of the New World. He is someone who is doctrinally very sound—he supports the Church’s teachings in the all the controversial areas—and at the same time is socially compassionate, he’s interested in the poor and in the developing world,” Fessio said.

A creative spiritual leader

Recently, Father Antonio Spadaro, SJ, the director of CiviltÁ Cattolica—Italy’s oldest and most influential journal on Catholic culture—presented two books by the former Cardinal Bergoglio which were translated into Italian upon his election as pope.

Father Spadaro discussed the Ignatian spirit that infuses the Pope’s work, saying that some of Francis’ ideas will be “difficult to digest” for secular non-believers “who want to remain undisturbed.”

“You’d better not read them if you want to remain at ease. These books will strike a nerve of conversion and repentance in you,” Spadaro said.

Spadaro said the Pope’s understanding of humility is classically Ignatian in that the virtue is seen as the submission of one’s own selfish will to a life of service—“being a man for others and God’s greater glory.”

Spadaro said it is not surprising that our new pope has a history of pastoral outreach to the poor and suffering of Buenos Aires, referring to widely circulated pictures of then-Cardinal Bergoglio blessing and kissing the feet of children with AIDS. 

Spadaro also spoke about Francis’ open criticism of a bureaucratic mentality within the Church, saying the Holy Father believes Church leaders need to grow in humility to overcome “self-referential” and “enclosed” habits. Francis demands that the Church reach out and generously go to the ends of the world to rejuvenate her missionary activities, just as the Jesuits have traditionally done, according to Spadaro.

Like St. Ignatius, Francis wants the Church to inspire sinners who “must first have total change of heart, a deep personal conversion,” says Spadaro. This pope, he said, “is someone who is not abstract and who is gifted at the science of the spirit by using strong meditative images, typical of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises” to move sinners to love and devote their lives to Christ.

“Francis communicates immediately, concretely and methodically,” Spadaro says. “He calls for social engagement…but first a radical conversion.”

Spadaro points out that we will not see any innovations in terms of Church dogma and magisterial teachings, but we should expect see new pastoral methods and approaches in the new pontificate.

As he continues “to ask faithful and the Church to reach outside themselves, so too will Francis hold himself to this same basic principle,” according to Spadaro.

Expect “some big surprises” from the Jesuit pope, he said.

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About Michael Severance 12 Articles
Michael Severance is a former Vatican correspondent and currently manages operations for the Acton Institute’s academic outreach in Rome.