Posted by: John B. Switzer, ObSB, PhD | March 14, 2013

Pope Francis, the Jesuit

Pope-Francis-I-appears-on-006As the first full day of his pontificate opens, the entire world seeks clues about the leadership to be expected from Jorge Brogoglio, Pope Francis. For now there are only two places to look. First, his past leadership experiences as head of the Society of Jesus in Argentina (better known as “Jesuits”) and as archbishop of Buenos Aires. Second, his choice of a papal name. In both categories there is much upon which one might offer comment.

As a professor at Spring Hill College, I can report that there was a special sense of pride evident on campus yesterday as the announcement was made of the papal choice. Founded in 1830, Spring Hill is the third oldest among Jesuit establishments of higher learning in the United States. Those venerable institutions make up the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities (the AJCU), currently led by Fr. Gregory Lucey, SJ, former president of the college who will soon be returning as its chancellor.

The Society of Jesus is an organization of Catholic men who pledge their lives to the service of evangelization, education, and service to the poor. It is often hailed as the largest religious order in the Catholic Church; its power is best understood not in terms of membership numbers but in the good work that it accomplishes globally. Like most members of professed Catholic orders, Jesuits take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience to their superiors. But they also take a fourth vow: that of mission obedience to the pope. This is often portrayed as something fanatical or unreasonable, but it simply means that Jesuits are available to the pope if he should desire to increase the presence of Catholic missionaries in a particular locale.

The founder of the Jesuit order was Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), a man reckoned by the Catholic Church as a saint. His spirituality was marked by simplicity, service, passion for the gospel, and an openness to God’s presence in all aspects of human life. One might imagine that such characteristics will mark the papacy of Pope Francis. For me, there are two Latin “rallying cries” that particularly recall the beauty of Jesuit spirituality: cura personalis (“care for the whole person”) and magis (“the more”–as in doing more than is expected, or doing what is really necessary no matter the cost). Both ideals are closely related to the Jesuit precept, ad maiorem Dei gloriam, “for the greater glory of God.” This latter is often abbreviated simply as “AMDG.”

As a sign of his own practice of Jesuit piety, the new pope is known to have lived quite simply as an archbishop. He is said to have avoided the archbishop’s palace (preferring a simple apartment instead), to have prepared his own meals, and even to have utilized public transportation instead of a personal vehicle. Such characteristics bode well for the man who now fills an ecclesiastical office that often looks more like a cross between an emperor and a powerful medieval bishop. He was made cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 2001. It is said that he encouraged his fellow Argentinians not to spend money on a trip to Rome at that time, but to use it for the betterment of the poor.

The fact that he is not European is also of interest. Brogoglio’s parents were from Italy but he was born and reared entirely in Argentina. He has served on a number of Vatican commissions, so he is undoubtedly familiar with how things work in that small, sometimes mysterious enclave. But that doesn’t mean that he’s a Vatican “insider.” Far from it. He has spent most of his time as a shepherd and leader in his native land of Argentina. It is possible that he may set about doing the quiet work of a bureaucratic reformer–adjusting the power balance that currently prevails in Vatican City.

Catholic dogma, you see, maintains that the Church is governed by the pope and the bishops, not by the papal bureaucracy known as the Roman Curia. Traditionally, the pope is understood as the symbolic embodiment of Peter while the other bishops of the church represent the college of the Apostles. The pope is most often the one referred to as “pontiff,” but Catholic doctrine holds that every bishop is pontiff of his own diocese, or ecclesiastical district. Although the Catholic Church is a truly global communion when considering its more than 1 billion members, it has quite often functioned more like a European institution enforcing Roman centralization.

Pope Francis may be a leader willing to reverse that unsatisfying trend. Like your humble blogger, perhaps he’ll be “less Roman, more Catholic.” He is the first pope of non-European origins since 731. That year saw the selection of Gregory III to lead the Catholic Church. He was of Syrian origin. We probably need no reminder that none of the original Twelve Apostles was European. They were all Jews from the land we now call Israel.

Jesuits aren’t the only members of a religious order rejoicing today. Franciscans are probably celebrating as well, given the name chosen by the new pope. Perhaps there is no Catholic saint more beloved or remembered than Francis of Assisi. As a young seminarian in the 1980s I often went on retreat to the city of Assisi. Except for the electric wires and light posts, its oldest neighborhoods to this day look much like they did in the time of Francis.

In a dilapidated sanctuary dedicated to St. Damian (San Damiano), Francis was stirred by a call that he perceived as a command of Christ: “Frances, repair my church.” He originally interpreted this internal inspiration to be an order to rebuild the sanctuary. He later expanded his comprehension and his mission so that he became a universal preacher calling others to follow Christ in humility and service. At times he is even portrayed preaching to animals. To this day the people of Italy often refer to Francis as “the poverello (the poor one) of Assisi.”

As I look at the papal office since my days in Rome (1983-1986), I am tempted to describe the papacies of those who sat in the Chair of Peter with a few adjectives. Karol Wojtyla (John Paul II) seems to me to have been an energetic but at times demanding pope. Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI) might be described as a learned and studious pope. How will we find Jorge Brogoglio? We can’t yet be sure, but my guess is that he’ll be a very traditional pope of great humility. Like all popes, he’ll leave his mark on the Catholic Church. There are bound to be a few surprises.

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