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Faith & Values

What does it mean to be a Jesuit today?

Much has been made about Pope Francis being the first Jesuit pope. But relatively few articles explore what it means to be a Jesuit. The press has focused on the public image of the Jesuits, their long and checkered history, their intellectual reputation and their extensive school system.

Cardinal Bergoglio was a surprise choice because relatively few Jesuits are bishops. In fact, Jesuits take a simple vow not to seek or accept ecclesiastical honors. By eschewing church honors, a Jesuit is free not to be calculating his odds of “making bishop.” He is freer to preach, offer spiritual direction and to give retreats, even to bishops.

Obviously, some Jesuits have become bishops, most often in challenging mission lands, such as Micronesia and Alaska. Or if they are black or Hispanic, they are called to broaden the ethnic range of the bishops.

The actual reputation of Jesuits can be something other than humility. In fact, Fr. Joe McShane, S.J., president of Fordham University, quipped shortly after the election of Cardinal Bergoglio: “A humble Jesuit — an oxymoron. A Jesuit pope — an impossibility. A humble Jesuit pope — a miracle!”

Nonetheless, Pope Francis in his early choices has come across as an affable, humble man who has avoided ecclesiastical trappings. He has foregone the papal drapery, brocade and elegant threads in favor of a simple white cassock. He has chosen to live simply at the House of St. Martha along with co-workers rather than in the Renaissance papal apartments.

Jorge Bergoglio entered the Jesuits in 1958 and was ordained in 1969. Hence he made all his theological studies after the Second Vatican Council, which concluded in 1965. So he is the first pope since 1965 who did not participate in the council itself.

But he experienced all the reforms that suddenly happened thereafter: celebration of the Mass in the vernacular rather than Latin, the revitalization of the intellectual life of the church and the formation of priests, a preferential option for the poor, an openness to interfaith and ecumenical dialogue, and an emphasis on the “universal call to holiness,” including the laity, not just priests and religious.

Jesuit life itself was radically transformed from 1965 onward. The Jesuits recovered the original intention of St. Ignatius for the core of Jesuit spirituality in the Spiritual Exercises, the 30-day retreat every Jesuit makes twice in his lifetime and renews each year through an eight-day retreat.

Furthermore, since Vatican II, the Spiritual Exercises are now regularly given and even led by lay men and women. In making the Exercises, one’s personal relationship with God becomes palpably present.

He or she seeks a deep understanding of one’s own personal flaws or sins but also a grasp of one’s own precious self, created in God’s very image, and called to an incredible intimacy with God.

So the new pope, by his Jesuit training, has a keen insight of his strengths and human flaws. He has experienced a profound sense of being a redeemed sinner called to live the gospel of peace and justice. He seeks to make his choices from the side of Christ who reached out to the poor and welcomed them as his friends.

Jesuit spirituality joins the twin goals of contemplation and action. It is world-affirming, finding God in all things. It discovers how God has acted in and through every individual person and through every atom of the vast universe.

Ignatius advises the Jesuit “to seek the best possible interpretation on the thought and insight of the other.” Papa Bergoglio, as he’s known in Italian, seems to do just that.

Perhaps his most revealing act as pope was including two women and two Muslims in the washing of the feet at the prison where he celebrated the Eucharist on Holy Thursday.

Such symbolic action holds much promise for the ongoing reform and renewal of the church.

My prediction on the next pope missed the mark. But I did predict a cardinal from Argentina with Italian origins. It just happened to be the other Argentine cardinal with Italian origins — Leonardo Sandri.

Fr. Patrick Howell S.J. is the rector (religious superior) of the Jesuit Community at Seattle University and professor of pastoral theology. Readers may send feedback to