WASHINGTON -- Newly installed Pope Francis is already breaking the mold.
Not only is Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina the first pope from the Americas, he is the first member of the Society of Jesus to reach the pinnacle of the Roman Catholic Church since the order’s founding nearly five centuries ago.
The Jesuits, as they are known, are highly disciplined and highly educated – it typically takes 10 years of study to become ordained – and well known for their role in running institutions of higher learning. These include 28 colleges and universities in the U.S. alone.
But it is also their legendary independence and special connection to the papacy – Jesuits make a vow of obedience directly to the pope – that has set them apart for centuries. And the selection of Pope Francis itself is something of a contradiction.
“This really comes as a surprise,” said the Rev. Michael Sheeran, who assumes the presidency of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities next month. “Part of being a Jesuit is the promise of not seeking higher office.”
The day after the announcement, Jesuits were filled with a mixture of surprise and pride that someone from their ranks will now lead the church.
“My reaction? Shock,” the Rev. Paddy Gilger, editor of the Jesuit Post blog, said in an email. “We Jesuits have never expected there to be a Jesuit pope. In all honesty I think that many of us – myself included – have taken a strange kind of pride at not being ‘real’ candidates for the papacy because we wrongly thought that this made us more humble, or some such thing.”
The Rev. Kevin O’Brien, vice president for mission and ministry at Georgetown University in Washington, a Jesuit-run college, said that the new pope’s roots in the centuries-old Catholic order will define his style.
“He brings a few things, his commitment to poverty and social justice,” he said. “Much will stay the same, but the style and accents will be different.”
Begun in 1540 by a Spaniard, St. Ignatius of Loyola, the Jesuits are the largest Catholic order, with more than 19,000 priests around the world. They are also influential through their educational institutions, with currently more than 200,000 students in high schools, colleges and universities in the U.S.
Rationality and intellect are prized
“There is a long tradition, going back to St. Ignatius, to defend the pope and looking squarely at new issues that come along,” said Sheeran. “That sometimes makes Jesuits look more liberal to folks who are more traditional.”
But Pope Francis, famous for living in a small apartment in Buenos Aires when he was archbishop, riding public transit and cooking for himself, and even washing the feet of people diagnosed with HIV, also adheres to a very strict theological foundation that made him denounce Argentine efforts to legalize gay marriage.
“At stake is the identity and survival of the family: father, mother and children,” he said in 2010. “At stake are the lives of many children who will be discriminated against in advance, and deprived of their human development given by a father and a mother and willed by God. At stake is the total rejection of God’s law engraved in our hearts.”
To much of the world getting to know the new pope, it may signal a lack of a new openness.
“He’s something of a paradox,” said Sheeran.
But his choice has excited Catholics the world over, particularly his Jesuit brethren.
“They’re once again the avant garde of global Catholicism,” said Jose Casanova, professor at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs at Georgetown.