For the nation’s oldest Catholic university, the arrival of a new pope is always a big deal.
But for Georgetown University, the election of Pope Francis on Wednesday marked a singular moment. The Jesuit institution of higher learning in Northwest Washington contemplated the first time a Jesuit prelate had risen to become the Bishop of Rome.
On campus some marveled at the occasion but also pondered what it would mean for Jesuits and for the Roman Catholic Church in America.
“I’m sure there’s great rejoicing among the Jesuits,” said Chester Gillis, a theologian who is dean of Georgetown College. “But I’m not sure even they know what it means to have a pope from their own community.”
Gillis noted that the Society of Jesus, founded in the 16th Century, is known for its devotion to intellectual pursuits, education and missionary work with the world’s poor.
Jesuits, Gillis said, “are ‘contemplative in action,’ as they say. There’s a deep spirituality but it’s not hidden from the world. They’re actually anxious to engage in the world.”
Gillis said he was somewhat surprised that the cardinals chose their Argentine peer. But the arrival of Francis to the papacy should benefit Jesuit educators, he said. “I’m sure that Georgetown is known to him,” Gillis said. “Clearly we have someone who knows who we are and can support our mission I hope.”
The Rev. David Collins, a Georgetown history professor, is a Jesuit priest and scholar of medieval Europe. He estimated there are about 50 Jesuits at the campus.
Collins noted that Jesuit training puts heavy emphasis on humanities and philosophy.
“There are three things a pope has to be—a manager, a pastor, and a teacher,” Collins said. “What we really want is someone who does those three roles well.”
Asked how Pope Francis might influence the Catholic church in America, Collins said it was hard to predict.
“What does it mean to be in the United States with a Latin American pope?” Collins wondered. “His being a Latin American could be more important than his being a Jesuit, for the church here.” He noted that Latinos are obviously a huge and growing force in America and in the church.
But he added that the new pope faces a huge issue that his predecessors also confronted: ongoing concerns over a sex abuse scandal that has rocked the church in recent years.
“The obvious challenge is how does the hierarchy regain a credible voice in evangelizing U.S. society and culture in light of a sex abuse crisis that will not go away?”
Georgetown was founded in 1789 by the nation’s first Catholic bishop, a Jesuit prelate named John Carroll, who is memorialized in a statue on campus in front of Healy Hall. Some students gathered there Wednesday to celebrate after the appearance of the new pope. Kevin Sullivan, 21, who was holding a Vatican flag, said it was a significant moment for Georgetown.
“The fact that we have a new Jesuit pope means we’re going to embrace our Jesuit and Catholic identity even more,” said Sullivan, a junior from Morristown, N.J. He said he hopes Francis brings a revival of tradition to the church.
“People are hungry for spirituality,” Sullivan said. “The church needs to reimagine itself.” The church should do that not by changing its doctrines, he said, but through “social justice, serving the poor, bringing that to the forefront.”