Pope Francis: The first Jesuit Pope in History

The election of Pope Francis as Pontiff has from the start turned out to be a very unusual event, and this is not only because his predecessor Benedict XIV is not only still alive, but also resides closely in the Vatican. But having two Popes is not the only singularity, because Francis is also the first Pope to be a member of the Society of Jesus, the first from the Americas, the first from the Southern Hemisphere, and the first Pope outside of Europe since Gregory III (a Syrian who reigned in the 8th century).

From the beginning, it has not been kept secret that the two Popes disagree on many issues concerning the Catholic Church, and this has led to a concrete split within the organization: conservative cardinals and priests on the side of Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger, and progressives who lean towards the more tolerant and inclusive views of Jorge Mario Bergoglio.

Jesuits: The Jesus Society

Among all the records of this pontificate certainly the most unusual for those who “masters” religions is the fact that the Pope is a Jesuit. In fact, this order was founded by Ignatius of Loyola, a nobleman who had a past as a great man of arms. Consequently, the opening lines of the founding document state that the society was founded for “anyone who desires to serve GOD as a soldier, to engage especially in the defense and propagation of the faith, and for the advancement of souls in Christian life and doctrine.” The Jesuits have therefore always been in history the soldiers and servants of the popes, and now instead one of these “servants” seems to have managed to climb the very steep hierarchical ladder of the Vatican.

Jesuits are also required by oath not to seek higher office in the Roman Catholic Church, but now one of their own has been elected to the highest office: Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Christ and Pontifex Maximus.
The first Jesuit to become pope not only represents a paradox for the papacy, but also for the glorious history of the Society of Jesus, and how they are formally known.

“Jesuits on the one hand are not supposed to be put in positions of authority,” said Reverend Joseph Fessio, a Jesuit and founder of Ignatius Press, “On the other hand, they are supposed to be obedient to the Church.”

Jesuits have played a key role in the history of the church, and for centuries, have been its main missionaries, founding the most prestigious universities and engaged in charitable works. St. Ignatius the Spanish soldier, founded the order in 1540 after being wounded in battle and having a religious conversion during his convalescence. The Jesuits are sometimes known as “GOD’S marines,” after Loyola’s military history, and their missions around the world. With 18,000 members today they are the largest religious order in the church, but the Jesuits in the past have had a complicated history with the institutional church and hierarchy in Rome, and with the first Jesuit pope, things only seem to have gotten more complicated.

With their emphasis on mission work and intellectual pursuits, Jesuits often work on the fringes of the church, sometimes overstepping the boundaries established by Rome, and this is a point of pride among some Jesuits, challenging authority. The leftist liberation theology movement that swept through Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s, including Francis’ Argentina, led by Jesuits from 1973 to 1979 is just one example. Bergoglio opposed it, but many of his priests openly supported it.

In the U.S., the New York-based Jesuit America magazine often challenges the hierarchy, so much so that one of Pope Benedict XVI’s first acts after his election was to order the removal of the Rev. Thomas Reese as editor.

[perfectpullquote align=”left” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”#4476a5″ class=”” size=””]”We’ve never had a Jesuit pope, so I think we’re all trying to figure out how that works, and it’s been a complete surprise to everyone: surprise to the Jesuits, surprise to the media, probably a surprise to Pope Francis. This is something we’ll sort out as time goes on.”
(Thomas Reese)[/perfectpullquote]

The Jesuits have also been accused of exerting too much influence over religious people and institutions, a concern that led Pope Clement XIV to suppress the order in 1700. The Superior General of the Jesuits is informally known as “the Black Pope” because of the power the position has held in the past. In the early 1980s, when the Jesuit Superior General suffered a stroke, Pope John Paul II intervened by placing his own appointee, rather than allowing the Jesuits to elect their own leader. “It was his right as pope, but it still discouraged many Jesuits at the time,” said the Rev. James Martin, an editor in America and author of “The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything.” “With a Jesuit pope, that cloud has been, if not removed, lifted much higher.”

Patrick Hornbeck, a professor of theology at Jesuit-run Fordham University in New York, said Jesuits are used to tensions. “Jesuits are on the frontiers and in the heart of the Catholic Church,” he said. “And when you do work on the margins, there’s going to be some natural friction with what’s happening in the center.”
Normally, if a Jesuit is appointed bishop, he must first seek permission from his Jesuit superiors before he can accept the position, so wondering what happened when a Jesuit was chosen to become pope remains a mystery to many.

“Most people think that when the College of Cardinals comes and asks you to take a job, that’s the voice of GOD telling you that this is your new mission in life,” Reese said. “It’s pretty hard to say no to that.” Collins said he hopes the new pope will bring some of his Jesuit background and tradition during his papacy. “Jesuits work hard to cultivate spiritual depth and pragmatism. We got a taste of some of that in (Bergoglio’s) time as bishop. He has a vision of simplicity and connection to the poor and marginalized,” Collins said. “I hope another part of what shapes his papacy is this pragmatic and pragmatic attitude.”


During his successor’s early years as pope, Benedict XIV did, in fact, step back from the spotlight, favoring a life of prayer and contemplation in the newly renovated convent he now occupied within the Vatican. Yet his existence encouraged conservative voices within the Church, who saw Francis’ liberalism as detrimental to the Church, particularly in relation to his views on divorce, relationship with homosexuals and clerical sexual abuse.

But there has been plenty of tension between the two popes, and relations have always been minimal and strained. The Vatican has always tried to appeal to unity, and in a rare interview given in the months following the public breakup (marked by a 6,000-word letter in which the position of discord is clear) Benedict told the Italian magazine Corriere Della Sera that there is currently only one pope, Francis. And while he did not directly address the reported disagreement between him and his successor, Benedict made it clear that no matter what happens now or in the future, the Catholic Church will endure.

“The unity of the Church has always been in danger, for centuries. It has been throughout its history. Wars, internal conflicts, centrifugal forces, threats of schism…. In the end, the awareness that the Church is and must remain united has always prevailed. Her unity has always been stronger than internal struggles and wars.”


Thus the “Pope in second” seeks to silence all those voices that see how this double pontificate full of anomalies represents the demise of the Catholic Church of Rome.


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