Thursday, March 14, 2013

A Pope of Firsts, An Invitation to Renewed Hope?

It has been two weeks of firsts in our Church. On February 28th, Pope Benedict XVI was the first pope to step down in nearly 600 years. Yesterday was the day of firsts. Pope Francis became the first Pope born in the Americas (and from the Southern Hemisphere), the first to choose the name Francis, the first Jesuit Vicar of Christ.

Pope Benedict created space for someone else who has the health and energy to better respond to the Holy Spirit in serving the Church. Pope Francis seems to be stepping into that role. When I saw Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio for the first time as Pope Francis in St Peter’s Square, I was deeply moved. Tears of hope streamed down my cheeks. Allow me to reflect on this experience and its possible significance for those of us who embrace the Ignatian charism as a vital pathway to God.

I am deeply moved with hope. I am stirred by a hope that seems inflamed in four groups of people: in many of the faithful, in many of the cardinals and church officials, in the new pontiff, in my brother Jesuits.

My phone “blew up” yesterday with so many texts, emails, and calls, sent by people who were struck by hope. Most of these messages were sent by people within Jesuit or Ignatian circles.  NPR reported that the new Pope “has already made history on a day that filled many Catholics with hope, and more.”

A multitude of church officials have expressed effusive enthusiasm. Archbishop Patrick Kelly of Liverpool told worshippers to "go home with a spring in your step, we have a Pope … something new is happening.” Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, former head of the Roman Catholic church in England and Wales, said that Pope Francis is a “humble man” whose own “simplicity of life” will inspire others and whose “very name is indicative of a new style.” However, what moved me most was the courage of the college of cardinals. With remarkable consensus, the cardinals took the risk in electing someone who is older, who is not a Vatican insider, who served in a developing country almost his entire career, who is a Jesuit, who does not defend clerical privilege.  Their extremely creative choice inspires hope.  (Honestly, I’m still a bit shocked, for I had never imagined the  possibility of a Jesuit pope in my lifetime.)

As echoed by many observers, the choice of papal name is more than just a first. The new pontiff desires to serve and lead in the footsteps of St Francis of Assisi, in simplicity, humility, while reforming, evangelizing, focused on being with Christ’s poor, with intelligence.

His first words in St Peter’s Square speak volumes to me. He opened with humor, observing that his “brother cardinals went almost to the end of the world to get him.” Emphasizing his main role as pastor of Rome, he asked everyone to pray for Bishop Emeritus Benedict XVI using simple prayers. Then he called for a partnership in mission echoing the virtues of St Francis:

“This journey of the Church of Rome, which is to preside over all the Churches in charity. It is a journey of fraternity, of love, of trust between us. Let us always pray for one another. Let us pray for the world, so that a great brotherhood may be created. I hope that this journey of the Church, which we begin today and in which my Cardinal Vicar who is present here will assist me, will be fruitful for the Evangelization of this beautiful city.”

I cannot help but intuit that his papal name also echoes the spirit of St Francis Xavier whose tireless, creative, and effective missionary work helped evangelize many in the New World beyond Europe. Just before giving his first apostolic blessing as the Successor of St. Peter, Pope Francis asked the people for a blessing. Then he bowed low and asked everyone to pray for God’s blessing in silence. A powerful moment of grace and solidarity. In just ten minutes, the new Pope effectively highlighted key values of his namesake.

The first impression we gained from the Pope is consistent with his reputation as a humble pastor. Instead of living in an apostolic palace, he lived in a modest apartment, cooked his own meals, commuted to work by bus, and travelled economy class whenever flying to Rome.

Beyond the balcony moment, a number of accounts of his first hours as Pope underline his humility and signaled a new way of proceeding.  Instead of accepting transportation in a special car with security detail to the Vatican, he chose to travel on a bus with the other cardinals. Instead of following protocol that called him to sit on an elevated platform, he chose to stand alongside fellow cardinals. “So he greeted each of us as brothers, literally on the same level as we were,” remarked New York’s Cardinal Tim Dolan.

In choosing St Francis who symbolizes “poverty, humility, simplicity and rebuilding the Catholic Church” according to CNN correspondence John Allen, the new Pope is turning our attention more to the poor. He may be shifting Catholicism to become more the Church of the poor. In this vein, he is also being true to the Ignatian ideal of greater attachment to Jesus “poor and humble” highlighted in the Spiritual Exercises. He is also modeling the key priority of contemporary Jesuits – spreading a faith that does justice.

Even though a number of Jesuits do not like Pope Francis’ doctrinal conservatism, many are filled with joy “and as much pride as a Jesuit is supposed to have,” like Jim Martin. Many of my brother Jesuits find hope in the Pope’s deep prayerfulness, intellectual acumen, awareness of the needs of people beyond Rome (especially people from Latin America), discerning love, and clear passion for the poor and marginalized. Father Adolfo Nicol├ís, Superior General of the Jesuits, affirms that “the Holy Father’s evangelical spirit of closeness to the poor, his identification with simple people, and his commitment to the renewal of the Church. From the very first moment in which he appeared before the people of God, he gave visible witness to his simplicity, his humility, his pastoral experience and his spiritual depth.”

Someone asked me why the new Jesuit pontiff did not choose “Ignatius” for his papal name? I responded that St Ignatius would not have liked such a selection, for he did not want his name as part of the religious order he helped found. Moreover, St Ignatius was deeply inspired by St Francis of Assisi, desiring to be like the latter in preaching the Gospel in Jerusalem and staying close to the homeland of Jesus. And like his 12th century inspiration, St Ignatius and the First Companions were gradually led to help rebuild the Church.

While St Ignatius did not want to publicly highlight his role in reforming the Church, the first Jesuits were known in Rome as the “reformed priests.” He focused on helping and forming people to have the same attitude as that of the Church. He worked very closely with the papacy to meet pressing social needs in Rome, with the Council of Trent, with catechetical and educational needs in various parts of the Church, placing priority on unlettered children and the poor. He and the first Jesuits were inspired by the Franciscan ideal of rebuilding the Church by building up each person as a temple for God, closely united with Jesus poor and humble. I am convinced that the Ignatian charism is closely tied with helping the Church reform. For those of us who embraces Ignatian spirituality as our particular pathway to God, laboring to help the Church renew herself would also facilitate our own renewal. In helping the Church become more alive, we would also become more alive and free. We would be living out our charism, that portal of grace through which we can readily experience and respond to God’s love and call.

The new Pope’s choice of name is “ground breaking.” Even more so, it invites us in the Ignatian family to be grounded in our charism. It inspires us to deepen our call to help the Church reform from within. And if we wish to join this first Jesuit Pope, then we also embrace the Gospel’s call to downward mobility: “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” – Mk 9:35.

Lastly, I find it more than a coincidence of hope that the first reading of this Sunday as well as the second reading of last Sunday both reveal the ever newness and re-creative laboring love of God:

“Remember not the events of the past, the things of long ago consider not; see, I am doing something new!” -  Is 43:18

“Whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come.” - 2 Cor 5:17

Thanks be to God we have a Pope whose humility, simplicity, and love of the poor inspires us to open more doors to the Spirit. When hope becomes ignited in the Pope, inflamed  in church officials, rekindled in us, we allow for God’s newness, firstness to radically break forth in our lives and in our world.


  1. Excellent work on this, you really brought the moment home. More please.

  2. Hi Jack. The article is complete now. I'd love to hear your ideas of "more".

  3. Truly an inspiring event bringing more hope to the world. Thanks for your insightful write up. It feels like a trip to Rome is in order.

    Ruth Clarke Ragin

  4. Hi Cha, I share the same joy and hope that you have generously shared with us. I was overwhelmed and moved beyond words of how generous God is for us. I too admired Pope Francis' simplicity and surprised that he so humbly asked for our prayers. Thank you Cha! God is Good!

  5. This is a beautiful essay and it captures many of the diverse feelings I have experienced over the last two days. Teresa Trujillo

  6. Thank you for your sharing. I was also elated and with tears to see our new Pope. I am tired of reading all the stuff from the media that keeps comparing Pope Francis to Pope Benedict. It's like comparing your children or comparing apple to orange.