03.16.13

Thank God Pope Francis Is a Jesuit

The most brilliant and controversial order of the Catholic Church has, at long last, one of its own elected pope. Historian Jonathan Wright on the history of the Jesuits and how their ideas may influence him—and save the church.

If “any congregation of men could merit eternal perdition on earth and in hell,” it is the “Company of Loyola.” So wrote John Adams to Thomas Jefferson in 1816. By this date, the Jesuits (“the Company of Loyola”) had grown accustomed to such venomous denunciations. Since their official founding in 1540 they had been falsely accused of killing an impressive number of monarchs, of seducing wealthy widows in every corner of the globe, and, as one disgruntled Scottish Protestant put it in 1615, of working ferociously hard  “to make the pope the lord of all the earth.” One imagines that the latest pope, a Jesuit, is familiar with the centuries of calumny that have been heaped upon his forebears. If he’s a reasonable man—and, in most regards, he seems to be—he’ll dismiss the ludicrous allegations but readily admit that the Jesuits have never been perfect. He’ll also take some pride in the astonishing history of the Society of Jesus: arguably the most prodigious religious order every produced by the Roman Catholic Church.

Jesuits have served as astronomers to Chinese emperors, they have been hacienda owners in Mexico and wine-growers in Australia, and they have provided educations to men as various as Fidel Castro, Voltaire, and Alfred Hitchcock. The distorted image of the wily Jesuit is unlikely to disappear. Many will still agree with an 1848 caricature of Jesuit behavior: to “tread softly, to whisper in the ear, to work mole-like underground; to glide to and fro, and in and out, like the serpent through the windings of society.” Others will prefer to focus on Jesuit achievement: the fact that there are 35 craters on the moon’s surface named in honor of Jesuit scientists, or that some Jesuits have led the charge for social justice in the developing world.

The only absolutely secure conclusion is that lazy stereotypes are best avoided and that there have always been awful Jesuits and wonderful Jesuits. Pope Francis seems to be one of the better ones. The urgent question is how his Jesuit identity will influence his stint at the Vatican. We can certainly expect a truly global papacy, not just because of Francis’s birthplace but also because taking the Christian message to far-flung foreign climes has always been a Jesuit obsession. The papal name chosen by Bergoglio immediately brings Francis Xavier, the Jesuits’ first great missionary to mind. Back in the 16th century, when Xavier was plying his evangelical trade, it was all about impressing Japanese rulers with gifts of spectacles, mirrors, and three-muzzle muskets. These days, it is about bringing unity to a muddled and divided church, but the imperative remains the same: to define a faith and find some balance between honoring the deposit of tradition and adapting to shifting circumstances.

Optimism, magnanimity, fraternity, and the close examination of conscience (Ignatian hallmarks, all) would do wonders for one of the world’s greatest but most troubled Christian denominations.

We can also anticipate an injection of Ignatian spirituality and even the grumpiest commentator would have to acknowledge that this would be a welcome development. Optimism, magnanimity, fraternity, and the close examination of conscience (Ignatian hallmarks, all) would do wonders for one of the world’s greatest but most troubled Christian denominations. Not that we should expect too much from Francis. It isn’t the job of popes to upset apple carts. For better or worse, they are expected to keep the peace and move very tentatively toward any variety of change. Jesuits have not always been very good at this. Historically, they have often been venturesome and provocative, and this has landed them in a great deal of trouble: one reason why it has taken 500 years to elect a Jesuit pope—the Society has always had too many enemies and put too many ecclesiastical noses out of joint to make this a viable option.

Bergoglio, however, has defeated the odds and I dare say he knows how to play the papal game. In recent days I’ve heard people suggest that Francis’s election reflects the decline in influence of the Society of Jesus. Suddenly, so the theory goes, it is deemed ‘safe’ to elect a Jesuit pope. I’m not sure this is an accurate appraisal. It presupposes a threat that never really existed and it misses a larger point. The Jesuits are clearly not the order they once were: in Britain, and in lots of other places, they struggle to recruit novices. But the Jesuit stamp on Catholicism is about more than numbers. It comes down to an idiosyncratic way of looking at the world and Pope Francis can’t help but inherit that legacy. Every Jesuit I’ve talked to or emailed over the past few days has been flabbergasted by what happened in Rome last Thursday but most of them are delighted. It isn’t that they’ve been longing for such a triumph for centuries: seeking high ecclesiastical office has never been a Jesuit priority, indeed it has often been frowned upon. They are simply excited to see what happens next.

The new pope is reported to be a pastoral and humble man but he also carries five centuries of Jesuit history on his shoulders. This, I suspect, will make him much more than a place-filler. That is not the Jesuit way. Next year marks the 200th anniversary of the restoration of the Society of Jesus in 1814. The Jesuits had been suppressed, by a reluctant pope, in 1773. In light of this coincidence, I’m guessing that the man from Argentina has allowed himself a chuckle at the exquisite timing of his election. He must also be terrified by the tasks that await him.

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Watch Pope Francis greet the world for the first time.