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World’s first Jesuit pope makes church history

© AFP

Text by Amara MAKHOUL

Latest update : 2013-03-15

Pope Francis has earned several firsts – he is the first Latin American pontiff and the first non-European pope in centuries. But the pioneering step most significant for church historians is his status as first Jesuit head of the Catholic Church.

It was an unusually short conclave with an unexpected finish. When Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergolio from Argentina was declared the new pope on Wednesday evening, the announcement was greeted with astonishment from the crowds gathered in St. Peter’s Square.

The archbishop of Buenos Aires was widely believed to be the runner-up in the 2005 conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI, and he was not high on the media list of papabili, or men who could be pope.

"He was one of the contenders in 2005, but he was overlooked for health reasons,” said Frédéric Mounier, Vatican correspondent for the French Catholic daily, La Croix. "Now, we can say that he has accepted the responsibility: he knows he does not have much time [at 76 years] and he has accepted the mission entrusted to him.”

Pope Francis is also the first Latin American “vicar of Christ” – a significant milestone in a 2,000-year-old institution. “We are witnessing a revolution in the history of the Catholic Church,” said Mounier in an interview with France 24.

The morning after his election, the South American press unanimously hailed the choice of the new pope as an homage to the continent that has the largest number of Catholics in the world.

In an article published Wednesday, Jean-Marie Guénois, Rome correspondent of the French daily Le Figaro and a religion expert, said, "The real message of the election of Pope Francis lies in the fact that he is a Jesuit and not his Latin American origin.”

A Jesuit at the helm

With the election of Pope Francis, the Jesuits have, in some ways, taken revenge on the Vatican. An influential religious order founded in the 16th century, the Society of Jesus – or Jesuits, as they’re known – have at times had rocky relations with the Vatican.

Since the order was founded in Rome in 1540, Jesuits have been known to be aggressively evangelistic, expanding their missions to far-flung corners of the world, from India to Central and South America.

The order’s activist track record earned the Society of Jesus a reputation for political scheming, leading to its official suppression by Pope Clement XIV in 1773 until Pope Pius VII restored its recognition in 1814.

While the Jesuits today are the largest religious order of men in the Catholic Church, they have traditionally displayed a reluctance to get deeply involved in church politics in and around Rome.

The Jesuits are primarily educators, running top-level universities across the world, from the US to Asia, and their ranks have included respected academics. Pope Francis himself was an academic and professor before he rose up the clerical ranks.

“The world has about 18,000 Jesuits, and they are the ones who determine the future of the church,” explained Mounier. "They are used to thinking deeper than the others. They work closely with the poor, but they are intellectuals who are in tune with the changes in society.”

‘The gospel of poverty’

The first words of the new pope on the St. Peter’s balcony set the tone of his pontificate.

In his first address as pontiff, John Paul II told the crowd, "Do not be afraid”. For his part, Pope Francis asked the crowd to pray, and a contemplative silence descended on St. Peter's Square on Wednesday evening.

"The tone set was silence, prayer and humility," said Mounier, noting that after leaving the balcony dressed in red velvet, the new pope refused to get into the specially chartered Mercedes bearing the Vatican flag. Instead, he chose to return to his Santa Marta residence in a bus with all the other cardinals.

In his native Argentina, Pope Francis is well known for his humble lifestyle – preferring to take the bus to work and flying economy when he visits Rome.

As the archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio preached social inclusion and was critical of governments overlooking the people on the margins of society.

According to Mounier, the election of Pope Francis “marks a return to the essential Church of Christ, the gospel of poverty”.

His choice of a papal name is also significant. The name Francis had never been adopted by a pope. It refers to Saint Francis of Assisi, famed for giving up his family wealth to live a life of poverty after God entrusted him with the words: "Go, Francis, and repair my church, which is falling apart."

Date created : 2013-03-14

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