Why is it hard to imagine a Jesuit could be pope? Well, it’s reality. So what does it mean? America magazine editor at large (and occasional SCM contributor) James Martin, S.J., answers that in a piece that first appeared on CNN’s Belief Blog on March 14, 2013.
Pope Francis is the first Jesuit pope in history. When I heard his name announced, after shouting aloud, my first thought was how improbable it all was. But why? Why was a Jesuit pope so hard for people (including me) to imagine? And what would St. Ignatius Loyola, the 16th-century founder of the Jesuit Order (more formally known as the Society of Jesus), have thought?
Let’s take that first question first. Why was it so improbable? For two reasons.
First, most cardinals come from the ranks of the diocesan clergy. That is, most study in diocesan seminaries and are trained to work in the more familiar Catholic settings of parishes—celebrating Masses, baptizing children, presiding at marriages, and working closely with families in their parish. Their lives are perhaps more easily understood by the public at large. They begin as parish priests, and later are appointed bishops and archbishops and, later, are named cardinals by the pope.
Members of religious orders, like the Franciscans, Dominicans, and Jesuits, live a different life. We take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience and live in communities with one another. (By contrast, parish priests receive salaries.) We are also not as focused on parish life. In this country, for example, the Jesuits are known mainly for their educational institutions: middle schools, high schools, and colleges and universities like Santa Clara, Boston College, Georgetown, Fordham, and all the schools named “Loyola.” So our lives are different from those of the diocesan clergy; not better or worse, just different. So members of religious orders may seem more “unfamiliar” to cardinals. Thus, not many popes in recent history have been from religious orders. When choosing a leader, then, the cardinals naturally prefer someone from their “world.”
“I think St. Ignatius would be smiling at one of his Sons not only serving the Roman Pontiff, but being one.”
But not this time. Perhaps they felt it was time for a change. A big one.
Also, the Jesuits were sometimes viewed with suspicion in a few quarters of the Vatican. There are a number of reasons for that, some of them complex. The first is, as I mentioned, our “differentness.” Second, our work with the poor and people on the margins sometimes struck some as too experimental, radical, and even dangerous. “When you work on the margins,” an old Jesuit said, “you sometimes step out of bounds.”
In the early 1980s, because of tensions between the Jesuits and the Vatican, Pope John Paul II “intervened” in our internal governance. After a stroke felled our superior general, the pope appointed his own representative as our leader (rather than allowing the normal procedure, which was for us to elect a successor). That was his right as pope, but it still discouraged many Jesuits. A few years later, we elected a new superior general and the warm relations were restored. Still, the cloud persisted in some quarters of the Vatican, which meant that a Jesuit pope was too far-fetched to even imagine.
With a Jesuit pope, that cloud has been if not removed then lifted much higher.
What does it mean to have a Jesuit pope? Several things.
First, the new vicar of Christ is thoroughly steeped in the spirituality of St. Ignatius Loyola, who founded the Jesuits in 1540. Pope Francis has twice in his life, as all “fully formed” Jesuits do, participated in the Spiritual Exercises, the monthlong silent retreat that focuses on the life of Jesus Christ. The Exercises call on you to use your imagination to enter into the life of Jesus in prayer. So Pope Francis, we can assume, is an intensely spiritual man who has plumbed the depths of the life of Christ in a particularly Jesuit way. Since his election, I have heard at least a dozen Jesuits say, “Well, I don’t know much about him, but I know he made the Exercises.”
Second, Jesuit training is extremely long. Pope Francis entered the Jesuit novitiate in 1958, at the age of 22, and was not ordained until 1969. (That’s about the average length of time of training for a Jesuit priest. I entered in 1988 and was ordained in 1999.) So the new pope is an educated man who also has experience in a variety of ministries, which he would have been assigned to during his long training. Typically, a Jesuit in training is asked to do work with the poor, tend to patients in hospitals, teach in schools, and all the while perform what St. Ignatius called “low and humble tasks,” like scrubbing out toilets and mopping floors.
Third, the new supreme pontiff knows poverty. Jesuits are supposed to take our vows of poverty seriously. This means in the novitiate living on a pittance, working with the poor, and having nothing to call your own. The already-famous stories of Cardinal Bergoglio using public transportation and cooking for himself may find their foundations in St. Ignatius Loyola, who said we should love poverty “as a mother.” We Jesuits are asked to follow “Christ poor”—that is, to emulate Christ in his poverty on earth—and live as simply as possible. Some of us do that better than others, and once he was appointed bishop and archbishop, he was released from his vow of poverty, but it is an essential goal in the life of a Jesuit, and most likely deeply embedded in his spiritual life.
Pope Francis’ name has been remarked on, and I was overjoyed that he chose to honor St. Francis of Assisi, perhaps the world’s most beloved saint. It signals a great desire to help the poor. But I couldn’t help wondering if as devoted as he was to Francis, his first experiences of ministering to the poor came when he was, as Jesuits say, a “Son of Ignatius.”
Fourth, Jesuits are asked to be, in St. Ignatius’ Spanish tongue, disponible: available, open, free, ready to go anywhere. The Jesuit ideal is to be free enough to go where God wants you to, from the favela in Latin America to the Papal Palace in Vatican City. We are also, likewise, to be “indifferent”; that is, free enough to flourish in either place; to do anything at all that is ad majorem Dei gloriam, for the greater glory of God.
Fifth, we are not supposed to be “climbers.” Now here’s a terrific irony. When Jesuit priests and brothers complete their training, they make vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and a special vow to the pope “with regard to missions”; that is, with regard to places the pope wishes to send us. But we also make an unusual promise, alone among religious orders as far as I know, not to “strive or ambition” for high office.
St. Ignatius was appalled by the clerical climbing that he saw around him in the late Renaissance, so he required us to make that unique promise against “climbing.” Sometimes, the pope will ask a Jesuit, as he did with Jorge Bergoglio, to assume the role of bishop or archbishop. But this is not the norm. Now, however, a Jesuit who had once promised not to “strive or ambition” for high office holds the highest office in the church.
On that second question: What would St. Ignatius Loyola have thought?
St. Ignatius famously did not want his men to become bishops and even resisted the Vatican at times to prevent that from happening. On the other hand, he was disponible enough to know that rigid rules needed to be broken. Plus, he was also devoted to doing anything he could for the Church, and to ask his Jesuits to do the same. In one of the founding documents of the Jesuits, Ignatius announces his intention to “serve the Lord alone and the Church, his spouse, under the Roman Pontiff, the Vicar of Christ on earth.”
Anything for the “Greater Glory of God,” as our motto goes, and for the service of the Church, Ignatius would say. So, frankly, I think St. Ignatius would be smiling at one of his Sons not only serving the Roman Pontiff, but being one.
I sure am.
James Martin, S.J., is editor at large of America magazine and author of The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything (HarperOne, 2012). He wrote "Be Who You Is" for the Fall 2007 Santa Clara Magazine.