The first Jesuit Pope

CU Chancellor William J. Rewak, S.J., on why Pope Francis I is different. And why a Jesuit Pope is rare.

The first Jesuit Pope
Photo by Mazur/

The widespread interest in the new Pope has been fueled by his obvious humility, his informality, his reaching out to the poor, and his penchant for stripping down the layers of Renaissance garb that often engulfed his predecessors. He is a simple man with simple tastes.

His simplicity and humility are classic attributes to which all members of his religious order, the Jesuits, aspire, but it is not a Jesuit attribute to rise in the ranks of Catholicism to bishop or cardinal—much less pope. But there is wisdom to the choice, which is rooted in the Jesuit tradition.

When Pope Francis entered the Jesuit Order, he chose a lifestyle, a culture, an intellectual history, a spirituality that formed his worldview. He chose a religious order that was not another expression of a silent monastic life—a life hidden from the world—but one that encouraged its members to dialogue with the world and grapple with its problems. Ignatius of Loyola, who founded the Jesuits in 1534, wanted us to live and work in the midst of an often grubby civilization, wherever people congregated, wherever there was need.

And they were to go where the need was greatest. Ignatius, knowing the value of education and how it had the potential to transform a culture, began schools and colleges, and within two centuries there were well over 600 of them scattered around the globe, along with almost 300 mission stations. The Jesuit Order grew in a frenzy of activity.

Jesuits, however, were not to be exempt from prayer; on the contrary, prayer was to be a large part of a Jesuit’s life, but it would grow out of his involvement with the poor, the uneducated, the dispossessed. They were to be “contemplatives in action.”

That has been Francis’ history and education. It has been imprinted on his heart. So when Pope John Paul II appointed him bishop in 1992, that Jesuit commitment never wavered. He was ordained a bishop, but he remained a Jesuit. Though now a Pope, he remains a Jesuit. (The Jesuit seal is on his Papal coat of arms.) However, since he is the ultimate Superior and cannot be limited by other obligations, he cannot retain the rights and duties of being a Jesuit: He cannot be elected a religious superior, he cannot attend formal gatherings of Jesuits that review rules and lifestyle. He cannot take part in the ordinary governance of the Jesuit Order.

Is Francis still bound by the vows that all Jesuits take—poverty, chastity, and obedience? Ladislas Orsy, S.J., a canon lawyer who teaches at the Georgetown School of Law, says: “Religious vows are made to God … His vow of poverty holds but he is the only judge of how to observe it in his circumstances. His vow of obedience, however, loses its meaning because he has no Superior to obey.” And, of course, his vow of chastity still holds.

So the legal bond between him and the Society has been broken; however, the spiritual bond, the brotherhood, the ideals by which he and other Jesuits have been formed—all these remain.

But much has been made of the fact that Francis is the first Jesuit Pope. Why hasn’t this happened before?

After a long formation, Francis, like other Jesuits, made what we call Final Profession, which includes several promises. One of them is never to seek the office of bishop, and never to accept it unless the Pope expressly wishes it. Ignatius enjoined on us that promise because he wanted to keep us available, ready to take up our cloaks and go wherever we are sent. A bishop cannot in that way be available.

Further, Ignatius wanted to keep his Jesuits out of the Renaissance caldron of ambition, an ambition that entertains us (Showtime’s Borgias) but was always a scandal.

No other religious order asks its members to make that vow. So the possibility of a Jesuit Pope has been minimal: Relatively few Jesuit bishops have been appointed, and even fewer cardinals.

Many will be watching Pope Francis to see how he confronts the thorny issues of a modern Church, but if his decision to hold the Holy Thursday liturgy in a jail for juvenile offenders, and to kneel to wash their feet, is any indication of his future work, it is clear he will be a bishop of compassion, a shepherd eager to care for his flock. For this Argentinean Jesuit, his work will not be delegated; it will be borne with love.

A shorter version of this essay originally appeared in the San Jose Mercury News.

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