THE BLOG

A Jesuit and Pope

03/18/2013 05:31 pm ET | Updated May 18, 2013

Among the first calls the newly elected Pope Francis made was to the person known popularly as the "black pope," the Superior General of the Jesuits, the largest order of priests in the Catholic Church. In the informal, personal style that is beginning to mark his papacy, Francis placed the call himself.

"This is Pope Francis. May I speak to Father General?" Andrea, the receptionist, was speechless.

"This is not a joke. I am Pope Francis. Who are you?"

"I am Andrea."

"Good," the pope said, "Now let me talk to the General." Fr. Adolfo Nicolás eventually was handed the phone. On Sunday, Pope Francis and Father Nicolás met in person, and Nicolás will concelebrate the Pope's inaugural Mass on Tuesday. By tradition, the Jesuit Superior General, who typically wears a long black cassock in contrast to the pope's traditional white, meets a newly elected pope in order to renew the special vow of obedience that connects the Society of Jesus to the pope. But this time, the meeting is different. For the first time in history, the Superior General meets a brother Jesuit in the chair of St. Peter.

Why did it take so long? From their founding in 1540, Jesuits have promised not to seek ecclesiastical office, concerned that temptations to power and self-aggrandizement may follow. Only under obedience and with the conviction that they can serve well in that role have Jesuits, like Bergoglio as bishop and now pope, accepted such honors.

What difference does it make that the pope is a Jesuit? Most likely we will see a difference in style. We have already seen the pope's distinctive way of proceeding. About an hour after the white smoke appeared above St. Peter's Square, inciting the crowds to cheer and chant, Francis stepped out onto the balcony. Before blessing the thousands crowding the square, and the billions watching around the world, Francis bowed and in majestic silence received the people's benediction, a gesture of authentic humility and friendship, and a reminder to all that it is often good first to listen to God and others before acting and pronouncing.

The first generation of Jesuits and Jesuits ever since have described themselves as contemplatives in action. Not settling in a monastery, their home would be the road. In the spiritual and intellectual tradition of St. Ignatius Loyola, their founder, Jesuits seek to find God in all things, all places and all people. In the midst of their activity, they pray, always looking for deeper meaning and lasting impact. Prayer seems to come easily for Francis, and he will likely exhibit a holy restlessness, an apostolic extroversion and a radical openness to which Jesuits aspire.

In recent decades, Jesuits have reflected on their identity and mission in the modern world. They chose to describe themselves as sinners, loved by God. Grateful and humble, they leave this divine embrace to serve the needs of the world and the Church that are not being met by others. To be a Jesuit today, again in their own words, is to be committed to the service of faith, of which the promotion of justice is an essential part. As a teacher of young Jesuits and later as superior of men in his native Argentina, Francis was steeped in this animating spirit. Foregoing the trappings of privilege as archbishop of Buenos Aries, he chose to live in a simple apartment, cook his own meals, and ride public transportation. In a sincere and telling gesture, he washed the feet of persons with AIDS.

While some find it ironic that the Jesuit pope chose the name of the founder of the Franciscan order, it is actually quite fitting. During his own conversion, Ignatius was inspired by the example of St. Francis. In an audience last Saturday, Francis explained how the saint's name came to him during the conclave. He was sitting next to the former Archbishop of Sao Paulo, Claudio Hummes. As the votes were counted and Bergoglio surpassed the necessary two-thirds, Hummes turned to the newly elected pope and said, "Don't forget about the poor." Francis pledged to honor the saint from Assisi, "the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and guards creation." And then he added in hope, "How I would like a church that is poor and for the poor."

On the night of his election, as Francis bowed before the multitudes, the world fell silent for a few moments, as if to catch our collective breath for what is already proving to be a ground-breaking moment in the Church's long history.

Fr. Kevin O'Brien, S.J., is the Vice President for Mission and Ministry at Georgetown University, the nation's oldest Catholic and Jesuit university, and author of 'The Ignatian Adventure: Experiencing the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius in Daily Life.'