The Pope and the Jesuit Order

Posted on September 29, 2015

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I have heard recently things about the Pope that almost defy the imagination, from him being a Communist to the Antichrist from the Book of Revelations. I don’t disabuse or criticize anyone for holding these opinions, given some credence from Pope Francis’s ramblings across the spectrum of the human existence.

He seems to be everywhere. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him on a Greenpeace anti-whaling ship some stormy night, slipping around a wet, pitching deck in his raingear protecting Leviathan against the evil, ruthless, and most assuredly capitalist Japanese sailors tracking down Moby Dick.

He is, in fact, an immensely activist Pope who fully believes, like his more famous namesake, St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226), that the Church must be engaged in changing the world to reflect the face of Jesus Christ.

He is also a member of the Order of Jesus, more commonly known as the Jesuits, the most worldly and intellectually well-equipped (at least in their opinion) of the many orders in the Catholic Church. He is the first Jesuit to be elected Pope.

That he is not a quiet, benevolent, passive shepherd to the flock of millions of Catholics around the world is no surprise given his background. As a Jesuit, he was taught discipline, devotion, and leadership and how to exercise all three.

If one, today, is surprised by this Jesuit Pope taking up for the poor, for the disenfranchised, for the defenseless in the world, his universalism, and the stewardship of the earth for example they need to examine his background with a bit of care.

The Jesuit order was founded in 1541 in the midst of the most turbulent time in the history of Christianity, save perhaps for the era of the apostles, or the times of persecution that followed under the Roman Empire.

The Roman Catholic Church was reeling under a series of reformist clerics, like Martin Luther. The Reformation that followed, with its numerous schisms and splits, gave birth to modern Protestantism. The Popes tried to hold the Church together but the genie was out of the bottle and reform was in the air.

In this milieu a soldier, Ignatius of Loyola, stepped into the breech to protect the Church within a movement called the Catholic Counter Reformation. Loyola was severely wounded in a battle in 1521 and while recovering he was converted to a life devoted to Jesus.

Ignatius’s life is fascinating. He preached to Muslims in the Holy Land, authored a set of statutes for becoming true followers of Christ, the Spiritual Exercises which became the syllabus for his followers, exercised extreme asceticism, and eventually along with six friends petitioned the Pope to be recognized as an order, the Order of Jesus.

The Jesuits took vows of complete loyalty and obedience to the Pope and became the shock troops, the “soldiers” of the Catholic Counter Reformation, meeting the challenges of the Protestant Reformation head on across the world, evangelizing all the way from China to the Chesapeake Bay in the formative sixteenth century.

That Pope Francis takes a world view is part of his Jesuitical training. That he is an activist, some would claim radical in his universalism, is hardly surprising.

The Pope’s spiritual hero, St. Francis (1182-1226) of Assisi, too was a soldier, wounded in battle, and then, while convalescing for a long time, devoted his life to becoming a follower of Jesus.

Francis gave up all his worldly goods and embraced poverty with a passion as he went about doing the work of God. He followed the words of his Lord, loved his enemies, and took care of the poor, the widows, the orphans, the lepers, the hurting members of society.

He too founded an order, the Franciscans, and moved rapidly to sainthood after his death. He is among the most beloved of saints because he embraced the Lord’s will so completely in his life.

And if you go back one step further, to the life of Jesus himself, he too was a revolutionary, turning many things on their head, like loving your enemies, dispossessing yourself of worldly goods, and remaking yourself into a life of service rather than rule, humility rather than pride, refocusing yourself on God rather than self.

Francis of Assisi and Ignatius of Loyola would probably enjoy Pope Francis’s company.
They could dine at a soup kitchen run by some good-willed Protestants in a show of ecumenisms, inviting perhaps a Muslim, a Jew, and a Hindu to break bread.

Of course, the Protestant cooks would have to take care not to serve meat on Friday, pork on any meal, and I don’t know what would offend the Hindus. I vote for fried catfish and greens with plenty of iced tea since it is only September and still summer in the Deep South.

This column published in my OpED, “The Port Rail” as Pope Francis Seems to be Everywhere in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday Sept. 6, 2015