Local Jesuits react to election of one of their own to the papacy

Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio washes the feet of residents of a shelter for drug users during Holy Thursday Mass in 2008 at a church in a poor neighborhood of Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Enrique Garcia Medina, Reuters/CNS)
Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio washes the feet of residents of a shelter for drug users during Holy Thursday Mass in 2008 at a church in a poor neighborhood of Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Enrique Garcia Medina, Reuters/CNS)

Jesuits from the Diocese of Phoenix weighed in with their reaction to the election of Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, 76, the first Jesuit ever to become pope.

Jesuit Father Daniel Sullivan, pastor of St. Francis Xavier Parish, said he and fellow Jesuits were stunned by the choice for the 265th successor of St. Peter.

“It’s like having a member of your family raised to a very high honor and certainly in the Church there’s no higher honor than being the pope,” Fr. Sullivan said. “We’re all obviously very proud of the new pope.”

Like many other Catholic observers, Fr. Sullivan speculated on the selection of the name of Francis—another first for the papacy.

“I think it identifies him with the spirit of St. Francis [of Assisi] — of humility and poverty and a great care for the poor,” Fr. Sullivan said. “Given the fact that he is from South America and… from a very deep experience of a developing country, he’s going to bring a whole other viewpoint to his office.”

The spirit of the Jesuits, Fr. Sullivan said, is that of serving the body of Christ. The new pope, he said, is doubtless steeped in the spirituality of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits.

“In the words of St. Ignatius himself, the Society of Jesus is at the service of the Church,” Fr. Sullivan said. “We’re very much a part of the Catholic Church and we’re there for the good of souls.”

Jesuit Father John Auther, former parochial vicar at St. Francis Xavier Parish who has since been reassigned to California, said he too was surprised by the election of Cardinal Bergoglio.

“I’m just delighted and shocked because I’ve always thought, well there’ll never be a Jesuit pope,” Fr. Auther said, “and look, there is one and he takes the name of Francis. It’s wonderful.”

On the tricky question of whether the new pontiff was honoring St. Francis of Assisi versus Jesuit giant St. Francis Xavier with the selection of his name, Fr. Auther said he’s not taking sides. St. Francis Assisi was known for ministering to the poor and St. Francis Xavier for his missionary zeal. Both qualities are needed in the new pontiff, he said.

“I thought he was being really clever and being intentionally ambiguous and not saying [which],” Fr. Auther said.

Jesuit Father Edward Reese, president of Brophy College Preparatory, said the election of a Jesuit was unusual in that the order is a relatively new one in the Church. Beyond that, he said, there was another reason the selection was exceptional.

“Jesuits typically don’t become bishops or cardinals or anything like that,” Fr. Reese said. “In fact, we make a promise not to do that unless asked — and I mean asked in a serious way — by the pope himself.”

Jesuits make two such special promises or vows, Fr. Reese said. One is to go and do whatever the pope asks them to do, and the other one is not to aspire to ecclesiastical offices such as bishop or monsignor.

“Pope?” Fr. Reese said, “Certainly you would never aspire to be the pope.”

Did local Jesuits plan any special celebrations upon learning of Pope Francis’ election?

“I’m going out to dinner with a young couple to talk about baptizing their baby,” Fr. Auther quipped. “I was going to try to talk them into naming the little boy Eddie [after myself] but I think now maybe I’ll work on Francis instead.”