What’s So Weird About A Jesuit Pope?

by | Mar 14, 2013 | Papal Election, Papal News, Pope Francis

In a word, everything.

It took approximately 8 seconds after they announced the name “Bergoglio” for my phone to blow up.  “A Jesuit pope?”  read the text.  “I thought that wasn’t allowed!”  Whether people knew a Jesuit, or had been taught by Jesuits, or had just read about Jesuits, the bottom line was the same: everyone knew that a Jesuit would never, ever be pope … right?

Wrong!  But, in fairness, that’s what most Jesuits thought too.

So what makes it so weird that a man who started off as a Jesuit would end up as Pope Francis?  It’s a complicated question, but here are three basic reasons from the Jesuit past and present to get you started:

1.  The First Jesuits were more interested in reforming individuals than Church hierarchy.

People in the Catholic Church had been talking about “reformation” for a long time before Martin Luther drew up a list and (supposedly) nailed it to a church door.  A really long time before, actually, as in, at least since the 12th century.  By the time Ignatius of Loyola and his college friends founded the Jesuits in 1540, everybody agreed that the Catholic Church had serious problems that required “reformation.”  Corruption, inefficiency, scandal, spiritual malaise, and priest shortages all contributed to a shared sense that something needed fixing. The trouble, then as in other times, was getting people to agree on what were the most urgent priorities for reform and how the Church was going to accomplish it.

Against this background, in a world in which everyone spent huge amounts of time and energy talking about reforming Church government and practices, it’s interesting (not to say bizarre) that the early Jesuits were almost totally silent about “reformation.”  When they talked about it at all, they were talking about an interior change of heart, especially the conversion of heart that happens in the Spiritual Exercises.  It’s not that the first Jesuits didn’t care about whether power structures were reformed; it’s just that they didn’t think that they should become part of the structures, even to reform them.  They thought that they did their best work by helping people (laypeople, priests, religious, even bishops) get more and more deeply in touch with God, and that when they did that, other people could more easily take care of the task of reform.  Broadly speaking, that’s what Jesuits today believe too — it’s not that we don’t care about power structures in the Church, its just that the kind of reform that we’re best at has to do with helping people see how God is touching their hearts, moving them to be more prayerful, more loving, and more just.

2.  Ignatius didn’t want Jesuits to be bishops

Ignatius of Loyola really, really didn’t want Jesuits to be bishops.  Like, really.

Early on, some church and public officials were absolutely convinced that the Jesuits would make great bishops.  To say that the Jesuits fought against being bishops would be a massive understatement.  Even when powerful kings made requests (“It’s good to be the King,” after all), Ignatius resisted.

He was worried that his men would start to secretly harbor ambitions to become bishops (Really, Jesuits harboring ambitions… well, I never…).  Just as important, Ignatius argued that the Jesuit vocations were born in a spirit of humility, and that the acceptance of honors and dignities would compromise that.  Finally, Ignatius argued, the Jesuit vocation was to the whole world, but a bishop would have to stay in his own diocese.

These arguments still hold.  Every Jesuit prays for humility, starting with our first 30-day silent retreat.  We’re called to be servants, not to ambition to be leaders. And, just like our forebears, our vocation is to be free to go anywhere in the world whenever we’re needed.  So, while bishops have awesome responsibilities, like Ignatius, Jesuits today believe that our call, in most cases, is a different one.

3.  Jesuits promise not to aspire to higher offices

I’m frequently amused that friends and family members who know zilch about the Jesuits (apart from the fact that our universities have good basketball teams) always seem to remember that “fully-formed” Jesuits take a special vow of obedience to the pope regarding mission.  Our “Fourth Vow” means we are prepared to go anywhere in the world the pope sends us.  We’re servants of the mission; the Pope is the one with the most universal view of the needs of the Church.  However, in addition to that fairly famous vow, we also promise not to “ambition” for any higher office, whether inside the Jesuit order or in the Church at large.  While offices of leadership and responsibility can and do come looking for us, we’re just not supposed to go looking for them.

So how did a Jesuit end up as pope?

I do not think it means what you think it means!

I do not think it means what you think it means!

Even though Ignatius didn’t want Jesuits to become bishops or cardinals, sometimes it still happens.  That doesn’t mean that a Jesuit who becomes bishop “ambitioned” for the position; far from it, I always assume that Jesuit bishops took their vows with every intention of living and dying as a priest, more a servant than a leader.

While the rule says that Jesuits aren’t to become bishops, Ignatius knew that some rules may need to be broken.  He was a big fan of the phrase  “but if the situation warrants…” At times a pope commands that a Jesuit lay aside his life under the Jesuit rule and take up an entirely different role as a bishop.  And yesterday, for the first time in our history a conclave told a Jesuit bishop to take up the office of Bishop of Rome.  A honest and faithful Jesuit must strive to balance the the requirement not to seek honors and the Jesuit obligation to obediently serve the mission of the Church.

Yesterday, my friend Andy, who as far as I know has no religious affiliation whatsoever, put the matter this way on my Facebook page: “That’s like the most awesome s*** I have ever heard, must be commanded to take higher office.”

That’s about right, Andy.  Most awesome … er … stuff indeed.


Matt Spotts, SJ

mspottssj@thejesuitpost.org   /   @mspottssj   /   All posts by Matt