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The First Jesuit Pope: The Contribution of His Jesuit Charism to His Political Views

Part of the Palgrave Studies in Religion, Politics, and Policy book series (PSRPP)


As the first Jesuit Pope, Francis occupies a singular place in history. The Jesuit order is the only order that takes an oath of obedience directly to the Vicar of Christ, so as the first Jesuit Pope, he technically reports to himself—making him the Jesuit with the most power in the over 500-year history of the order. This chapter will discuss “the Jesuit angle” of the new pope, which implies (1) the “so what” question, of what difference it makes to Francis’s papacy, (2) the larger “identity” question (or how Jesuits understand the meaning of Catholicism, and what implications that holds for the church under a Jesuit pope), and (3) the “timing” question, which implies both the past (why did it take so long for a Jesuit to become pope?) and the present (the larger implications of his Jesuit identity, as well as the distinctiveness of his Jesuit vision for political positions).

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  1. 1.

    See for example, “A Good Catholic Meddles in Politics,” Vatican Insider, September 16, 2013, Bergoglio had been using this aphorism for at least a decade, dating to his leadership of the archdiocese of Buenos Aires during some fierce church-state controversies in Argentina .

  2. 2.

    Evangelii Gaudium, paragraph 205.

  3. 3.

    See especially Austen Ivereigh, The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2014); Paul Vallely, Pope Francis: The Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism (London: Bloomsbury, 2015).

  4. 4.

    Perhaps the most obvious candidate for such an action might be the canonization of Peter Faber (1506–1546), a sixteenth-century Jesuit who was the very first companion of Jesuit founder Saint Ignatius Loyola and who remains a favorite of Jesuits around the world, including Bergoglio , who has often cited Faber’s “prayer for detachment.” Pope Pius IX beatified him in 1872, but the cause for Blessed Peter Faber’s canonization languished for 140 years, lacking evidence of sufficient miracles attributed to his intervention. Pope Francis dispensed with this requirement and announced his canonization as a saint December 17, 2013. On many other matters, Pope Francis has seemingly deliberately restrained from demonstrating any partiality by bestowing special favors on the Society of Jesus during his papacy.

  5. 5.

    Gustavo Gutiérrez, We Drink from Our Own Wells: The Spiritual Journey of a People (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1984). The epitaph from Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (which provides the volume’s title) appears on p. vii.

  6. 6.

    Chris Lowney, the author of one of the very first full-length volumes about the leadership of Francis to appear in English after his papal election, makes occasional use of this metaphor of fingerprints. See Lowney, Pope Francis: Why He Leads the Way He Leads: Lessons from the First Jesuit Pope (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2013). For example, on page 67, Lowney claims that “Pope Francis’s commitment to immersion in the world … bears the fingerprints of his Jesuit formation, specifically the worldview he imbibed from Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises.”

  7. 7.

    At the time of the election of Francis, some observers wondered aloud why it had taken over 450 years of Jesuit history for the order to supply a pope to the universal Church. The inquiry is easily answered upon examination of the content of the vows that Jesuits take upon solemn profession. Jesuit founder Ignatius of Loyola was so convinced of the necessity of binding members of the Society of Jesus to the intention never to ambition to high ecclesiastical office that he included in the Jesuit Constitutions a solemn vow never to actively seek (or even accept if offered, at least initially) positions such as bishop and pope. The rare Jesuit who does become a bishop or cardinal represents an exception to this rule, justified by especially pressing needs of the church, and only after a process that includes an initial attempt to decline the nomination before being prevailed upon by ecclesiastical authorities, and of course always with the permission of legitimate superiors. That said, there have on occasion been previous Jesuit cardinals who have been considered papabile going into conclaves to elect a pope. The most famous episode unfolded early in the seventeenth century when Jesuit Cardinal Robert Bellarmine (1542–1621) reportedly received votes in at least two consecutive papal conclaves, including the highly charged election of 1605. The scholarly and highly ascetical Bellarmine expressed his relief at dodging papal election, and his jocular prayer is repeated to this day: “Lord, deliver me from the papacy.” In sum, having a Jesuit serve as pope is an extraordinary departure from normal expectations.

  8. 8.

    Cited in Philip Endean, “Writings on Jesuit Spirituality by Jorge Mario Bergoglio, S.J.,” in Studies in the Spirituality of Jesuits 45, no. 3 (Autumn 2013): 2.

  9. 9.

    Elisabetta Piqué, Pope Francis: Life and Revolution: A Biography of Jorge Bergoglio (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2014), 288.

  10. 10.

    The full text in English of this 1965 document is found in Walter M. Abbott , S.J., ed., The Documents of Vatican II (New York: America Press, 1966), 466–82.

  11. 11.

    While the texts of many such addresses are by now available in Spanish especially in Argentinian publications such as Boletín de espiritualidad, the most extensive collection in English of Bergoglio’s addresses and writings on Jesuit spirituality during this era are found in the two consecutive issues of the journal Studies in the Spirituality of Jesuits 45, no. 3–4 (autumn and winter 2013), edited by Philip Endean, S.J. shortly after the election of Francis and titled “Writings on Jesuit Spirituality by Jorge Mario Bergoglio, S.J.,” parts I and II.

  12. 12.

    A key example would be the mode in which the spiritual exercises are administered. Before the post-Vatican II renewal of Jesuit sources, most retreats based on the rather open-ended schema of the spiritual exercises were of the preached variety, with retreatants simply listening over the course of 8 or 30 days to short sermons preached about the movements that Saint Ignatius recommended and described in his classic handbook of prayer. By 1970, Jesuit retreat houses throughout the world were returning to the original practice pioneered by Saint Ignatius of inviting retreatants to meet individually each day and at length with a spiritual director who offers guidance and suggestions for the prayer of the retreatant, in a style that is more flexible than the practice of the previous several hundred years of Jesuit spiritual practice. There are many other examples where the fruits of scholarship on Jesuit origins encouraged approaches to Jesuit ministries (pastoral, spiritual, educational) that seemed novel in some ways, but actually represent a return to sources such as the original inspiration of Saint Ignatius himself.

  13. 13.

    Text of the “Principle and Foundation” as found in Joseph Richaby, S.J., The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola: Spanish and English with a Continuous Commentary, 2nd ed. (London: Burns, Oates and Washbourne, Ltd., 1913), 18.

  14. 14.

    These words are contained in no. 650, which appears on page 298 of The Constitutions of the Society of Jesus and their Complementary Norms (St. Louis: Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1996).

  15. 15.

    Accounts of this variety of ministry appear in all the standard histories of the Society of Jesus, although the major single-volume accounts of Jesuit history generally move very quickly from the papal approval of the order in 1540 to the high-profile missionary enterprises that began almost immediately (Xavier departed Lisbon for Goa , India and the East Indies in April 1541) and give short shrift to the manifold Jesuit ministries within Europe before the establishment of the first Jesuit schools in subsequent decades. For an older account, see Thomas J. Campbell, S.J., The Jesuits 1534–1921 (New York: The Encyclopedia Press, 1921), especially chap. 2 (“Initial Activities”), pp. 36–71. For a more recent account, see John W. O’Malley, S.J., The First Jesuits (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), esp. 168–71.

  16. 16.

    This phrase forms the subtitle of Decree Four (“Our Mission Today: The Service of Faith and the Promotion of Justice”) of General Congregation 32, promulgated May 8, 1975, and appearing in English translation in Documents of the 31st and 32nd General Congregations of the Society of Jesus (St. Louis: The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1977), 411–38.

  17. 17.

    Austen Ivereigh, The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2014), esp. 58–65.

  18. 18.

    Thomas R. Rourke, The Roots of Pope Francis’s Social and Political Thought: From Argentina to the Vatican (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2016), esp. 15–40.

  19. 19.

    See Rafael Luciani, Pope Francis and the Theology of the People (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2017).

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Massaro, T. (2018). The First Jesuit Pope: The Contribution of His Jesuit Charism to His Political Views. In: Lyon, A., Gustafson, C., Manuel, P. (eds) Pope Francis as a Global Actor. Palgrave Studies in Religion, Politics, and Policy. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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