One of Us

Published on 18 Oct 2013

The white smoke appeared surprisingly early.  The Jesuit community in Edinburgh gathered round the TV to hear the announcement.  We had enough Latin to understand great joy and wondered how it fitted with the first name George. When the unfamiliar surname Bergoglio was spoken, someone in the group said, he is one of us.

Most Jesuits I know were shocked. This might seem strange, but we have always taken it for granted that there would never be a Jesuit Pope. The founder of the Jesuits, Saint Ignatius of Loyola, had been against Jesuits being bishops, and Jesuits take a promise not to seek honours in the Church. This high ideal was tempered by the realism characteristic of Ignatius.  He recognised that the Pope might want to make Jesuits bishops, and that because of the special vow of obedience to the Pope taken by the Jesuits,   we would have to obey and accept.  The only balancing thing would be that the bishop would always listen to the voice of the Jesuit General. Pope Francis took that vow when he became a bishop in Argentina.  Jesuits wondered how that vow would work now that the bishop was Pope.

Some hint came the day after his election.  The phone rang in the reception of the Jesuit Headquarters in Rome.  The voice at the other end said, ‘This is the Pope.  Is Father General available to speak to me?   We often see in films, this is the White House, I have the President of the United States on the line.  But here the Pope himself phoned.  The receptionist thought it was a hoax at first.

But the first months of the new Pope have been no joke. Not everyone will be delighted with him, but he seems to have touched the hearts of many people both inside and outside the Church. He has a dangerous spontaneity about him which must make bureaucrats shudder.  But he does not act on impulse. He has made the point forcefully that he sees himself as the Bishop of Rome. He has invited cardinals from the different continents and representatives of the Eastern Churches to implement some necessary internal reform.  How this will work we do not know, but together with his intention to restore the Synod of Bishops to the pattern called for at Vatican 2, it seems that he is alive to questions of structure as well as those of the heart where his simplicity of life gives a concrete shape to his words about the poor and those on the margins.  He allows his life to be shaped by Jesus’ word be compassionate as your Father is compassionate  (Luke 6:36).

People who know a bit about what Saint Ignatius passed on concerning deal ing with people will see something familiar there. In his notes to help people give spiritual direction, Ignatius says Every good Christian adopts a more positive acceptance of someone’s statement than a rejection of it out of hand. (Spiritual Exercises annotation22: Fleming). There is an extract from the Pope’s book that bears this out

When I speak with atheists.....I do not approach the relationship to convert the atheist. I respect him and show myself as I am. Where there is knowledge, there begins to appear esteem, affection and friendship...everyone has a series of virtues, qualities and a greatness of his own life.

Pope Francis returned from the World Youth days in Brazil with its final exuberant Mass on the Copacabana to a rather more quiet celebration.  He went to the Jesuit Church of the Gesù in central Rome to celebrate the feast of Saint Ignatius with the Jesuits living and working in Rome.  The Superior General of the Jesuits, Father Adolfo de Nicolás said he came like a brother among brothers, he celebrated Mass simply and preached his homily to invite the Jesuits to follow in the footsteps of Saint Ignatius.

He also spent time at three other places in the Church.  He visited the altar of the Madonna della Strada (Our Lady of the Street) who was the patron and inspiration of St Ignatius’ efforts to look after street people.  He visited the shrine of St Francis Xavier, the companion of St Ignatius, and the great missionary to south east Asia and Japan, where he had to learn how to bring the Gospel to a different culture. He also visited the tomb of Father Pedro Arrupe who was the Jesuit General when Pope Francis was the Jesuit provincial in Argentina.  They did not always see eye to eye in those days, but for Jesuits, it was an important remembering by the Pope of an inspirational figure for Jesuits and religious in the Church, who has not always been the favourite of recent Popes.

Some of these moments are special to the Jesuits,  but the actions of the Pope and his words to Jesuits are just like his actions and words to others.  He is an engaging person who wants to engage with others where they are, to listen, reflect and respond.  I think it is not just Jesuits who are saying he is one of us. 

Jim Crampsey SJ