Since the election of Pope Francis I the first yesterday, I can already predict what the number one topic of my conversations will be in the coming days, weeks, months perhaps. It will begin something like this: “How do you feel about having a Jesuit Pope?” Though at this point we are only a day into this new reality, I find that my reactions fall into at least four categories. First, I was—and still am—surprised. Second, I feel delight, and a sense of pride. Third, I find myself conflicted. Finally, I am apprehensive. I can’t speak for all Jesuits, but my sense is that many of my Jesuit brothers are experiencing similar reactions, to varying degrees.
Why am I surprised?
“They would never elect a Jesuit Pope!” We Jesuits have always taken it as something of a maxim that a Jesuit would never be elected Pope. I said as much to several people who asked me recently whether I thought the new Pope might be a Jesuit (they have been quick to point out that I was wrong). There were many reasons for this presumption. Most obviously: In the more than 400 years that it had been possible, a Jesuit had never been elected Pope. It was also thought that since the Jesuits are and have long been the largest single religious order of men in the Church (though the different Franciscan families, if added together, would be larger in number), that having a Jesuit Pope would skew a presumed balance of power between the “white Pope” and the “black pope,” as the Jesuit superior general is sometimes called. Such a vision, however, seems to be the product of a bygone age when the papacy was understood differently. Nevertheless, we know that in the Church former ways of thinking sometimes die hard, and many of us presumed that this way of thinking was still alive and kicking. So, give the current college of Cardinals—and the Holy Spirit—credit for overcoming a long-standing prejudice!
Why delighted and proud?
The new Pope is a Jesuit! Members of a religious community, no matter how different they may be individually (and individual Jesuits can be very different), share a unique kinship founded in their order’s charism (that is, unique characteristics), traditions, mission and spirituality. We speak the same language. We understand each other. Also, our shared identity as a community of men devoted to a common mission in service of Christ and the Church results in a collective sense of pride in our accomplishments, and sorrow over our failures. What one Jesuit does, for good or ill, somehow reflects upon all of us. So, just as I feel proud when I see I Jesuit I live with act heroically in support of someone in need, I also find myself feeling proud to be a Jesuit when one of my brother Jesuits becomes Pope.
A Jesuit is not supposed to be Pope! Here, I’m not repeating myself, but saying something about Jesuit legislation, tradition, and self-understanding, as well as the intentions of our founder, Saint Ignatius of Loyola. Dismayed by the distasteful actions by many Catholic clerics of his day in pursuit of advancement, power and prestige, Ignatius was determined that such ambition not infect the Society of Jesus. Therefore, it was clearly specified in the founding documents of the Jesuits that Jesuits were not to become bishops. Indeed, it is even forbidden for Jesuits to aspire to most positions of authority within the Society of Jesus itself. Should a Jesuit mount a campaign to be a Provincial or the General Superior of the Jesuits or even express a desire to hold such a position, that very act would disqualify him! Being a bishop also makes it essentially impossible for one to be fully a Jesuit, in a sense. Integral to Jesuit identity is apostolic availability, meaning that a Jesuit should always be prepared to go at a moment’s notice to answer the greatest apostolic need, anywhere in the world, especially if the Pope asks! Being a bishop doesn’t allow for that kind of availability. So, I suspect that Saint Ignatius would be strongly opposed—if not horrified—at the election of a Jesuit as Pope! However, this all also points to a question within the Society of Jesus as to how Jesuits are to understand availability, and their vow of obedience to the Pope. Shouldn’t a Jesuit’s availability also include being available to serve the Church as a Bishop? And, a matter of some dispute among Jesuits, given that we have a specific vow of obedience to the Pope, does this include a Pope’s request that one become a bishop? This question came up during Ignatius’ lifetime when some in the Church wanted to make the Jesuit Francis Borgia a cardinal. Ignatius made known his strong opposition to the proposal (especially because in this case it was about giving honor to a member of a prominent family), but he also acknowledged that should the Church insist, and Borgia accept, he would have to respect the Church’s decision. Borgia was never made a cardinal, and instead became the third general superior of the Jesuits.
A Jesuit Pope surely spells disaster for the Church! Or so many might say. While many in the Church have no idea what a Jesuit is, or that there are priests of a different sort than the ones that they know, those more in the know have strong opinions about religious orders like the Jesuits. There are those that love the Jesuits with great passion, and those who hate the Jesuits with equal passion. Both these camps are likely to harbor unreasonable expectations for a Jesuit Pope, both positive and negative. Pope Francis will most certainly disappoint both, not being as progressive as some would expect of a Jesuit, and not being as disastrous as others might expect. One of the main problems is that the most commonly held view on both sides is that the Jesuits are liberal. The fact that this isn’t an accurate representation of the diversity of the 19,000 Jesuits around the world, doesn’t stop our lovers or haters from seeing us that way. So, those who hate the Jesuits, but love the Church will make peace with themselves by saying things like, “but he’s a good Jesuit,” or “the right kind of Jesuit,” to distinguish him from the vast majority of Jesuits who are “bad Jesuits.” I can’t tell you how maddening, and I must say ignorant, such comments are. When he’s not progressive enough, Jesuit lovers will accuse him of not being Jesuit enough, or of betraying the Jesuits, or the Jesuit spirit. And though we certainly prefer the criticisms of those who love us, such comments will also be rooted in a similar ignorance of the expansive richness, diversity and fidelity to the Church that the Society of Jesus represents. When the Pope fails, as he certainly will from time to time, you might hear expressions of contempt such as “what do you expect from a Jesuit.” But I pray that both Jesuit lovers and haters can see beyond their expectations and find the wisdom of the Church and the will of the Holy Spirit in this surprising choice.