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Faith & Values

The election of Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as pope was greeted with great joy by Catholics throughout the world.

The new pope already has several “firsts”: the first to take the name Francis, the first Jesuit and the first ever from the Americas.

All this became possible because of another first when Pope Benedict XVI suddenly announced he would resign because of infirmity and the demands of the office. (The first since 1415).

By taking the name of St. Francis of Assisi, the new pope signals a simple lifestyle. As a young man Francis of Assisi renounced his inheritance and strove to live more exactly the life of Jesus. Likewise, Cardinal Bergoglio gave up the cardinal’s mansion in Buenos Aires for a simple apartment, did his own cooking and used public transportation.

Most of all, he has been noted for his passionate defense of the poor. Even as archbishop, he was known among the people simply as “Padre Jorge.”

In addition, the name Francis augurs a profound renewal of the Church. While praying one day, Francis of Assisi sensed a divine command, “Francis, go and rebuild my church, which you can see has fallen into ruin.” Eventually, the popular preaching of Francis and his followers and their exemplary poverty gave new life to the church in the 13th century.

Yet another first is that the new pope is a Jesuit. It’s highly unusual for a Jesuit to be a bishop except in missionary countries or extraordinary circumstances. In fact, the Jesuit founder St. Ignatius wanted Jesuits to avoid ecclesiastical honors or any hint of power or prestige so that the Jesuits could more freely preach, teach and give retreats.

The new pope entered the Jesuits in 1958. In 1973, during a highly tumultuous time politically, he was made provincial of the Argentine Jesuit province. Three army coups occurred in those years, and an oppressive military regime took over.

During this same period, the Catholic Church proclaimed a “preferential option for the poor,” that somehow God sided with the poor in their daily struggles against oppressive structures. Similarly, the Jesuits at a General Congregation in 1974-75 sharpened their apostolic mission by saying “the service of faith must include the promotion of justice.” In a word, faith was not credible without justice.

As provincial, Father Bergoglio participated in this decision. All these events help to account for his exemplary simplicity and for his own “preferential option for the poor.” They also suggest that he could dispense with a lot of the royal trappings of the Vatican and preach a Gospel of simplicity, service and social justice.

As a Jesuit, the new pope has regularly made the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, a series of contemplative exercises fostering a personal encounter with Christ. Out of this spiritual foundation flows a capacity to be one with the heart of Christ, who welcomed the outcast and marginalized. All this helps to explain Pope Francis’ strong commitment to social justice.

Already the new papal style is one of greater simplicity. After his appearance on the balcony of St. Peter’s, the new pope returned to his hotel, paid his bill and picked up his luggage. Later he called for a meeting of the cardinals in Rome and told them to wear a simple black cassock rather than the traditional, fancy crimson one with a lace surplice.

It’s well known that Cardinal Bergoglio was the “runner-up” in the election of Cardinal Ratzinger eight years ago. Afterward, Bergoglio reportedly said, “I’m relieved to be going home. I would die in the [Vatican] Curia. I need to be with the people who give me life.”

The new pope may have found a way for the people to continue to “give him life,” but now as their genial, openhearted Bishop of Rome.

Fr. Patrick Howell, SJ, is the rector (religious superior) of the Jesuit Community at Seattle University and professor of pastoral theology. Readers may send feedback to faithcolumns@seattletimes.com