It’s now a month since the world was pleasantly surprised (on Wednesday, March 13) with the election of Pope Francis, the 266th Roman Catholic pontiff. The new pope said in good humor afterwards that his fellow cardinals had chosen him from “the end of the world.” And by that singular auspicious act of God, the cardinal electors set Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, as the pope of many firsts: the first non-European pope in almost 1,300 years, the first pope from Latin America and the Southern Hemisphere, the first pope to take the name of Francis, and the first Jesuit pope. Ever. I emerged from the library, where I had been all day, on time to join the BBC’s live coverage wait for the white smoke from the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. My eyes glued to my mobile device on my commute home; I couldn’t thank God enough for digital media technology. The intersection of the mundane and the spiritual. All serving one purpose. God’s. And then my delight, my joy about twenty minutes later at the pronouncement of the much-awaited “magic” words: Habemus Papam! (“We Have a Pope”). Immediately, my phone started ringing off the hook. Then came the SMSs, emails, and Facebook messages, from family, friends and acquaintances around the world. “Congratulations, Father. We have a Jesuit pope.” “Congrats, Fr. Your brother Jesuit is the new Pope.” Yes, Pope Francis and I belong to the same order. What a humbling honor! The Jesuits (officially, Society of Jesus; abbreviated, SJ) are the largest male religious order in the Catholic Church. There are about 18,000 of us working in more than 120 countries across six continents. Founded by St. Ignatius Loyola in 1540, to propagate the faith and to save souls, the Jesuits are best known today for our network of schools across the world. We run over 2,000 secondary schools, colleges, universities, seminaries, and theological faculties, including Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., Boston College, Massachusetts, Gregorian University, Rome, and Loyola Jesuit College Abuja. About 45% of the cardinals that elected Pope Francis were educated in Jesuit universities in Rome. Yes, I was delighted with the news of the new pope. A Jesuit pope. But I wasn’t sure if that’s a cause for celebration. Later at home that evening I joked with fellow Jesuits on what St. Ignatius would have thought of a Jesuit pope: “Dear God, not after all the structures I put in place to ensure that never happened.” Or maybe, he would have acknowledged it as a providential act of God, coming at the appropriate (appointed?) time. Due to the distasteful clerical ambitioning of his time, St. Ignatius had gone an extra length to foreclose Jesuits aspiring to positions. So, in addition to the vows that the Finally Professed Jesuits take (chastity, poverty, and obedience; plus a special fourth vow of obedience to the pope, “with regards to mission”—more on this later), Jesuits also make several “promises.” One of them is not to “strive or ambition” for any high office, neither within the Society of Jesus nor in the Church. However, the popes do sometimes ask Jesuits to become bishops, archbishops, or cardinals. Usually the ones so appointed would ask the permission of the Superior General of the Jesuits. (There’s a joke that after his election Pope Francis told the cardinal electors that he had to first ask the Superior General of the Jesuits for permission to accept the position.) The asking of permission is a formality that’s always granted. After all, the Jesuit forth vow of obedience to the pope with regards to mission implies an openness and willingness to be sent anywhere in the world, or on any mission by the pope.
Between the creative balancing of St. Ignatius’ restrictions and the Church’s needs, however, Jesuits are always available to serve the Church in various categories. Cardinal Bergoglio emerged from within such a spirit of service as the first Jesuit pope from about 500 Jesuit cardinals in the near 500 years of Jesuit history. What does his papacy mean for the Church? And what does it mean for all of us, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, Christians and all men and women (and children) of good will? In the one month Pope Francis has been in office, he has won the hearts of many, both admirers and skeptics alike, by demonstrating with his lifestyle an effective way of preaching the gospel. He brings with him an opportunity of a truly global papacy, profoundly influenced by the Ignatian spirituality. The Ignatian spirituality, at the heart of Jesuit life and training, is a way of living in relationship with God based on spiritual insights of St. Ignatius. It rests, among other things, on “finding God in all things” and doing everything “for the greater glory of God.” Pope Francis represents for the world an exemplary life of simplicity, compassion and humility. His “no frills” (thanks to world media) approach is proving the greatest inspiration. On the night of his election, he rode back to his lodging on a bus with his brother cardinals, instead of being driven in the official papal car. Even as an archbishop in Buenos Aires, he rode the public transport to work, lived not in the bishop’s court, but in a small apartment and cooked his own meals. As pope, he has exchanged the papal red loafers for black ones and wears a gold-plated silver ring rather than the usual solid gold. Coming from Latin America, the world expects of him to bring to the heart of the Catholic Church the hopes, fears and concerns of the developing world. But he does more than that. “How I would like a poor Church, and for the poor” (the poor in general, not just from the developing world), he said. He manifests his compassion for the poor in his humble interaction with and service of the less privileged. The day after his election he visited the sick in the hospital and on Holy Thursday, celebrated Mass in a young offenders’ prison, where he washed and kissed the feet of twelve inmates, Catholics and non-Catholics (one of them a Muslim). A humble pope, among his first words after his election was to ask the crowd gathered at St. Peter’s Square “for a favor”—to pray for him. Then he lowered his head. Still watching from my mobile device on my way home, I prayed for him; for strength, for wisdom. “Lord, please, guide him aright. Fill him with your Holy Spirit,” I added. And asked for the loving intercession of our Mother Mary too. So overcame with emotions was I at this most humbling gesture that I couldn’t hold back the tears that profusely streamed down my cheeks. I wasn’t sure what my fellow commuters thought of me. Not that I was bothered, anyway. I remembered the first time I experienced such emotions. I had knelt down at St. Peter’s Square in May of 2007 to receive my first papal benediction. From the Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI. It was a feeling beyond any I had had. I quaked. Almost six years later, there I was again. But this time, inside a moving train, in London. There we have it. Now that we have a Jesuit pope, we have an idea what to expect. If a papacy is shaped by the events of its first month, Pope Francis’ will be one that finds God in prayerful simplicity, compassion and humility; all tinged with humor, “for the Greater Glory of God.” Remain blessed and keep smiling. God bless our Pope!
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