Pope Francis has many firsts to his name — first pope from the Americas, first pope to take the name Francis and the first Jesuit to command the Catholic Church’s highest office. In some ways, it’s that last “first” that is the most shocking.
So, who are Jesuits? And why is it surprising that one would end up as the head of the Catholic Church?
Jesuits are an order of priests, brothers and novices (priests in training) who follow the spirituality of St. Ignatius of Loyola, a 16th century Spanish warrior-turned-priest. Collectively known as “the Society of Jesus,” Jesuits are famous for their intensive educations (it takes around 10 years to progress from entering the order to taking final vows as a priest), contemplative spirituality and variety of vocations.
One way in which Pope Francis’s election is noteworthy is that St. Ignatius told his followers to not seek high clerical office in the church. Indeed, writes the Rev. Jim Martin in his book “The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life,” “Jesuits make a promise not to ‘ambition’ for high office even within their own order. In this way, Ignatius not only tried to prevent careerism among the Jesuits, but also spoke a word of prophecy to the clerical culture rampant in the Catholic Church of his time.” Sound familiar?
But Pope Francis’s election isn’t just remarkable given Ignatius’s warnings; throughout their history, the Jesuits have found themselves in papal hot water — from suppression of the society under Pope Clement XIII applied “for multiple political reasons” to John Paul II’s 1981 rebuke of the order for its members’ left-leaning activism, particularly in Latin America.
Still, for many in the United States, the Jesuit order evokes positive connotations. Here, the Jesuits are best known for the 28 colleges and universities they run, including Georgetown, Boston College and Gonzaga. They are thought of as the bearers of the rich intellectual tradition of the church, the Catholic elites who can often sound more like open-minded philosophers than enforcers of dogma (much to the consternation of conservative Catholic watchdogs.)
Americans love the “openness” of the Jesuits, says the Rev. Gregory Lucey, president of the Association of Jesuit Colleges & Universities, which represents 28 schools: “Normally if you ask the Jesuit a question you get an honest answer. You’re going to get an openness if you present an opinion or a thought to him, [there’s a high] likelihood of him engaging you in an open conversation.” But in Pope Francis’s case, “openness” doesn’t translate to “liberal-ness”; thus far, from his criticism of capitalism to his denouncement of gay marriage, there is little to indicate that he falls into neat left-right political categories. His Jesuit “openness” may simply be that he is an equal-opportunity critiquer.
For Jesuits, much of that openness is rooted in the spiritual practice developed by St. Ignatius — the Spiritual Exercises. Intended as a four-week meditative journey but also adapted for everyday life, the approach is a “series of prayer exercises, thought experiments, and examinations of consciousness—designed to help a retreatant (usually with the aid of a spiritual director) to experience a deeper conversion into life with God in Christ.” At the spirituality’s core is extended silence, meant to make room for God in a crowded mental space. And anyone who has ever done a silent retreat knows that keeping quiet and listening to that small, still voice is not for the faint of heart. (Check out the Spiritual Exercises here.)
But Ignatian spirituality isn’t relegated to the realm of retreat: Jesuits (as well as those who embrace their spirituality) undertake a daily examination of conscience, walking the examiner through his day, reflecting on the sin and grace that crept in, and determining ways to move closer to God through one’s future thoughts and behaviors. Catholics saw a glimpse of the way that this Ignatian spirituality of daily contemplation may have shaped Pope Francis’s life when he paused in silence during his first address Wednesday:
“’I want you to bless me,’ Francis said in his first appearance from the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, asking the faithful to bow their heads in silent prayer.”
Jesuits also talk about “finding God in all things” — including in their striving for social justice. That’s why you’ll also find members of the Society of Jesus in places other than college campuses: from working with refugees in Syria to serving as medical doctors. The Rev. Myles N. Sheehan, who practices medicine in Chicago, said in a Jesuit publication that members of the order “go all-out for the lord and the church, using the gifts that are given to us.”
And the gift now for Pope Francis? The world.