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ROME — Men who join the Jesuits, the Roman Catholic Church’s largest religious order, take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and promise never to take any high office in the church.

So while other priests were climbing the ladder of the church’s hierarchy, the Jesuits directed their energies into spreading the Catholic faith in new frontiers. They have planted the church in places such as India, Japan, Canada and Latin America. They work with the poor in shantytowns and AIDS clinics. They publish magazines, paint, write music and stage plays.

What Jesuits are perhaps best known for is running academically rigorous schools and universities around the world, including such U.S. schools as Georgetown University, Seattle University, Boston College, Gonzaga University, Fordham and the various Loyolas. Secular professions are filled with high achievers educated at Jesuit institutions.

For the first time in the church’s history, a Jesuit has been elected pontiff. Pope Francis, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, an Argentine of Italian origin, has set a new tone for the papacy. He is the first to take the name Francis, in homage to Francis of Assisi, who abandoned comfort to join beggars. In keeping with the Jesuit ideal to live simply, Francis in his first days as pope dressed in a plain white cassock. He opted to ride in a minibus with his fellow cardinals rather than a private Vatican car. And Saturday, he suggested a humble course for the church as a whole.

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“How I would like a poor church,” he said, one that is “for the poor.”

Contrasting leadership

Given the Jesuits’ watchword to find God “in all things,” some are hoping the leadership of a Jesuit pope will allow the church to engage more openly and fearlessly with the world, to project the church’s message in new ways and to emphasize service to, and solidarity with, the poor. With an outsider now at the helm, they hope Francis will be able to shake up the culture of the Vatican.

If so, his papacy could become a contrast to that of his predecessor, Benedict XVI, a quiet German scholar and former doctrinal enforcer for the church, who at times seemed to accept the prospect of a church dwindling in the future to a faithful remnant of the most devout, hunkered down in the catacombs. Benedict became the first pope in 600 years to resign when he stepped down last month.

It is too early to tell what is at the top of the agenda for Francis, 76. The church is struggling in Europe and some parts of Latin America. He is assuming control of a Vatican that has been racked in recent years by missteps and scandals that peaked when the personal papers of Benedict were stolen by his butler and published in an affair known as VatiLeaks.

The Rev. James Martin, an editor at the Jesuit magazine America based in New York City and author of “The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything,” said: “They wanted someone who can make the tough decisions, and the fact that he is a member of a religious order may have given him a certain aura of independence.”

Throughout its history, the church when in need of reform has turned to religious orders for popes, though never before a Jesuit.

Religious conversion

The Society of Jesus, as the order is called, was founded in the 16th century by Ignatius of Loyola, a Spanish knight who experienced a religious conversion while recovering from the wounds of battle. There are about 17,000 Jesuits around the world, and while their ranks are declining in Europe and the United States, they are growing in places such as Vietnam, India and Latin America.

The Jesuits are distinguished by their vow to obey the pope and to serve where he commands. The Rev. Antonio Spadaro, editor of La Civilta Cattolica, a Jesuit journal in Rome, said in an interview that before the papal conclave, journalists were asking him whether Bergoglio could be pope.

“And I said, ‘Not at all, because he’s a Jesuit,’” Spadaro said Friday. “We are used to serve the pope, not to be the pope.”

The Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Jesuit who serves as the Vatican spokesman, said that when he saw Bergoglio emerge on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica as the new pope, “I was dumbfounded.”

The selection has thrilled many Jesuits, but dismayed others. Shaped by their experiences with the poor and powerless, many Jesuits lean liberal, politically and theologically, and are more concerned with social and economic justice than with matters of doctrinal purity. Jesuits were in the forefront of the movement known as liberation theology, which encouraged the oppressed to unite along class lines and seek change.

However, Francis, when he was head of the Jesuits in Argentina in the 1970s, was opposed to liberation theology, seeing it as too influenced by Marxist politics. The future pope came down hard on Jesuits in his province who were liberation-theology proponents, according to those who study the order and some members who did not want to be identified because he is now pope.

He was made a bishop and a cardinal by John Paul II. Jesuits may become bishops, but must have the approval of their superior, because the founder of the Jesuits, Ignatius, lamented the clerical careerism of his age.

Jesuits are aware their first pope will bring new attention and scrutiny to their order, and while they are excited, they are also wary. “It’s a good chance for us to help people to understand better our spirituality,” Spadaro said. “But we like to do our job, not to be under the lights. So we’ll just see.”

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