March 7, 2014 — At the national headquarters of the Society of Jesus in Washington, D.C., Jesuits and staff were anxiously waiting for a balcony appearance. It was Wednesday, March 13, 2013, and white smoke had just risen from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel, signaling the election of a new pope. As they gathered before the television that day, the Jesuits weren’t exactly nonplussed — moments like this are always exciting — but they had no way to anticipate the shock of what was to happen next.
When Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran stepped onto the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica, he proclaimed “Habemus Papam” or “We have a pope” and then introduced Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina as the new Vicar of Christ. Jesuit Father Gerard Stockhausen, executive secretary of the Jesuit Conference, recalls that upon hearing the news, the Jesuits continued to watch the network television coverage for a full five minutes before realizing that the new pope was one of their own. In the end, smart phones helped the Jesuits learn that Cardinal Bergoglio was a brother Jesuit.
“Going into this, I think every Jesuit in the world would tell you there would never be a Jesuit pope,” Fr. Stockhausen explains. “So that was the mindset while we were watching. My first reaction was disbelief. This was something every Jesuit assumed would never happen, and it was a real surprise.”
The reason for the surprise: it was a first. Although there are a small number of Jesuit bishops and cardinals, there had never been a Jesuit pope. In addition to the fact that Jesuits promise not to seek higher positions, St. Ignatius, founder of the Society of Jesus, took measures to prevent some of the early Jesuits from being named as bishops or cardinals. Seeking higher office was not part of a Jesuit’s mission, unless he was appointed by the pope or, in this case, elected by the Papal Conclave.
First surprise: the pope is a Jesuit. Second surprise: his name.
Jesuit Father James Martin, editor-at-large of America magazine, recalls, “I had heard all sorts of things about Cardinal Bergoglio, so I wasn't sure what kind of pope he might be. But when Cardinal Tauran said that he had taken the name Francis, I knew he would be different. His request for the people's prayer moved me deeply, as did his bowing before the crowd. But it wasn't until the next day, when he said to assembled journalists, ‘I want a church that is poor and for the poor,’ that I realized how different he really might be. I've been a fan of his ever since.”
Pope Francis’ simple style and focus on the poor have captured the world’s attention, and the “Pope Francis factor” has proven to be an extremely welcome and unexpected gift to the Jesuits. Jesuit Father Chuck Frederico, vocations director for the Maryland, New England and New York Provinces of the Society of Jesus, says that vocation inquiries to the Jesuits are up 116 percent since Pope Francis was elected. According to Fr. Frederico, candidates to the Society “see the Holy Father’s Jesuit roots and are interested in the possibility that the Society of Jesus could be a way to live the same life that formed him to be this way. It’s almost as if these men hear the invitation of Pope Francis and his warm welcome extended to all.”
In a year when he was chosen as both Time magazine’s “Person of the Year,” as well as Person of the Year for the LGBT magazine The Advocate, Pope Francis has also graced the cover of The New Yorker and Rolling Stone, to name a few. He gave an exclusive, in-depth interview to Jesuit publications last fall, including America magazine, in which he talked at length on topics that included the Society of Jesus, the Roman Curia, women and the church, the Second Vatican Council and prayer.
As the press embraced Francis, the pope reached out to his flock. In his first year as pontiff, Francis has taken a selfie with young adults, cold-called men and women who sent him letters, embraced the sick and disabled and famously responded “Who am I to judge?” when asked about gay people.
“Pope Francis is a man with a deep connection to the poor and marginalized,” says Jesuit Father Thomas H. Smolich, president of the Jesuit Conference. "He knows how to translate what is in his heart into actions — whether it’s washing the feet of Muslim prisoners on Holy Thursday to launching a global campaign to end world hunger to establishing a commission to address the clerical sexual abuse crisis. He desires to lead a Church that unifies rather than divides, and he gives both believers and seekers a reason to be proud.”
Fr. Stockhausen says one of the biggest surprises of the papacy is “Francis’ freedom to do things differently than they've been done in the past and his ability to stick with his approach of simplicity — and those two go together.”
For Fr. Martin, Pope Francis’ election has been a sign that “the Holy Spirit does what the Holy Spirit wants to do!” He adds, “Pope Francis has made me want to be a better priest, a better Jesuit, a better Catholic, a better Christian and a better person.”