THIS ITEM WAS FORWARDED TO ME BY REV. FR. FRACISCO ALBANO, OSB, FROM THE DIOCESE OF ILAGAN, IN THE NORTHERN PHILIPPINE PROVINCE OF ISABELA.
The story of the outsider Pope.
By Peter Stanford
Pope Francis is not the sort of churchman given to writing weighty tomes. In his 76 years, he has produced just one book. Indeed, his practical bent may have been one of the reasons the cardinals chose him as successor to the bookish Benedict XVI.
In his years as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio is said to have turned down almost every media request for interviews, but he did allow himself time in 2010 to engage in a series of “conversations” about his life and work with journalists Sergio Rubin and Francesca Ambrogetti. These were subsequently collected in a book, called simply El Jesuita. The title is important to understanding how the new pope defines himself. Of all the many breaks with tradition that the election of Pope Francis represents, the fact that he is the first Jesuit ever to sit on Saint Peter’s throne gives the best indication of how this pontificate is likely to develop.
For all their power and prestige, the Jesuits have a curious, checkered reputation — admired and envied by some as the creme de la crème of the Catholic religious orders, but loathed and feared by others, who use “Jesuitical” as a term of abuse to refer to anything clever and cunning.
Their foundation by Ignatius Loyola in 1540 is usually seen as a key moment in the Counter-Reformation, the Catholic fight-back after Martin Luther’s break with Rome that means we still have a papacy five centuries later. The quasi-military tone of some of Loyola’s directives to his followers, set out in his Spiritual Exercises, has caused Jesuits to be dubbed “papal stormtroopers”, “God’s marines” or, in the words of one church historian, “new athletes to combat God’s enemies.”
While it is true that Jesuits have played a major role in extending the authority of the papacy around the world, to paint them as the pope’s unwavering palace guard is a mistake. Indeed, the relationship between the Society of Jesus — to give the Jesuits their proper name — and the papacy has often been troubled. So troubled that they were suppressed by papal decree between 1773 and 1814. And then, in 1981, Pope John Paul II imposed his own man, Paolo Dezza, to lead the Society when its popular reforming Superior-General, Pedro Arrupe, was felled by a stroke. Such interference in the Jesuits’ structures was deeply resented.
What lies at the heart of such tensions is the Jesuit tendency to combine loyalty with independence of mind. Father Arrupe, for example, had enthusiastically embraced liberation theology — the “preferential option for the poor” widely adopted by the Latin American church in the 1970s — but back in Rome John Paul and his enforcer, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, regarded this approach with enormous suspicion, seeing it as tainted with Marxism. Parachuting in Father Dezza was just one part of a campaign to show the Jesuits who was in charge.
This unhappy episode is so recent that it makes Pope Francis’s election all the more remarkable. The Jesuits have often appeared to operate as a church within a church, and, occasionally, as an intellectually arrogant one at that. In Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises, still popular to this day, they have their own manual, to supplement the gospels. Like all other religious orders, they operate outside the formal diocesan structures that otherwise bind the 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide to the Vatican, but the Jesuits are distinctive in having a flexible devolved model that allows them to respond to regional differences and circumstances. That is the antithesis of the papacy’s claim to govern all Catholics, wherever they are, by the same rules.
And then the Jesuits also have the temerity to refer (admittedly colloquially) to their leader, chosen by a democratic vote of all members, as “the black pope.” It is a description that contrasts their traditional simple black cassock with the pope’s white robes.
Jesuits, then, are both at the very heart of the system and one step removed from it. That independence may have helped Cardinal Bergoglio stand out in the Sistine Chapel. He was, after all, the only Jesuit there. If you need a new broom to sort out warring bureaucrats in the curia (as most recently revealed by the so-called “Vatileaks” scandal), who better than someone from the insider/outsider Society of Jesus? If you need someone sufficiently removed from the fray to take a long, hard look at where the Church has been getting it wrong of late (notably over the pedophile priests scandal), who better than a member of a religious order famed for its cool intelligence and clear-sightedness?
Well yes, but there is another pitfall in such analysis. It shouldn’t be assumed that all those with the letters SJ (Society of Jesus) after their name are cut from the same cloth. What is striking about Loyola’s legacy — which the 20,000 Jesuits globally gather periodically in General Congregation to consider — is that it can be interpreted in almost as many ways as there are vibrant individuals who subscribe to it. It has been a weather vane for developments in the wider church.
The Jesuits have often appeared to operate as a church within a church, and, occasionally, as an intellectually arrogant one at that
In broad terms, Loyola began by launching a reform movement in Europe in the wake of the Reformation that harassed heretics. Then he evolved into inspiring a missionary enterprise around the world, following in the footsteps of another Jesuit luminary, Francis Xavier, who travelled to India and Japan, and whose memory is as celebrated in Cardinal Bergoglio’s choice of papal name as Francis of Assisi.
Where that global mission was originally in league with the colonial powers, the Jesuits thereafter “went native.” Pope Francis’s mission in the slums of Buenos Aires, travelling on buses, washing the feet of lepers, and eschewing all other symbols of power and authority, is just the latest interpretation of Loyola’s imperative to live out the faith with vigour.
If you then move on to considering noted recent Jesuits, the Society of Jesus is so wide-ranging that the North American province was capable of including Daniel Berrigan, the U.S. peace activist jailed in 1970 for burning Vietnam draft cards; John McLaughlin, known as “Nixon’s priest” for his work as an apologist for the Republican president; and Robert Drinan, who sat as a Democrat member of the House of Representatives.
That same plurality can be seen today in the 200 members of the British province. It manages collectively to reconcile custodianship of London’s smartest Catholic parish church (Farm Street in Mayfair, beloved of celebrity weddings and high-profile conversions), trusteeship of Stonyhurst boarding school, involvement in such radical groups as Jesuit Refugee Action, and one member who works as a doctor with homeless people.
So what is it that binds them all together — beyond history and reading the Spiritual Exercises? At its simplest, a radical social conscience that is bigger than either left or right in politics, or traditional and liberal labels in Catholicism, combined with unyielding moral postures. Pope Francis will not be setting about dismantling the Church’s teaching on sexuality — that is not the Jesuit way. He will uphold the ideals, but concentrate on dealing with the realities of life.
There can be no doubting that Jorge Mario Bergoglio is steeped in Jesuit spirituality. He joined the Society at the age of 21. His background as a chemist is shared with many other Jesuits, who are bright enough to balance what are often seen as the poles of religion and science. The future pope’s training stretched over 11 years before his ordination as a priest — compared to the standard six for diocesan vocations — after which he taught theology at the Jesuit faculty in San Miguel, and later served as rector there. In between, he spent seven tough years as Jesuit Provincial — the senior Jesuit — in Argentina.
These were unhappy times — for him, the Society and Argentina at large. He carried out a root-and-branch reform of its activities, which may count in the eyes of the cardinal-electors as good preparation for the challenge he now faces with the Vatican curia, but which still sticks in the throat of many of his fellow Jesuits in the province.
His leadership coincided with the reign of terror of the military junta and its flagrant abuse of human rights. Accusations were made subsequently that as provincial, Pope Francis was not as outspoken as he could have been in condemning the “disappearances” of the regime’s critics, and that he failed adequately to defend two Jesuit priests arrested and tortured by the junta.
In El Jesuita, he vehemently rejects all these charges, but there is a lingering sense that there may have been a period of estrangement between the former provincial and his fellow Jesuits once he stood down. Indeed, on the website of the archdiocese of Buenos Aires — to which he was appointed an assistant bishop in 1992, and head in 1998 — there was for many years no mention at all that he was even a Jesuit, or of his past role as provincial. Some reports say that he was closer for a time to Communion and Liberation — best known as a European lay movement, most influential in Italy, where its enthusiastic backing of social action was later tainted by being associated with right-wing politicians, including Silvio Berlusconi.
Whatever the truth of such rumours, his record as archbishop — “Father Jorge”, to the poor, marginalized and dispossessed whose cause he promoted tirelessly — was Jesuitical in the best sense of the world. His notion of Christian liberation is not simply about being free from sin, but also from poverty and injustice. Such sentiments are rooted broadly in Catholic social teaching, but it is the unique mixture of contemplation and activity that is the hallmark of the Spiritual Exercises, and which now appears set to define the reign of Pope Francis SJ.
Photo by Guardian Co., UK