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In electing a member of the Society of Jesus, the Catholic Church for the first time elevates a 'foot soldier of the pope' to lead.
ROME – This was an historic papal transition from the very start.
It was the first time in 600 years a living pope resigned; the first time a Cardinal from the Americas was elevated to the throne; the first time a pope was named Francis with reverence for the saint’s mission for the poor and the first time the pope was selected from the Jesuit order known for its focus on critical thinking.
And as a week of pageantry and punditry comes to an end here, it is apparent that it is also the first time a papacy has begun right away as a story of competing narratives. Pope Francis is a pope from the New World but of Italian descent — a pope who speaks like a progressive on economic inequality but like a strict conservative on social issues, particularly gay marriage.
Pope Francis, in tone and gestures, introduced himself to the world as a humble pastor, bowing to 100,000 from the balcony at St. Peter’s Basilica and drew on his focus on behalf of the poor to turn the center of gravity in the Catholic Church from Rome to the global south.
Meanwhile a relentless media was digging into his complex position as Cardinal Jose Maria Bergoglio in Argentina’s bloody past.
“I am a bit shocked by the fact we have a Jesuit pope.”~Father Federico Lombardi
Early reports began raising stark questions about his role as a Jesuit superior in dealing with the military junta during the 1970s’ Dirty War, a struggle in which 30,000 people, including more than 100 priests, were killed by the violence but the church as a whole was largely silent on speaking out against the injustices of the dictatorship. Jesuits reacted with praise and surprise to the first of their order to become pope.
“He has truly lived his vow of poverty,” said Father Thomas Reese, a sociologist and author of Inside the Vatican, serving as a media commentator at the Holy See Press Office this week. “He was very progressive on social justice, fighting the Argentine government on benefits for the poor,” said Reese. “This is not a candidate of Wall Street. He’s to the left of Nancy Pelosi on economic issues.”
But the historic first of a Jesuit becoming pope is another story, and not a simple one to parse in the case of Pope Francis.
"I am a bit shocked by the fact we have a Jesuit pope," Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman told reporters. "Usually the Jesuits don't accept, or at least try to resist being nominated as bishops or cardinals."
Ignatius Loyola, the Spanish soldier and mystic, founded the Society of Jesus in 1534 as an order in service to the pope, not to compete within the ecclesiastical ranks for positions like bishops and cardinals.
The Jesuits, as the society is known, are renowned as an order of educators, stressing critical thinking; but they have had a more ambivalent, sometimes strained relationship with certain popes. Clement XIV banned the Jesuits in 1773 as a casualty of the papacy’s role in European dynastic battles. Pius VII, who was imprisoned by Napoleon, revived the order after his release in 1814.
Jesuit universities, religious houses and individual priests issued words of praise and congratulation to Pope Francis.
Yet a guarded period of waiting among Jesuits seems also at hand. How will a pope so strongly orthodox on moral teaching react to the liberal path of the Society of Jesus in America and other Western countries?
When Cardinal Bergoglio chose the name Francis, he won the hearts of Italians on the spot by embracing the saint from Assisi who immersed himself in the lives of the poor. Introducing himself with a bow to people of Rome as their bishop struck a tone of modesty, a pastoral essence.
Alternatively, bypassing the name Ignatius may also have been a coded message on his own religious order.
As Jesuits established universities and schools in Europe and the New World they became known as intellectuals of the church.
But since the reform-minded Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, Jesuits have taken a more direct path of engagement with the poor and on other social issues; many Jesuit universities send student volunteer groups to Third World countries.
The Jesuits’ embrace of liberation theology in 1968 so enflamed the powerful Mexican industrialist, Eugenio Garza of Monterrey, that he