by Alan Bisbort
When the announcement of the election of a new pope swept through the American media on the cold afternoon of March 13, Fairfield University President Jeffrey P. von Arx, S.J., was asked to respond in the pages of the New York Post.
In a piece published the following day, Fr. von Arx hailed “the first pope from the New World” marking “yet another step in the globalization of Roman Catholicism.” He then pointed out another distinction that was a particular source of pride and excitement at Fairfield University — Argentina’s Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was “the first Jesuit elected to the papacy.”
Indeed, it was hard to determine which was the most surprising dimension to this historic moment in Church history — that the new pope was the first from Latin America, the first Jesuit, or the first pope to take the name of St. Francis of Assisi, who, as Fr. von Arx wrote in the Post, is “nearly everyone’s favorite saint, well known for his love of nature, of the poor, and of a simple life.”
Fr. von Arx noted that Pope Francis had served as a bishop in Argentina during the 1970s, a time of social upheaval and violent political reaction. “As such, he would have faced some of the most difficult times in the Church’s and the Jesuits’ history, when many old ways were being challenged and new experiments in religious life attempted.
“He would have had to navigate between liberals and conservatives in the Jesuits and assist young priests in finding their way in confusing times,” Fr. von Arx continued. “He will know many of the tensions and pressures that have impacted the Church in recent years, as well as some of its brightest and most talented members.
“He will come to his new job as pope, therefore, as both insider and outsider… as someone who will have the perspective of a place very different from Rome — ‘from the other side of the world,’ as he said in his address,” Fr. von Arx concluded.
One of the questions on the minds of faculty at Fairfield University — and presumably at all 28 of the Jesuit colleges and universities in the United States — is how the election of Pope Francis may affect the future of Jesuit universities, or whether it will have any appreciable impact. While it is still too early to be able to answer those questions, two Fairfield faculty shared their thoughts with Fairfield University Magazine.
Rev. Richard Ryscavage S.J., a professor of sociology and founding director of Fairfield’s Center for Faith and Public Life, said of the appointment: “We all considered it highly unlikely, so it came as a big surprise. Some of us had heard of Cardinal Bergoglio through the Jesuits in Argentina. We knew he was being considered as a possibility in the last papal election, but we never thought that he would win enough votes.”
Dr. Paul F. Lakeland, the Aloysius P. Kelley S.J. Professor of Catholic Studies and director of Fairfield’s Center for Catholic Studies, said of the election: “Jesuits themselves are puffed up about it, understandably. But there’s also some anxiety that if he proves less than popular, they worry that they will bask in the reflected un-glory.”
Fr. Ryscavage added: “Having a Jesuit pope means that Jesuit universities around the world will be expected to support the teachings of Pope Francis more explicitly than other Catholic universities.”
Lakeland, however, does not believe Pope Francis will have quite as much effect on the Jesuit colleges and universities in the U.S. as he may have elsewhere in the world.
“Take Fairfield, for example,” he said. “It’s separate from the Society of Jesus and from the Church. Yes, Jesuit-ness is built into the ethos of the place and, yes, Jesuits teach here, but the University is not overseen by the Church or by any Jesuit organization, and most of the administration is comprised of lay people.”
Though Lakeland noted that Pope Francis is “more conservative than what most would think about Jesuits, and more conservative than most Latino Jesuits,” he said that the chances of the Pope interceding in matters on the university level appeared, at present, slim.
“The list of things that Francis has to attend to is so long,” said Lakeland. “No one is hopping up and down in anticipation. It could be that he will have a list. ‘Let’s see, clean the Curia,’ check, ‘ordinations,’ check, ‘bishops,’ check, ‘now let’s look at the Jesuits.’ The anxiety is that he will turn on the Jesuits and try to reform them, but that would be a distant eventuality, if at all.”
Both Fr. Ryscavage and Dr. Lakeland were pleased by the Pope’s selection of the name Francis.
“One of the most intimate personal and first decisions that a pope makes is to take a name,” said Fr. Ryscavage. “Benedict [XVl] picked that name because of his high respect for St. Benedict and the Benedictine tradition in the Church. So, surprisingly, a Jesuit picks the founder of the Franciscans and not the founder of the Jesuits. I have heard people say “Looking at that little chimney for two hours in the rain was absolutely worth it for even a minute of that excitement. It was definitely one of the best moments of my life,” said Lauren Birney ’14. Along with Laura Ballanco ’14 and Krista Charles ’14 (pictured l-r above in St. Peter’s Square on the day after the announcement), Birney was in Rome on spring break from studying abroad in London when the announcement of the new pope was made. Fairfield Universit y Maga zine | summer 2013 17 the name Francis is too humble to be a pope’s name. But humility seems to be the central characteristic of this new papacy.”
Dr. Lakeland said, “I agree with Fr. von Arx that Francis is a favorite saint and I wondered why no pope had taken that name before now. Francis was such a great figure; they may not have wanted to make a claim on that name. It would have a powerful ecclesiastical impact, and they would have to change their opulent lifestyle. Also, Francis was not a priest. He was made a deacon under pressure, but never a priest. He was a figure of humility. He felt called to reform things. For his time, he was a figure of what today would be called inter-religious dialogue. He talked to Muslims when others would have put them to the sword.”
Pope Francis’s personal humility and his eschewing of lavish comforts seems to be what most impresses non-Jesuits and non- Catholics alike.
President Barack Obama hailed him as a “champion of the poor and most vulnerable among us,” pointing to his earlier visits to a Buenos Aires hospice where he washed the feet of AIDS patients. His biographer Sergio Rubin has written of Francis’ humility: “He always wants to sit in back rows.”
His intellectual curiosity has also been duly noted, as has his love of reading, with Jorge Luis Borges and Fyodor Dostoevsky among his favorite authors. Adding to the complexity of Pope Francis’ story is the fact that he wasn’t ordained as a priest until he was 33.
As for why it took so long for the Church to elect a Jesuit pope, Fr. James Martin, S.J., a Jesuit priest and editor of America magazine noted in a blog post on CNN that nearly every aspect of Jesuit spirituality would appear to be in tension with such a high office — the vows of poverty, the lengthy training, the historical dedication to practical social work, and the promise “not to strive for” high office or special honors. But canon law, Fr. Martin noted in America, makes allowances for such appointments, and typically members of religious orders who become bishops or reach higher offices remain attached to their religious communities, and retire back into those communities.
St. Ignatius’ original objection to seeking higher office was in response to the clerical careerism so prevalent at the time, Fr. Ryscavage explained.
“St. Ignatius Loyola never wanted us to become bishops. Some exceptions were made in the mission territories, where Jesuits were sometimes the most qualified candidates for becoming leader of a diocese. At times, the Pope himself would intervene and promote a Jesuit bishop to the College of Cardinals. These were exceptions to the rule. St. Ignatius wanted to prevent us from ‘climbing the Church ladder’ by ambitioning high offices.”
Writing in the National Catholic Reporter, Thomas Reese noted, “Although Jesuits take a special vow not to seek higher office, there have been scores of Jesuit bishops,” adding that there are unique qualities of Ignatian spirituality that may be good qualities in a pope. “There is also a practical side to Jesuit spirituality — if one thing does not work, try something else. This will also help [Pope Francis] as he faces the daunting tasks before him.”
Whatever direction Pope Francis takes the Church, there is no denying that the election of a new pope is a moment of historical import, even for non- Catholics. The office of papacy is one of the few offices in the world that can shape history and have a profound impact on the tenor of the times. Hence, the immense global interest in the moment when the white smoke rises from the Vatican chimney.
Fr. Ryscavage would be happy to see the Church follow Pope Francis’ example in his emphasis on solidarity with the poor.
“The Church is the largest private charitable and social service provider for the global poor,” he said. “This is true in Connecticut as well as in the back country of Africa. Francis will surely bring more attention to this great work of the Church. But he will steer away from any ‘liberation ideologies’ that try to involve the Church in class divisions and violent uprisings.”
Fr. von Arx expressed hope that because Pope Francis “knows the Roman Curia and has command of Italian,” and comes to the job from Latin America that this “will position him ideally for the task of renewing the central administration governing the church — one of the new pope’s most important responsibilities.”
Fr. Ryscavage concurred, saying, “In Argentina, Francis proved himself to be a tough leader not afraid to make difficult decisions, standing up for ten years against two left-wing presidents. I am sure he will not be afraid to clean the messy Vatican house!”
Above photo: “Looking at that little chimney for two hours in the rain was absolutely worth it for even a minute of that excitement. It was definitely one of the best moments of my life,” said Lauren Birney ’14. Along with Laura Ballanco ’14 and Krista Charles ’14 (pictured l-r above in St. Peter’s Square on the day after the announcement), Birney was in Rome on spring break from studying abroad in London when the announcement of the new pope was made.