J&F 100: Humbly answering the call of duty

Issue 85 2013: Jonathan Wright evaluates the surprise election of a Jesuit to the See of Peter.

THERE ARE clear signs that Francis is going to be an unusual kind of pope - from where he lives and what he wears, to his modes of transport and how he chooses to be addressed.  But he is still, for all the winning humility, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church. Some have grumbled about this unexpected turn of events and reminded us that the founder of the Society of Jesus, Ignatius of Loyola, was dead set against members of his order reaching for too many of the top jobs.  To this day, newly-minted Jesuits promise not to "strive or ambition" for any high office within the Society or the broader Church. Has Francis betrayed this tradition.

The quick but resounding answer is no: absolutely not. There have been, of course, occasions when Jesuits avoided having lofty ecclesiastical dignity thrust upon them. This is one reason (though there are many others) why there have been fewer Jesuit bishops than might be expected and only a few dozen Jesuit cardinals in the entire history of the Order. It is crucial to remember, however, that, when called to high station, it has always been perfectly acceptable for Jesuits to bow to the needs of the Church at a given moment in history. In the right circumstances, perhaps this should be perceived as a sign of loyalty and obedience.

After all, if one believes that popes are chosen through the urgings of the Holy Spirit then what, exactly, was Jorge Mario Bergoglio supposed to do? Wave his hands in despair and announce that this is simply not the Jesuit way? Goodness knows what really goes on in papal conclaves (oh to be a fly on the wall!), but I suspect Bergoglio could have done precisely that and everyone (or most members of the College of Cardinals, at least) would   have understood:  but he didn't, and I rather admire his pluck. I have a strong hunch that Francis wishes the ballots had been cast differently back in March but when duty called he felt obliged to accept the job offer. Far from being a sign of pride or self-aggrandisement, this was a selfless act of humility. It was no longer possible to take the first available flight back to Argentina. The Petrine succession had other ideas in mind.

Not that this has prevented a great deal of silly commentary, especially in the more lunatic corners of the internet. Suddenly, we are back to stale, predictable talk of grand Jesuit conspiracies and the Society's endless quest for power and influence. Such myths die hard but so far Francis is doing an excellent job of dispelling them. He has met with just about everyone he could in a short space of time and what better way to signal an inclusive papacy than to appoint the head of the Franciscans, Jose Rodriguez Carballo OFM, to help lead the Congregation for Religious?

It would be foolish to deny that the Jesuit order has caused ructions and inspired rivalries during its 500 year history. Back in 1591, gangs of Paduan university students smashed the windows of the local Jesuit college, broke in, and started shouting obscenities at the priests. The college had been established for Jesuit novices but had steadily expanded its educational reach, offering instruction to externs who might otherwise have attended the university. Jesuit success (in education, in the mission fields, in a dozen other areas) was never going to please everyone, but we should not mistake dynamism for arrogance.

Not that there haven't been some power-hungry Jesuits through the centuries. Francesco Sacchini SJ explained this very well, just a year before that incident in Padua: All history, sacred or secular, has the same tale of imperfection to tell, so why should we want our history to be something special? There have also been countless fine Jesuits, however - a vast majority, surely? - and if Francis has any sense he'll take inspiration from that tradition. And he is still, despite his unusual canonical status, very much a Jesuit: dispensed from his vows of obedience and poverty but still a member of his institute, still SJ. This is not going to mean 'jobs for the boys', but it would be a great shame if Francis's pontificate did not, in subtle ways, develop a Jesuit complexion.

In recent weeks my mind has often turned to a motto deployed in the Imago Primi Saeculi Societatis Jesu, the 1640 work published to celebrate the Jesuits'  I00th birthday: unus non sufficit orbis. If translated as 'one world is not enough', this runs the risk of sounding a little like the title of a second-rate James Bond film but it neatly encapsulates the global perspective that has always characterised the Jesuit enterprise. Now, in the context of a fractured and uncertain Church, such a perspective is more necessary than ever, though it might be changed to 'one world is more than enough to be getting on with'. Who better than a man from South America to carry through this vision? And how wonderful if a member of an order so frequently, though not always accurately, accused of fostering division could do the healing.

Would Ignatius be happy with the election of a Jesuit pope? I have no idea and it is half a millennium  too  late to ask him. All I know for certain is that his concerns were primarily about self-serving careerism, and I don't think anyone could accuse Pope Francis of that.