Five Years Later: Pope Francis as the Perfect Witness to a Jesuit Vocation

By William Bole

It has been five years since white smoke wafted from a tiny chimney atop the Sistine Chapel, signaling that the papal conclave had chosen a new successor of St. Peter, first Bishop of Rome. Just over an hour later, a little-known Argentine cardinal named Jorge Mario Bergoglio appeared on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica — the first Jesuit pope, the first pope to hail from the Americas, and the first to take the name “Francis.”

Pope Francis greets a small child

Pope Francis greets a child at the Vatican. (CNS photo/Remo Casilli, Reuters)

“When I heard that the pope had chosen the name ‘Francis,’ I assumed it was in honor of Francis Xavier, one of the most popular Jesuit saints,” said Steven Schoenig, SJ, associate professor of history at Saint Louis University, and a noted expert on papal history. “But when I found out that it was in honor of Francis of Assisi, I was not disappointed. St. Ignatius Loyola had a strong devotion to Francis of Assisi and was inspired to imitate him when, during his sickbed conversion, he read his biography. It’s hard not to appreciate this saint and his sincere, direct, almost literal living out of the Gospel—and Pope Francis has certainly refocused the Church on the fundamentals of living the Gospel.”

There has been much debate among religious pundits as to whether this approachable pope with a message of mercy has as yet brought change and reform to Catholic life worldwide. Father Timothy P. Kesicki, SJ, president of the Washington-based Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, points out that to this day, “He hasn’t changed one definitive teaching of the church.” Yet, Fr. Kesicki and many others are quick to add that the pope who thinks like a Jesuit has changed, perhaps forever, the way a universal pontiff carries out his ministry, and his pastoral spirit has proved infectious for untold numbers of Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

“Pope Francis is attractive to Western culture because he satisfies deep hungers in us,” said Bill McCormick, SJ. He is teaching a class at Saint Louis University this semester on “The Politics of Pope Francis.” The class is full, the discussions lively.

“The students love talking about Pope Francis because he restores their faith in genuine goodness in the public sphere,” McCormick said. “He has challenged political leaders to live out the principles that have too often been empty slogans: the common good, justice, solidarity and human dignity. His popularity shows that we are deeply hungry for decent and moral leadership.”

Francis is pontificating in a new key, making it clear that a fundamental task of the faithful is not so much to follow rules but to discern what God is calling them to do. He is altering the culture of the clergy, steering away from what he refers to as “clericalism” (which dwells on priestly status and authority) and toward an ethic of service (Francis says the church’s shepherds must have the “smell of the sheep,” always staying close to the People of God).

Francis with children

Pope Francis loves welcoming small children. (Photo by Ryan Lim Malacañang)

At a January 16, 2018 meeting with 90 Chilean Jesuits, Francis noted, “We need to be aware that the grace of being a missionary comes from baptism, not from sacred orders or religious vows.” The entirety of the pope’s conversation with his Jesuit brothers can be found on La Civilta Cattolica’s website.

He has energized countless people, religious and lay, Jesuits and their many collaborators, who have gravitated toward what Francis likes to call “the periphery,” the social margins. He is creating a new image of a pope “who is not untouchable, who is open to criticism, open to changing his mind,” and who wants to lead “a more human church,” says Father Gustavo Morello, SJ, a sociology professor at Boston College and author of The Catholic Church and Argentina’s Dirty War (Oxford, 2015).

All of this is traceable to what some call Francis’ “Jesuit DNA,” which is grounded in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, who sought to promote self-awareness, a joyful sense of freedom and a willingness to take risks.


On March 13, 2013, the Jesuit Curia in Rome happened to be holding a training session for new leaders of English-speaking Jesuit provinces around the world — just as the papal conclave was voting. Father Peter Bisson, SJ, who had recently become head of the English Canada Province, was there and recalls that early in the evening, someone yelled out, “White smoke!” He and others ran out to St. Peter’s Square, where they were amazed to see a fellow member of the Society of Jesus emerge onto the balcony. The 266th pope immediately departed from custom: rather than blessing the pilgrims first, he asked them to take a moment to silently pray for him and ask God to bless his papacy. After that, he gave the traditional papal blessing. Standing in the square, Fr. Bisson thought to himself, “Something new is here.”

Fr. Peter Bisson with Pope Francis at GC36

Fr. Peter Bissson, SJ, meets Pope Francis at General Congregation 36 in Rome in 2016.

The next day, Pope Francis picked up a phone and called the Jesuit Curia. “This is Pope Francis. May I speak to Fr. General?” he asked a flustered receptionist, who was a little incredulous. Francis had to convince the man that it was really the pope calling, not a prankster. Switched eventually to the office of Fr. Adolfo Nicolás, SJ, then-Superior General of the Society of Jesus, Francis began making arrangements for the two to meet — not at the Apostolic Palace, where popes have traditionally resided, but at a residence for visiting clergy and lay people where he stayed during the conclave. It was an early indication that Pope Francis planned to decamp from the sprawling papal apartment and move into the simpler quarters of the guesthouse, on the edge of Vatican City. It’s where he continues to live.

“I think the three most characteristic virtues of Francis of Assisi were humility, simplicity and joy,” Fr. Schoenig said. “How closely Pope Francis has followed his namesake, as seen in the humility of asking for the crowd’s blessing on his election day, the simplicity of living in the Vatican guesthouse rather than the apostolic palace, and the joy that, as he has repeatedly stressed, lies at the heart of the Christian life. A saying attributed (maybe apocryphally) to Francis of Assisi is ‘Preach the Gospel always; if necessary, use words.’ This sums up a pope who likes to make meaningful gestures which capture the imagination and stick in the memory far more effectively than lengthy treatises.”

Pope Francis greets an elderly woman

Pope Francis greets an elderly woman in Asuncion, Paraguay. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

If there are just a few keywords of this papacy, one of them is surely “periphery.” Another is “discernment.” Francis the Jesuit is constantly seeking to discern how God is working in his life, and as pope, he is nurturing that kind of spiritual discernment at all levels of the church, notes Fr. Bisson.

“How is the spirit moving among us? Where is the joy?” Fr. Bisson says, relating some Ignatian-style questions for discernment. That’s how Jesuits and others steeped in this tradition characteristically seek to “find God in all things.” As for Francis, Fr. Bisson adds: “He’s not afraid of finding God in unexpected places. He expects to find God in those places,” especially on the margins.

“You can see the influence of his Ignatian spirituality, not just in the way he talks about discernment, which he does a lot, but you get a sense that he is a man who engages in the process of discernment in the way he lives his life,” said Fr. Provincial Ronald A. Mercier, SJ. “He has a visibly prayerful quality. He is attentive to the way the spirit is moving.”

The art of discernment, of finding the presence and action of God in day-to-day experience and responding to it in a manner that is adapted to the circumstances, is central to Ignatian Spirituality. Father Schoenig cautions that this approach may be challenging for some. “Those who are seeking only black-and-white answers that apply to every case uniformly will be disturbed by this approach. In Amoris laetitia, for example, Pope Francis fosters a pastoral sensitivity to the messy circumstances of human lives and tries to apply the Church’s timeless values to less-than-ideal situations.”

Pope Francis himself says, “The Jesuit must be a master of discernment, for himself and others.” He made that comment when he met with 31 Jesuits based in Myanmar during his visit to that country and Bangladesh late last year. “Think of St. Peter Claver,” the pope said, referring to the 17th century Spanish Jesuit and missionary. “He knew how to discern and knew that God wanted him to spend his life among the black slaves. Meanwhile some esteemed theologians were discussing whether or not they” — the slaves — “had a soul.”

During that November 29 conversation, held in the long, narrow chapel of the archbishop’s house in Yangon, a Jesuit asked why the pope always finds time to meet with fellow Jesuits during his far-flung travels. Francis replied that he does so “not to forget that I am a missionary,” to which he added, provoking laughs — “and that I must convert sinners!”

Fr. Kesicki explains that every religious order has its own charism, its way of carrying out the church’s work. No small part of the Jesuit charism is that it’s a missionary order, its members “ready to go anywhere in the world to help form souls,” Kesicki says.

Pope Francis greets Jesuit Fr. Tim Kesicki

Pope Francis greets Fr. Tim Kesicki, SJ, president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States

“As a Jesuit, you go out to the periphery. You go out to the poor, the disenfranchised, refugees, those disaffected by the church. You go out to the people. Pope Francis has that missionary spirit. That’s what makes him a Jesuit.”

Early in his papacy, Pope Francis made the analogy of the Catholic Church as a field hospital. This image has stuck with Michael O’Hagan, principal and soon-to-be president of Arrupe Jesuit High School in Denver. “The Church of Francis is accessible,” O’Hagan says. “We are not waiting for people to come to the Church, but we are going out to the people.”

High Five Francis at Arrupe Jesuit

An Arrupe Jesuit student "high fives" Pope Francis
More than 90% of the student population of Arrupe Jesuit is Latino, and those students see that much of the heated rhetoric of the past several years has been targeted at people like them. Pope Francis’ message has opened up conversations about mercy, reconciliation and forgiveness to balance the vitriol students hear in the news.

“We’re big fans of mercy here,” O’Hagan said. “The fact that the universal Church celebrated a year of mercy was restorative to our students and family.” He quotes current Arrupe Jesuit President Fr. Tim McMahon, SJ: “My God came seeking mercy, not justice.”

Historian John Padberg, SJ, credits Pope Francis with “stimulating the imagination of the ordinary faithful. He doesn’t give boring homilies. He has something serious to say, but he says it with imagination.

“The greatest service he is doing the church is that he is incarnating – he’s putting flesh and blood – on the decrees of Vatican II, first by the way he himself personally exemplifies those decrees in his actions, and then in his words, that further develop the implications of those decrees 50 years later,” Fr. Padberg said. “He is speaking imaginatively to people in prose that they can understand. And finally, most importantly, he is talking about the most important face of God: mercy. Mercy and love.”

At Arrupe Jesuit, the students are drawn to Pope Francis’ natural warmth. “They can find themselves in his message,” O’Hagan says. “They can find themselves in his prayer. There is simply nothing more powerful than that.”

The college students Bill McCormick teaches have the same response. "Like any pope, Pope Francis has to be anchored in the tradition of the Church, sensitive to the present and alive to the hope of the future,” he said. “His hope in the future makes him particularly attractive to young people."

It’s no accident that two of Francis’ major documents have “joy” in the titles — Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”), on marriage and family, and “The Joy of the Gospel.” Fr. Kesicki of the Jesuit Conference notes, “You can’t give witness to Christ risen if you don’t have joy in your heart. And in Francis, you always encounter a joyful man. He never looks beaten down.”

Indeed, reflecting on reasons for joy is part of the Spiritual Exercises — another Ignatian trait Francis has carried with him.

“He proclaims the Gospel with such joy,” said Fr. Mercier. “His concern for the poor, his desire to evangelize … these clearly mirror the documents of the recent General Congregations and the Jesuit tradition.”

“He is the perfect witness to the Jesuit vocation,” Fr. Kesicki adds. “If you want to know what a Jesuit is, you couldn’t have any better example than Pope Francis.”

William Bole, a journalist in Boston, frequently writes about the Jesuits.


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