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Nation & World

Jesuits stunned by choice of a fellow order member as pope

(MCT) VATICAN CITY — Few people were more shocked at the choice of a Jesuit as pope than the Jesuits.

There had never been a Jesuit pope before Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina was elected last week, and he was the only Jesuit among the 115 cardinals who voted in the papal conclave. (The only other one, from Indonesia, was too ill to attend.)

Pope Francis, who will be installed formally Tuesday before more than 100 heads of state and foreign delegations, including U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and what will undoubtedly be an adoring crowd, has already shown himself to be a different kind of pope.

He has a simpler, more personal style than his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, which is in part a product of his formation as a Jesuit.

So is his emphasis on the poor — and not just that priests must help the poor but that they must also live a humble life as a model. Speaking to journalists over the weekend, he called for “a poor church for the poor.”

The Jesuit order, known formally as the Society of Jesus, was founded by St. Ignatius of Loyola in 1540. It emphasizes intellectual acumen, educational excellence and what it calls contemplation in action — the dedication to working in the world on behalf of the church and the poor, and not withdrawing from it into a monastic or cloistered way of life.

As members of the largest Catholic religious order for men, Jesuit priests take a vow not to seek higher office, although they can accept positions if they are offered.

“For us, it’s so weird; we’re used to serving the pope, not being the pope,” Antonio Spadaro, editor of the Italian Jesuit magazine Civilta Cattolica, said in an interview last week.

Jesuits do not serve as parish priests, but typically work as teachers and serve the poor.

“The innovation of the Jesuits was to not leave the world. You can have a busy life and still grow in holiness, if you do it right,” the Rev. Gerard Whelan, a theologian at the Jesuit-run Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, told the Los Angeles Times.

“It is spirituality oriented toward decision-making in a busy life,” he added. “We do not want an enclosed church.”

Such attributes are critical to a Roman Catholic Church in crisis. Francis is, many here say, just what the church needs at this moment in its 2,000-year history. In outlining some of the reasons they chose Francis, cardinals have cited his sanctity, a dedication to Scripture and holiness and his ability to communicate and reach out as a good pastor.

Their aim is to restore the church to a position of moral authority lost in the procession of scandals and other troubles that plagued the papacy of Benedict XVI, who resigned last month. Those include sexual abuse of children by priests, published leaks about Vatican mismanagement and corruption at the Vatican bank and other parts of its administration.

Francis’ evident warmth and grandfatherly affability (he has given bear hugs to some of the people greeting him at audiences since his appointment) could go a long way in wooing back parishioners who gave up on their church. Especially under Benedict, the church for many seemed increasingly distant, cold, inward-looking and Euro-centric. Benedict specifically chose to concentrate on the evangelization of Europe, rarely spoke of the poor and tended to cite turgid theological documents or, perhaps most infamously, Byzantine emperors. Francis tells folksy stories from his hometown parishes. He is the first pope from Latin America and from the entire Southern Hemisphere, home today to most of the world’s Catholics.

His propensity to wade into crowds has been sending his security detail scrambling. His frequent departure from prepared texts is sending Vatican transcribers scrambling.

And in his long career as a Jesuit leader in Argentina, he served during a period as a novice master, entrusted with the spiritual teaching of young entrants, another valuable tool for the overseer of a church that has lost priests in many parts of the world.

The Jesuit penchant for humility is one reason the choice of the Buenos Aires native was seen as astonishing. Few Jesuits even rise to become archbishops or cardinals.

Another source of marvel stems from the many decades of often tumultuous relations with the Vatican.

The late Pope John Paul II intervened in the order over a period starting in 1981, replacing its leader in Rome with a personal delegate. As a staunch anti-Communist, the Polish-born pontiff feared that some Jesuits, especially in Latin America, were becoming too enamored of liberation theology, a left-leaning interpretation of church teachings that some critics believed veered into Marxism. The crackdown against priests in Latin America, many of them Jesuits, would have traumatic consequences. Priests who championed the poor found few ways to do their work that did not threaten the status quo in that Cold War era. A small number took up arms; others were killed or persecuted by repressive regimes.

“They were left with a terrible dilemma,” Whelan said of the Jesuit clergy in Latin America. “You had unsavory dictatorships supported by the West, a freezing of more normal processes of social reform and a Catholic Church habitually equated with the ruling class. What do you do in such a polarized situation?”

During that period, Bergoglio in Argentina struggled to keep his priests in line with more orthodox practice. After a military junta took over the country, Argentina was plunged into a so-called dirty war, when government forces kidnapped and killed thousands of dissidents.

The Catholic Church in Argentina has been widely criticized for failing to stand up to the oppression and possibly even helping to carry it out. Bergoglio’s own role has been beset by renewed questions since he became pope. He and his supporters have denied overt complicity with the military, but it seems clear he did not speak out forcefully.

That period was not the first time the Jesuits had trouble with the home office.

In the mid-1700s Pope Clement XIV essentially banned the order, which was seen as too independent and a thorn in the side of some governments. About half a century later, the decree was rescinded.

Pope Francis said on Saturday, recounting behind-the-scene moments of his election, that when it became clear he was winning, one of the fellow cardinals suggested he take the name of Clement XV to “take revenge” on the repressor of the Jesuits. It was just a joke, Francis hastily added.

Instead, he took the name Francis, after St. Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan order. Clement was a Franciscan.

“It is a beautiful act of reconciliation, taking the name of Francis,” the Rev. John Wauck, a commentator from the conservative Opus Dei congregation, said. “I think he will shake things up, but help the Jesuits, too.”

The Jesuits’ core orientation, their venturing into the world and their stance often on the margins of societies, all contributed to the order’s run-ins with central Vatican authority over the centuries, several experts said.

“We live on the frontiers, the boundaries,” Spadaro said. “Living in a trench, it exposes you to tensions. ... So we live in this tension between ... living in the trenches and at the same time the obedience we give to the pope.”

Still, Pope Francis is by no means a liberal. He adheres strictly to the most traditional church doctrine and has developed a cozy relationship with the Italy-based Communion and Liberation movement, an enormously powerful, fundamentalist Catholic organization.

And yet, in the 2005 conclave that produced Benedict as pope, Bergoglio, as the second highest vote-getter, was considered the candidate of Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the then-ailing last great liberal member of the College of Cardinals. Martini, a Jesuit, died last year, but not before delivering a final interview that described a “tired” church in desperate need for renewal and one that needed a “radical path for change.”

It is not expected that Francis will go down that radical path. But many are hoping he will overhaul the Curia, as the Vatican bureaucracy is known. He has signaled some changes: He said the top Curia officials, who must automatically tender their resignations upon death or resignation of a pope, are being kept in their posts only temporarily.

But the Curia is a Goliath, and Pope Francis may not have the experience or the wherewithal to challenge it on every level, if that is even his desire.

One key test will be what he does with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the enforcer of doctrine and arbitrator of priests’ theological performances. It was directed for years by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who continued to use it after he became Pope Benedict to discipline priests deemed to be out of line.

One of the most recent cases was the Rev. Jon Sobrino, a leftist Spaniard based in El Salvador where he is revered by many. The congregation censured him in 2007 for his “erroneous and dangerous” teachings. Sobrino is a Jesuit.


Times staff writer Henry Chu contributed to this report.


©2013 Los Angeles Times

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