A Prominent Jesuit Talks About the Order’s First Pope

The author of several acclaimed books on the order, Father James Martin is the Jesuit world’s poster boy. With the highest position in the Catholic Church now held by a Jesuit, he gives The Daily Beast’s Abby Haglage some expert advice on understanding our Papa.

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“Praise the Lord!!” was the text I received from my Jesuit-educated dad on the day Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Cardinal of Buenos Aires, was elected as the first Jesuit pope in history. My dad’s genuine bliss, echoed by Jesuits around the world, was surpassed two days later when I called to let him know I’d be talking with author, priest, and culture editor of America magazine, Father James Martin. “How COOL.” he exclaimed. My Ohio-born, Catholic-raised father’s reaction says it all: Father Martin is perhaps the closest thing to a celebrity the Jesuit order has ever known. He is, after all, the official chaplain of the Colbert Nation. Martin spoke to me about Francis, the future of the Catholic Church, and the order’s hometown pride.

What was your initial reaction to the news that a Jesuit had been selected as the new Pope?

I was stunned into speechlessness, which isn’t typical for the Jesuits. I couldn’t wait to get home to my community and celebrate with them.

You have more than 20,000 likes on your Facebook page, making you one of the most popular Jesuits in America. Did Pope Francis steal your spotlight?

[Laughs]. No, I wouldn’t say that. Any claims to that title I may have had before, he has definitely taken away from me. I might be one of the more well-known Jesuits out there, I guess.

What’s the environment like in the Jesuit community right now?

It’s a worldwide celebration. Our community couldn’t stop talking about it. Last night we had an already-scheduled community meeting that was meant to focus on a less-exciting topic, but it immediately turned into a sharing session about our joy over the new pope.

Could you explain in simple terms the foundation of Jesuit spirituality?

Helping people find God in all things. It’s a spirituality of freedom. Trying to free yourself up from anything that gets in the way of you and God and another person. It’s a spirituality deeply connected to Jesus.

What separates Jesuit priests from other Catholic priests?

In general there are two kinds of priests. Diocesan priests are the ones most familiar to Catholics. They are the priests who enter seminaries and spend most of their lives working in parishes. Some of them become bishops, and archbishops, and eventually cardinals. Those are the ones who spend most of their time in the parishes, celebrating masses, presiding over weddings and baptisms, etc. Separate from that are the religious-order priests, people like the Franciscans, the Dominicans, the Benedictions, the Trappists, and the Jesuits. All of these individuals take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and live together in community. However, they’re not as focused on parish life.

So you can see now why it’s so surprising that the College of Cardinals selected a member of a religious order. The new pope comes from a group that is seen as something different than the regular Diocesan clergy—with which the cardinals would be more familiar.

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Weren’t the Jesuits kicked out of the Catholic Church at one point?

Well, we were, as it’s called, “suppressed,” in 1773 by the pope.

Which makes this decision a bit ironic. Am I right?

[Laughs] It’s extremely ironic! The other irony—many people don’t know this—but at the end of your Jesuit training you repeat your vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. You also make a special promise never to “strive or ambition” for a high office in the Jesuits or in the church. You also make a promise to report anyone that you do see striving for a high office. The reason for this is that St. Ignatius was horrified by the clerical climbing in his day and wanted to ensure that Jesuits weren’t climbers and didn’t participate in that world. The irony is, then, that you now have someone who didn’t strive for it, but is now in the highest office of the church.

How much you do you think Pope Francis’s Jesuit background will influence his tenure?

His Jesuit background and his Jesuit spirituality have to be enormously influential. He was in the Jesuits for most of his adult life. He was also, people forget, the Jesuit Provincial of Argentina, meaning he was the Jesuit Regional Superior. So he is someone that not only went through the long and demanding Jesuit training process, but who was selected by the Jesuit Superior General to run that area, so he had the responsibility for assigning Jesuits to their different ministries. He is thoroughly steeped in Jesuit spirituality and I cannot imagine that this will not influence him.

Do his views on gay marriage and abortion align with the Jesuit order as a whole?

Given that the cardinals selected as a new pope from among the group of people appointed by Pope Benedict and Pope John Paul, it was almost impossible that the new pope would be someone who disagreed with church teaching on those issues. Pope Francis is along those lines and you won’t be seeing any deviation from church teaching on that.

As the Jesuit-whisperer that you seem to be, what’s your prediction for the kind of pope he’ll turn out to be?

Well I think the first few minutes of his papacy are very telling. The first thing he does is choose the name Francis; someone who is associated with not only poverty and simplicity, but also humility. The second thing he does, is he comes out not dressed in the full papal regalia but in the simple white cassock. If you notice he took off his stole after he blessed the crowd, only putting on the symbol of priestly authority when he did the blessing. And he started off the talk by bowing to the crowd and asking for their prayers. So I think the tone is already one of humility and gentleness.

Can you elaborate on the vow of poverty, one that all Jesuits take?

St. Ignatius said poverty has to be loved “as a mother.” We are encouraged to live as simply as we can. We own nothing in common. We turn all of our earnings into the community. All of the royalties from my books go to the Jesuits. We’re also encouraged to emulate Christ himself. Work with the poor and align with the poor. We are poor in order to free ourselves from the desire for possessions. We are poor in order to emulate Jesus, who was poor on earth. And to align ourselves with those who are marginalized and poor today.

Do you think that this vow will lead Pope Francis to serve differently as pope than others who’ve come before him?

Yes. This is a man who lived in his own apartment, took public transportation, and cooked for himself in Buenos Aires. So this is a man who embraces the simple lifestyle that Jesuits have always been called to, even when he was the Archbishop of Buenos Aires. So clearly the Jesuit formation and the Jesuit spirituality has deeply influenced him.

What was going on in Jesuit-town on the day Francis was elected, anything big?

Nothing major, until we saw the white smoke. Most were teaching in classrooms and running schools and working at the magazine while all of this was happening. They obviously took time out to watch, but it came in the middle of the Jesuit workday, which I think St. Ignatius would have approved of.

If there is one thing you would like people to know about the Jesuits, what would it be?

There is a stereotype the Jesuits were either founded to participate in the counter-reformation to oppose Protestants or that we were founded exclusively as a religious order that ran universities or colleges or that we’re all intellectuals who have five PhDs each. But the original founding documents of the Jesuits speak of something much more simple. The goal of the Jesuits is to “help souls.” That means that the kind of ministries we take on are flexible depending on the needs of society. In this recent appointment Jorge Mario Bergoglio will be helping many souls. So I think that it is something that would make Saint Ignatius Loyola very happy.

You’re widely recognized as the leading voice in the Jesuit community. Out of your many books, what do you consider your magnum opus?

Well, I think the book that would be the most helpful for people to understand the new pope and the Jesuits as a whole would be The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything.

In my recent attempt be innovative I’ve created an e-retreat that allows you to go on a Jesuit retreat on a tablet.