Is a Jesuit Pope an Oxymoron?

Indian Catholic women hold candles and a photo of newly-elected Pope Francis, during a thanksgiving mass at a church in Kolka
Indian Catholic women hold candles and a photo of newly-elected Pope Francis, during a thanksgiving mass at a church in Kolkata, India, Sunday, March 17, 2013. Argentine's former cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was chosen as leader of the Catholic Church on March 13, 2013, making him the New World's first pope. (AP Photo/Bikas Das)

In the summer of 1978, recently graduated from Columbia, I happily travelled around Europe on a rail pass before beginning a master's at Harvard Divinity School. Pope Paul VI died in early August that year, and as it happened I was in Rome when the conclave met to elect his successor. Nothing I have ever seen has been quite as transforming as the white smoke, the announcement of a new pope, John Paul I, and his appearance on balcony of the basilica of St. Peter's. It was the moment when I first felt called to some kind of religious vocation.

Until a week ago, there had not been a pope who also belonged to a religious order in more than a century and a half. Through the Middle Ages and the early modern period many popes were members of religious orders: Benedictines, Franciscans, Dominicans and others. The Jesuits were founded in the 16th century, but before Pope Francis, no Jesuit had ever been elected pontiff. I had thought this would never happen, in part because Jesuits make a promise not to seek ecclesiastical offices, and in part because so few members of the college of cardinals in recent times have been Jesuits or members of any religious order. It may be appropriate for a Jesuit to accept appointment to a post such as that of bishop, but he must not seek or ambition it in any way. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, wanted Jesuits to be free of the greed that characterized many bishops, cardinals and popes in his day.

Relations between the Society of Jesus and the pope have ranged over the years from alliance to suspicion. Along with emphases on education and evangelization, Jesuits recognized the pope as the universal pastor. But in 1773 Pope Clement XIV, a Franciscan, reversed the decisions of previous popes and suppressed the Jesuits. He did so under extraordinary pressure from Catholic monarchs who wanted full control of the Church -- including its schools -- in their domains. Next year will mark the 200th anniversary of universal restoration of the Jesuits by Pope Pius VII, a Benedictine pontiff who had been imprisoned by Napoleon.

How will the new pope's Jesuit identity manifest itself? Jesuits are formed above all by the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, a series of meditations that speak of God's unlimited love for each human being, and of human gratitude for God's utterly undeserved graces. These exercises were intended to free persons from attachment (indeed from enslavement) to power, wealth and fame, and to free them for generous and humble service of Christ -- present in the world and especially in the poor and the marginalized. For Ignatius, such service means companionship with Jesus, a walking and sharing with him in a life grounded in and devoted to love of others. Jesuits have done many things -- as priests or brothers, as teachers or scholars, as preachers or spiritual directors, as advocates for the oppressed -- and in many places, explicitly religious but also secular. They have often been at the frontiers of the Church, where, just a few years ago, Pope Benedict XVI urged Jesuits to be. Jesuits understand these frontiers as not only geographic (Asia, Africa, Latin America) but also religious, intellectual and cultural. Work at such frontiers entails risk, and it tends to elicit controversy and opposition. It might be easier to retreat from the world, or to hide behind the walls of a gated community or the security of supposed certitude, but Jesuits are committed to engagement with all things that are human, in their uncertainty, in their raw, messy realities. Jesuits believe that God is found in all things, and that every human being is created in the image and likeness of God, not just respectable people, but street people, "illegal" immigrants, the homeless and anyone who challenges the self-satisfied smugness of the well-off. Jesus was an itinerant preacher and prophet who paid with his life for exposing the hypocrisy of the self-righteous of his day. Jesuits claim (or at least try) to be companions of such a Jesus.

I trust that Jesuit ideals and priorities will help to shape the papacy of Benedict's successor. It appears, from his humility and pastoral zeal these past days, that they will. But some people are also pointing out that Francis is more "conservative" in his theology than are many other Jesuits, and especially more conservative on issues surrounding priestly celibacy, homosexuality or the role of women in the Church. But labels such as conservative or liberal may not fit Pope Francis very well, anymore than they fit St. Francis of Assisi, who believed that he was called to rebuild the Catholic Church of his day. But what was involved in such a rebuilding, and what might be involved today? Do some things need to be torn down, as it were, to make way for things new and different? Or is it more a matter of restoring a crumbling but landmarked historic building to what it once was? An important female co-worker of St. Francis was St. Clare, foundress of the female branch of the Franciscan order. Will Pope Francis have female collaborators, and how will he make it possible for women to play a major role in rebuilding the Church of the 21st century?

Jesuits are not formed by cookie cutters, and a variety of views characterizes them. I have come to love the diversity among us Jesuits, even as we share a deep companionship that transcends those differences. It is also true that Jesuits know themselves to be called to a lifelong conversion, one in which there is no place for arrogant self-congratulation, but rather a space for ongoing discernment of where the Holy Spirit may be leading us. I trust that Pope Francis will offer a stellar example of such discernment and openness to change -- an example to his fellow Jesuits, to all Catholics, and indeed to all the world.