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Jesuits like Pope Francis work on the margins of society

To find such a humble man in the highest office, from an order with a history of tumultuous relations with the Vatican, leaves many Catholics stunned.

March 18, 2013|By Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times
  • Workers prepare St. Peter's Square for the pope's inauguration Mass at the Vatican.
Workers prepare St. Peter's Square for the pope's inauguration… (Filippo Monteforte / AFP/Getty…)

VATICAN CITY — Few people were more shocked at the choice of a Jesuit as pope than the Jesuits.

There had never been a Jesuit pope before Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina was elected last week, and he was the only Jesuit among the 115 cardinals who voted in the papal conclave. (The only other one, from Indonesia, was too ill to attend.)

Pope Francis, who will be installed formally Tuesday before more than 100 heads of state and foreign delegations, including Vice President Joe Biden and what will undoubtedly be an adoring crowd, has already shown himself to be a different kind of pope.

He has a simpler, more personal style than his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, which is in part a product of his formation as a Jesuit.

So is his emphasis on the poor — and not just that priests must help the poor but that they must also live a humble life as a model. Speaking to journalists over the weekend, he called for "a poor church for the poor."

The Jesuit order, known formally as the Society of Jesus, was founded by St. Ignatius of Loyola in 1540. It emphasizes intellectual acumen, educational excellence and what it calls contemplation in action — the dedication to working in the world on behalf of the church and the poor, and not withdrawing from it into a monastic or cloistered way of life.

As members of the largest Catholic religious order for men, Jesuit priests take a vow not to seek higher office, although they can accept positions if they are offered.

"For us, it's so weird; we're used to serving the pope, not being the pope," Antonio Spadaro, editor of the Italian Jesuit magazine Civilta Cattolica, said in an interview last week.

Jesuits do not serve as parish priests, but typically work as teachers and serve the poor.

"The innovation of the Jesuits was to not leave the world. You can have a busy life and still grow in holiness, if you do it right," the Rev. Gerard Whelan, a theologian at the Jesuit-run Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, told The Times.

"It is spirituality oriented toward decision-making in a busy life," he added. "We do not want an enclosed church."

Such attributes are critical to a Roman Catholic Church in crisis. Francis is, many here say, just what the church needs at this moment in its 2,000-year history. In outlining some of the reasons they chose Francis, cardinals have cited his sanctity, a dedication to Scripture and holiness and his ability to communicate and reach out as a pastor.

Their aim is to restore the church to a position of moral authority lost in the procession of scandals and other troubles that plagued the papacy of Benedict XVI, who resigned last month. Those include sexual abuse of children by priests, published leaks about Vatican mismanagement and corruption at the Vatican bank and other parts of its administration.

Francis' evident warmth and grandfatherly affability (he has given bear hugs to some of the people greeting him at audiences since his appointment) could go a long way in wooing back parishioners who gave up on their church. Especially under Benedict, the church for many seemed increasingly distant, cold, inward-looking and Euro-centric. Benedict specifically chose to concentrate on the evangelization of Europe, rarely spoke of the poor and tended to cite turgid theological documents or, perhaps most infamously, Byzantine emperors. Francis tells folksy stories from his hometown parishes. He is the first pope from Latin America and from the entire Southern Hemisphere, home today to most of the world's Catholics.

His propensity to wade into crowds has been sending his security detail scrambling. His frequent departure from prepared texts is sending Vatican transcribers scrambling.

And in his long career as a Jesuit leader in Argentina, he served during a period as a novice master, entrusted with the spiritual teaching of young entrants, another valuable tool for the overseer of a church that has lost priests in many parts of the world.

The Jesuit penchant for humility is one reason the choice of the Buenos Aires native was seen as astonishing. Few Jesuits even rise to become archbishops or cardinals.

Another source of marvel stems from the many decades of often tumultuous relations with the Vatican.

The late Pope John Paul II intervened in the order over a period starting in 1981, replacing its leader in Rome with a personal delegate. As a staunch anti-communist, the Polish-born pontiff feared that some Jesuits, especially in Latin America, were becoming too enamored of liberation theology, a left-leaning interpretation of church teachings that some critics believed veered into Marxism. The crackdown against priests in Latin America, many of them Jesuits, would have traumatic consequences. Priests who championed the poor found few ways to do their work that did not threaten the status quo in that Cold War era. A small number took up arms; others were killed or persecuted by repressive regimes.

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