Several representatives from Creighton University, one of 28 Jesuit universities in the United States, say the new pope's Jesuit background could signal how he might serve as the leader of the Roman Catholic Church.
News accounts described Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, 76, of Buenos Aires as a humble man who lived in a spare apartment instead of an ornate church mansion. He preferred to sit in the back row when bishops met. He's said to consider social outreach, rather than doctrinal battles, to be the essential business of the church.
Though Jesuits in Omaha emphasize that they're only speculating, they said his humility and the fact that he has been an archbishop and now pope as a member of the Society of Jesus are clues to how he may shape the worldwide church. Generally, Jesuits don't hold positions in the church hierarchy.
“I wouldn't be surprised if themes from the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola (the 16th century founder of the Society of Jesus) are part of his theology and teaching,” said the Rev. Roc O'Connor, rector of the Jesuit community at Creighton.
Some of the characteristics of Ignatian spirituality include prayer, reflection and a life of service and humility.
“Taking the bus, living by himself, cooking for himself — it appears he's forsaking the trappings, as it were, of ecclesiastical life. But we're guessing at this,” O'Connor said.
Jesuits don't actively seek church office, though they can serve if they are chosen. The fact that he was singled out indicates that Bergoglio is considered an exceptional man.
“Never in a million years would he have imagined he would be a bishop, a monsignor, or a cardinal, much less a pope,” said the Rev. Richard Hauser, a theology professor and a member of Creighton's Jesuit community. “If you have those types of ambitions, you don't join the Jesuits.”
Eileen Burke-Sullivan, an associate professor of theology, said the pope had many qualities that explained his selection.
“He must have great gifts,” said Burke-Sullivan, who holds the Barbara Reardon Heaney Chair in Pastoral Liturgical Theology at Creighton. “I think the recognition would be for his great holiness, his great spirituality and his ability to guide people to a greater commitment to life in Jesus.”
Burke-Sullivan and others said Bergoglio's selection of the name “Francis” is significant.
It could be after St. Francis of Assisi, best known for his life of simplicity and attention to the natural world. He founded the Franciscan order, whose members take a vow of poverty.
Or “Francis” could refer to St. Francis Xavier, one of the founding Jesuits. The name also could honor a family member or a role model in his priesthood.
“I suspect he has deep and abiding devotion to the Francis saints,” Burke-Sullivan said. “I think you can take a number of symbolic signals from it.”
A reference to St. Francis of Assisi could indicate that the new pope will be attentive to the environment and those living in poverty, she said. A reference to St. Francis Xavier could mean he intends to emphasize evangelism.
Some speculate that he may call on Jesuits for additional service around the world.
Hauser said Bergoglio's selection would challenge the Jesuits' reputation as an order of academic theologians who often question church teachings.
It demonstrates the central role Jesuits play in serving the church, he said, and it may attract more young Catholics to a Jesuit vocation.
“Now we have a pope who, as a Jesuit, is fully aligned with the Vatican,” he said. “What a wonderful sign of the loyalty Jesuits have for the church.”
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Who was St. Francis of Assisi?
Francis, whose name the new pope has chosen, is a much-beloved Italian saint who is identified with peace, poverty, animals and a simple lifestyle.
No previous pope has adopted the name of the rich, spoiled young man from Assisi who renounced wealth and founded an order of friars, the Franciscans, in 1290.
Francis wrote that “I lived in sin” as a youth, partying, making money as a cloth merchant and dreaming of becoming a knight.
While on his way to join the Crusades, he had a dream in which God told him to return home in penitence. At the ruins of an ancient church, he had a conversion, hearing Christ tell him, “Francis, repair my church.” He renounced his family wealth, even stripping off his expensive clothes in public, and went to live in the woods in rags.
He rebuilt the ruined church and started to preach, though he was never a priest. He never wanted to found a religious order but began attracting followers who wanted to live as simply as he.
He is said to have once preached to hundreds of rapt birds about being thankful to God for their wonderful clothes and their independence.
Known for his humility, his spontaneity and his direct action, Francis grew ill and blind from his years of poverty and wandering. He responded to this by writing his famous “Canticle of the Sun,” a song of praise expressing brotherhood with all God's creation. He died at age 45 and is considered the patron saint of animals, ecologists and merchants. — Catholic.org
Did you know?
Most common papal name: John — 21 (though John XXIII was most recent, John XVI was proclaimed an antipope and John XX never existed)
Three popes' names start with Z: Zachary, Zephyrinus, Zosimus
Oldest pope (at death): Leo XIII, 93 years, 140 days (Born March 2, 1810; died July 20, 1903)
Longest reign: Pius IX, 31 years, 7 months, 23 days (elected June 16, 1846; died Feb. 7, 1878)
Shortest reign: Urban VII, 13 days (elected Sept. 15, 1590; died Sept. 27, 1590) (*Stephen II served an even shorter reign of four days in March 752, but he died before his consecration)