Viewpoint: What It Means to Have a Jesuit Pope

A Jesuit's life often takes him to the margins. But often someone from the margins is just what the center needs

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St. Ignatius of Loyola, Founder of the Jesuits

A portrait of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, by Giuseppe Franchi

When I entered the Jesuit order 25 years ago, several friends — including the Catholic ones — scratched their heads. “You’re entering the what?” was the most common response.

When I slowly repeated the name of the Catholic religious order that I had decided to join, only a few registered a flicker of recognition. Tell your average Joe (or Joan) that you’re a Jesuit, that is a member of the group formally known as the Society of Jesus, and they’ll often ask “But aren’t you a Catholic?” Among Catholics, Jesuits may be best known for founding universities like Georgetown, Boston College and Fordham, and all those schools named Loyola. (We tend to have great basketball teams as well.)

Despite our high-profile schools, the general confusion about Jesuits persists. My all-time favorite reply came from a reporter who once asked, “Were your parents Jesuits?” Um, no.

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So what does it mean that we now have Francis, a Jesuit Pope? And, to answer the question I’ve been asked for over two decades, what’s a Jesuit anyway?

In short, a Jesuit is a member of the largest Catholic religious order for men in the world. (Other religious orders would include familiar groups like the Franciscans, Dominicans, Benedictines, Trappists and Salesians.)  That means that, like other religious orders (there are orders for women too, of course), we take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and live in community together. Unlike diocesan priests, however, our work isn’t focused as much on parish life. A diocesan priest (or parish priest in common parlance) enters a local seminary in order to prepare for his work in a particular diocese, in a series of parishes — celebrating Masses; presiding at baptisms, wedding and funerals; perhaps running a parish school; and entering into the lives of his parishioners.

Religious-order priests have a somewhat different portfolio. For instance, besides our better-known work in education (in middle schools, high schools and colleges), Jesuits work as retreat directors, hospital chaplains and prison chaplains, and in positions as varied as geologists, musicians, astronomers, social activists, physicians and writers, among many others. And just to confuse matters even more, sometimes the local bishop asks us to take over a parish — so yes, we end up working as parish priests. But my work at a Catholic magazine, while centered on prayer and the Mass, is quite different from that of the daily life of a parish priest — not better or worse, just different.

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All of this flows from the original intent of the Society of Jesus, founded by St. Ignatius of Loyola, a soldier turned mystic, in 1540, which was not — as is usually thought — to be the vanguard of the Counter-Reformation, or even to found schools with great basketball teams — but something simpler. We were to “help souls.” And there are as many ways to do that as there are Jesuits. So our lives often take us to the margins, to places that other priests may not be sent to.

This explains the improbability of the election of a Jesuit as Pope. “No way,” I said to a friend last week who asked about Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s chances of becoming the successor of St. Peter. We’re just seen as too “different” from the men in the College of Cardinals. Last night that same friend texted me a message: “Hey! What happened? I thought you said a Jesuit couldn’t be pope! Does that mean you have a shot?” I admitted my lack of imagination when answering the first question but still gave a decided “no” on the second.

Before his ordination as bishop, Bergoglio wasn’t simply a Jesuit who took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, he was also a Jesuit leader. After his priestly ordination, he served as the Jesuit novice director in Argentina, a critical position often referred to by Jesuits as “the most important job” in the order. Why? Because that person is responsible for the spiritual training of the newest Jesuits, the novices. Typically, the person chosen is renowned for both their holiness and judgment.

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Later, Bergoglio was selected by the Jesuit superior general in Rome (our head guy) to serve as the Jesuit provincial, that is, the regional superior of all the Jesuits in the area. This meant not only having responsibility for assigning men to various ministries, but also caring for the men as individuals. St. Ignatius wanted the novice master and provincial to be men who could, above all, love their brother Jesuits and care for them, from their youth to old age. The provincial must deal with the 20-year-old Jesuit who is having doubts about taking vows to the 90-year-old priest dying of a painful illness in the Jesuit infirmary after a long life of service. Pope Francis has had some excellent experience in management that is both practical and spiritual.

The joy among my Jesuit brothers was palpable. Hours after the papal election, the Jesuit superior wrote to Jesuits worldwide to promise prayers for “our brother.” But it’s the improbability of his election that struck me, and most Jesuits, yesterday. “I couldn’t believe it!” said more than a few members of my community. Because of our “otherness,” the election of a Jesuit was scoffed at. Clearly the Cardinals were looking for something and someone different, and so his very otherness may have been appealing. Particularly in light of the Vatileak scandals, the Cardinals may have been searching for someone who could take a fresh look at things and move the bureaucracy in a new direction. On the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, as he addressed the crowd, Pope Francis joked about his Latin American origins. It seemed, he said, that the Cardinals had to go to the “ends of the earth” to find a Pope. But often someone from the margins is just what the center needs.