Amid the many firsts represented in the election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Catholic pontiff—the first pope from South America and the first to take the name Francis—he is also the first Jesuit.
From its founding in the 16th century to contemporary times, the Jesuit order has had a remarkable and tumultuous history. Alone among religious orders, the Jesuits take a fourth vow: Over and above the standard vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, they also take a vow of obedience to the pope. Yet, in the post-Vatican II era since the mid 1960s, Jesuits have developed more of a reputation as rebels, even as direct critics of the papacy and of official Catholic teaching. Having one of their own as pope must be slightly disorienting.
I recall attending a retreat for new faculty during my first semester in the fall of 1990 at Boston College, a Jesuit university that has risen from near bankruptcy in the early 1970s to national academic prominence. The elderly Jesuit who led the session on Boston College's Jesuit identity spent most of his allotted time railing against Pope John Paul II. Bewildered non-Catholics in the group—by my recollection they outnumbered the Catholics—wondered what it all meant. A lay female member of the retreat team told them not to worry about it. All they needed to know was that faith would not get in the way of their work at Boston College.
Even as their numbers dwindle, the Jesuits retain a reputation as Catholic rebels. Founded in Spain nearly five centuries ago by Ignatius of Loyola, the order was established for the "propagation and defense of the faith and the progress of souls in Christian life and doctrine."
Those are not words that fall trippingly from the tongue of most Jesuits in positions of leadership at major universities. One suspects in some cases that hostility to church teaching is not so much a sign of brave independence as it is a shift from obedience to Catholic teaching, to obedience to a party line of left-leaning opinions on church and society.
But the reputation of the Jesuits as rebels is by now an old story. While many Jesuit institutions of learning may sadly be lost to the church as well as to the Jesuit order, the younger generation seems less interested in alternative ways of being Catholic than in recovering Ignatius's fidelity to the church.
When considering what part the Jesuit Pope Francis might play in all this, it helps to look at the influence of his namesake, St. Francis, whose example was an inspiration for Ignatius as he lay in a hospital bed recuperating from a wound he received in war.
Enamored of tales of soldiers and chivalry, Ignatius began reading books about the saints, and that helped refashion in his imagination the ideals of nobility, courage and devotion to a lady. As he read about the impact of Francis of Assisi, he began to wonder whether he might not pursue a life akin to that of the great 13th-century saint. Ignatius, too, would become a saint and found the order we know today as the Jesuits. The new pope echoes the founder of his order in his devotion to St. Francis and to the church.
Pope Francis represents a combination of traits that are not often found together in our world. His selection of the name Francis illuminates his profound humility. His role as a Jesuit reflects his intellectual rigor.
What will his selection as pope mean for the order and for the priesthood? The impact of John Paul II on young Catholic men electing to enter the priesthood has been profound; his combination of vibrant orthodoxy and personal charisma, of intelligence and wit, moved many to consider a vocation.
Who knows, perhaps one of the many unexpected results of this week's conclave will be a new generation of Jesuits, inspired by Pope Francis to combine simplicity of life with erudition, generous hospitality and gracious wit and holiness of life. That too was and is present among some Jesuits at Boston College and elsewhere. The combination of virtues is rare in any age but especially in ours, in which crass ignorance seems equally suited to believers and unbelievers alike.