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Why a Jesuit Pope?

IN SPITE of the many articles that I’ve read about Pope Francis, I simply can’t resist writing about the man. He’s different. He’s down to earth. He’s charming. His personality has a certain aura that makes a person desire to know him better. That he prefers to live in a suite at a Vatican hotel, rather than stay in the palatial apartment previously used by his resigned predecessor Benedict XVI, speaks highly of his simplicity. No wonder some Vatican observers have already spoken highly about him.

Wrote Eric Reguly, Rome correspondent for the Toronto Globe and Mail who attended the pope’s first press conference, “It’s the first time I ever heard a pope cracking jokes. Even John Paul, who had a connection with people, didn’t show a sense of humor like this. I think this is something the Vatican needs.”

But what strikes me the most about him is his being a Jesuit. Throughout history, 34 popes have been members of Religious Orders: Benedictines, 17; Augustinians, 6; Dominicans, 4; Franciscans, 4; Cistercians, 2; Theatines, 1.

No Jesuit has ever been elected pope until three weeks ago.

Never have I imagined that a Jesuit, who belongs to a religious organization whose members are known for their avowed liberalism and radical thinking, would ever be elected a pope.

A Jesuit bishop? Perhaps. Yes, like the late Jesuit Francisco Claver who became a bishop of Malaybalay, Bukidnon.

A Jesuit archbishop? Yes, like Jesuit Antonio Ledesma who is the current archbishop of Cagayan de Oro.

A Jesuit cardinal? Yes, like the late Jesuit Cardinal Avery Dulles, who was the only American theologian appointed to the College of Cardinals.

But a Jesuit pope? A Jesuit priest who said Mass in our parish two Sundays ago joked that Pope Francis might be the first and the last Jesuit to be elected pope.

Jesuits have a history of working with the poor and the marginalized. This sometimes leads them to being viewed with suspicion, not only by some quarters of the Vatican, but even by ruling powers.

The history of the Jesuits is replete with so many controversies. There was a campaign to suppress them in the 1700s due to anti-clerical sentiments during that time. There were other reasons like their defense of the indigenous peoples of the Americas against the abuses committed by the Spanish colonizers, their quarrel with dishonest entrepreneurs in Portugal and in France over certain economic practices, and their getting involved in what appeared to be questionable government practices in other European countries.

All this resulted in Brazil and Portugal expelling the Jesuits in 1754 and 1758 respectively. France followed suit by illegalizing them in 1764, and Spain and Sicily took repressive actions again them in 1767. From 1750 to 1814 the Jesuits were banished from most of Europe. A decree signed by Pope Clement XIV, a Franciscan, in July 1773 suppressed the Jesuits in all countries except Russia, where Catherine the Great had forbidden the papal decree to be executed. It was only in 1814 that the Jesuits were restored by Pope Pius VII.

When I was a Jesuit novice many years ago, we were taught to serve the poor and never strive for higher office in the Church.

For St. Ignatius, the former military officer who founded the Jesuits, everything is for the “greater glory of God.”

Simply put, when the “greater glory of God” is a stake, the Jesuit will always be at the forefront. In some countries, the Jesuits are colloquially known as “God’s marines” in reference to St. Ignatius’ military background and because of their willingness to serve God anywhere, always giving themselves without counting the cost. I would guess this is ingrained throughout the long years of formation that all Jesuits go through.

Thus, a Jesuit goes out into the world ready to meet any challenges be it in educational institutions, in parish work, in media centers, in social involvement, in sports and even in becoming a pope.

By electing a Jesuit, the Catholic Church is probably sending the message that change is coming. The world needs a pope who welcomes controversies and faces head on any pressing problems confronting the Church and its members. And a Jesuit, with his years of training and a spirituality that’s rooted in St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, is equipped with the personality, the temperament and the readiness to do the job.

With a Jesuit pope, the Catholic Church is taking a risk, but it is a risk worth taking at this time.

Obviously, the Holy Spirit will be busy during the tenure of Pope Francis.