Letters from TZ

All hail Pope Francis the first

Jorge Mario Bergoglio. Former archbishop of Buenos Aires and now Pope Francis the first. He is named for Saint Francis of Assisi and is already evoking his humility. His Holiness is a cool chap and I don’t think he’d mind me saying that, because he just might be the coolest Pope the Catholic Church has ever had. As an archbishop he cooked his own meals and did his own laundry. And if his behaviour at his inauguration is anything to go by, he’s not only his own man but also a man of the people. The Africa Review reports that Francis gave the thumbs-up to ecstatic crowds and stopped to kiss babies, getting out of his vehicle at one point to bless a handicapped man. His security detail can’t have been happy with that display of free-spiritedness.

But being free-spirited is not the only contribution he is making to the history of the Papacy. He is not only the first non-European leader of the Roman Catholic Church in 1,300 years, but also the first Jesuit pope. He will be remembered. But why?

“The reason is simple,” writes Jake Wallis Simons, features writer and blogger for The Telegraph. “This is a man who pays his own hotel bills, travels by bus and jeep, wades out into the crowds unguarded, and makes his own telephone calls. (The other day, he telephoned the main number of a Jesuit residence in Rome. The receptionist, upon hearing the identity of the caller, responded “yeah, and I’m Napoleon”.) This might seem like no great shakes, but given the luxury normally showered upon his office, it takes guts.”

It does, indeed. Consider the immense wealth of the Catholic Church and the opportunity for a Pope to nestle himself comfortably in that lap of luxury. African leaders in some the world’s poorest economies take full advantage of the benefits of leadership, even when their taxpayers cannot afford it. So what kind of man would choose simplicity over extravagance? Well, this man right here. “Whatever one may think of his views, the Pope has genuine humility. This is such an unusual quality these days that it is like a beacon, outshining [any] reservations about him. This most straightforward of qualities has been absent from public life for so long that we have almost forgotten it were possible. If our politicians had a bit of this to offer, the world would be a very different place,” Simons continues.

But Pope Francis is so easy-going and approachable that we seem to have forgotten that he is a Jesuit. “The Jesuit order, known formally as the Society of Jesus, was founded by St. Ignatius of Loyola in 1540, a former military man. It emphasizes intellectual acumen, educational excellence and the dedication to working in the world on behalf of the church and the poor,” writes Tracy Wilkinson of the Los Angeles Times. “As members of the largest Catholic religious order for men, Jesuit priests take a vow not to seek higher office, although they can accept positions if they are offered.”

Wilkinson quotes Antonio Spadaro, the editor of the Italian Jesuit magazine Civilta Cattolica, who says that, for Jesuits, the ascension of Jorge Mario Bergoglio to the Papacy is “weird”. “We’re used to serving the pope, not being the pope,” he says.

That aside, the Jesuits also have an image problem. According to the Global Post, the Society of Jesus is sometimes depicted as an “army of shadows”. Conspiracy theorists say the order controls everything from the Vatican’s governing body, to the United Nations and the US banking system, the Global Post reports, adding that the society’s most famous motto – Perinde ac cadaver (Obey as a dead body obeys) – has also fuelled speculation.

“The rumours are based on Jesuit self-discipline, their total submission, their rules on secrecy and their utter obedience to the pope,” says Henri Tincq, former Vatican expert for Le Monde, a French daily. “The society was also feared by some in past centuries for its “desire to influence the bourgeoisie elites, who were handpicked and groomed” in special schools.”

Beyond the conspiracy theories, Jesuits also stand accused of being proponents of Modernism, while the Catholic Church is deeply traditional. Indeed, Pope Benedict XVI did call on the Society of Jesus to “reaffirm, in the spirit of St. Ignatius, its own total adhesion to Catholic doctrine, in particular those points which are strongly attacked by secular culture, including some aspects of the theology of liberation; and various points of sexual morality, especially the indissolubility of marriage and pastoral care of homosexual persons.”

So. Pope Francis the first could turn out to be the antithesis of Pope Benedict the sixteenth. Whether that’s a good or a bad thing remains to be seen.