First Impressions of a “Pope of Firsts” (part 2)

It scarcely seems possible to keep up with all the reporting and analysis on the election of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, as the newest pope — the “pope of firsts,” say many commentators. And in this second post passing along a couple more themes I’ve noticed in what I have managed to read, I find myself well outside my areas of expertise. So today I mostly just want to point readers in the direction of more informed writing:

“The First Pope Named Francis”

By my count from the list at Catholics Online, there are nearly forty men named Francis (or Francisco, Francesco, or François) recognized as saints, plus several others a step short in the process (e.g., Blessed Francis Chakichi, a four-year old beheaded in 1622 during the persecution of Japanese Christians). But there’s not a lot of doubt that the new pontiff took the name of the most famous St. Francis, the Italian monastic from Assisi.

Moroder-Lusenberg, Saint Francis
J.B. Moroder-Lusenberg, “St. Francis” — Creative Commons (Wolfgang Moroder)

What does that betoken? Almost all those taking up that question have emphasized Pope Francis’ modesty, simplicity, and concern for the poor as connecting him to his medieval namesake. A Vatican spokesman intimated as much, explaining Francis’ choice of name by saying simply, “Cardinal Bergoglio had a special place in his heart and his ministry for the poor, for the disenfranchised, for those living on the fringes and facing injustice.” So progressive evangelical Jim Wallis hoped to find this Francis as much an “agent of change” as the 12th century version, first and foremost in care for the poor:

…the church must indeed be transformed to become known, as Francis of Assisi was, as the defender of the poorest and most vulnerable. Biblically speaking, that should be the church’s first and primary reputation. Sadly, the Catholic Church’s hierarchy is not best known for those primary issues today.

Kevin White of Mere Orthodoxy, however, suggested a more evangelistic dimension to the Franciscan renunciation of worldly temptations:

This pattern of humility in many ways was as much a rhetoric as a lifestyle. The official clergy were often criticized for lax living. Most dissenting teachers, especially among the Cathars, attempted to surpass the mainstream church in asceticism and simple living. For many, the self-denial of the dissenters was far more appealing than the pomp of the bishops and abbots. Francis and his followers found, therefore, than living a life of poverty and begging gave them a voice where the church was weakest, and a degree of honor that not even the Pope could overlook.

Given pressures facing the Catholic Church is recent years, Pope Francis probably seeks to claim that legacy of St. Francis. One of the main concepts advanced by popes Benedict XVI and John Paul II has been “new evangelization”: renewal of faith within the church and a renewed mission in the places where the Catholic Church has been marginalized by secularization. Indeed, Pope Francis has been involved with a major “new evangelization” movement known as Communion and Liberation. Pope Francis is also known for rejecting the high-end archbishop’s residence in Buenos Aires in favor of a simple apartment, cooking his own meals, and using public transportation.

St. Francis with Sultan al-Kamil
A 15th century imagining of St. Francis of Assisi’s famous meeting with the Ayyubid sultan al-Kamil – Wikimedia

He often avoids wearing some of the more elaborate vestments that he has the rights to wear. These actions have helped him to earn respect even as he has taken many controversial stances in his home country. (All of which will no doubt be thoroughly aired and dissected in the coming weeks and years.) These aspects of the new pope’s personal history suggest that he claimed his namesake in part because he adopts a similar posture towards and rhetoric of spiritual leadership.

To the themes of poverty/simplicity and desire for Christian renewal, Thomas Reese (writing for National Catholic Reporter) added two more implications to the pope’s apparent choice of Francis of Assisi as namesake: a concern for the environment, and a desire for dialogue with Muslims.

Reese, of course, is the former editor-in-chief of the Jesuit magazine America (removed under pressure from Pope Francis’ predecessor, it’s been widely reported), so it’s not surprising that he still suspected that another St. Francis inspired his fellow member of the Society of Jesus in his choice of papal name:

There is another Francis the new pope is connected to because of his Jesuit roots: St. Francis Xavier. This Francis was known for his missionary zeal. There is much talk in the church about evangelization because of the church’s losses in Europe and the Americas. Xavier was a man who did it. And he died on an island off the coast of China, which today is seen as a field ripe for the harvest.

“The First Jesuit Pope”

Every year since arriving at Bethel, I’ve taught on the Catholic Reformation of the 16th century, giving special emphasis to St. Ignatius Loyola and the founding of the Society of Jesus. I can rattle off a cursory history of Jesuit origins, I try my Protestant best to convey to our largely Protestant students the wonders of The Spiritual Exercises and Ignatian spirituality, and I readily acknowledge that the Jesuits have been among the most vital and innovative evangelists and educators not just within Catholicism, but the whole Christian tradition.

But having a Jesuit elected to the same position to which many take a special vow of obedience has helped me to realize how little I know about an order that is the largest in the Catholic world, was once banned by the papacy under pressure from angry monarchs, and whose schools will no doubt again be well represented when March Madness commences. (They’re also, I discovered during an earlier series on Christian higher education and social class, really, really expensive, but I digress.)

Logo of the Society of JesusProbably the place to start is, the website of the Society of Jesus in the United States, which itself has collected a variety of Jesuit responses. But your next stop should be this post by James Martin (the current editor of America). It’s a helpful insider’s perspective, emphasizing five themes: Ignatian spirituality; the long training and diverse experience of leading Jesuits; that the vow of poverty is not unique to Franciscans; the Jesuit readiness to “do anything at all that is ad majorem Dei gloriam, for the greater glory of God”; and, paradoxically, the order’s historic wariness of “climbing” (within the church hierarchy).

As he did in ruminating on connections with Francis of Assisi (see above), Kevin White saw a desire for church renewal (though not revolution) implicit in the selection of a pope from the same order as Francis Xavier:

The original Jesuit constitutions were also developed with an eye towards church reform and fighting church corruption. Hence the prohibition against ambition for church office, provisions for simplicity of dress and of liturgical practice, and the limitation of opportunities for wealthy would-be patrons. The new pope seems to be that kind of Jesuit. While Pope Francis professes a great care for the poor, he opposed the inroads of Liberation Theology in the 70′s and 80′s. He urged Jesuits under his jurisdiction not to abandon parish work and insisting on a traditional approach to Ignatian spirituality. While his elevation to the papacy is surprising in light of recent tensions between the Jesuits and the Vatican, in a sense he has just been given the ultimate task for a Jesuit fixer: to reform the corruption, cronyism, and bureaucratic inefficiency that has been exposed in the Vatican in recent years.

Rusty Reno of First Thoughts did use the word “revolutionary” to describe Francis, emphasizing the effects of the Jesuits’ traditional combination of contemplation and activism:

The Spiritual Exercises serve as the central and powerful basis for Jesuit formation. This mode of interior union with God’s will can have a tremendous effect, which is why Jesuits really, really believe in what they’re doing. That makes them powerful forces in the Church, for good and for ill. The Church is an incredibly immobile institution, but this fellow may effect some changes.

Others cautioned that the Jesuits are no monolith. In the conclusion to his piece for National Review, conservative writer George Weigel stated that Bergoglio “had been persecuted by his more theologically and politically left-leaning Jesuit brethren after his term as Jesuit provincial in Argentina (they exiled him to northern Argentina, where he taught high-school chemistry until rescued by John Paul II and eventually made archbishop of Buenos Aires).” So Weigel found the “first Jesuit pope” notion complicated, at least by his low opinion of the Society of Jesus today:

Bergoglio is an old-school Jesuit, formed by classic Ignatian spirituality and deeply committed to an intelligent, sophisticated appropriation and proclamation of the full symphony of Catholic truth — qualities not notable for their prevalence among members of the Society of Jesus in the early 21st century. I suspect there were not all that many champagne corks flying last night in those Jesuit residences throughout the world where the Catholic Revolution That Never Was is still regarded as the ecclesiastical holy grail. For the shrewder of the new pope’s Jesuit brothers know full well that that dream was just dealt another severe blow. And they perhaps fear that this pope, knowing the Society of Jesus and its contemporary confusions and corruptions as he does, just might take in hand the reform of the Jesuits that was one of the signal failures of the pontificate of John Paul II.

<<Read the first entry in this series

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