03/21/2013 06:09 pm ET Updated May 21, 2013

High Hopes for Francis: Education and the Environment

When Cardinal Jose Bergoglio was elected pope last week, he became the first Jesuit chosen to lead the Catholic church. What this will mean for Jesuits, for Catholics, and for those the church serves, remains to be seen -- but Pope Francis's history, Jesuit identity and indications he has given since his election do allow us to make some informed prognostications.

Jesuits work in the field -- in schools and universities, in parishes and missions around the world, and wherever we can serve the poor, disenfranchised, sick, and forgotten. Although we did not expect to have a Jesuit brother chosen for the highest leadership position in the church, Francis's first days suggest he will both embrace the position of pope while maintaining a Jesuit point of view. He remained humble at his official inauguration, in image, in action, and in word. He wore simple vestments and mingled with the crowds of people. He rode in an open-topped SUV -- not the bulletproof "Popemobile" -- and kissed babies held up to him. He got out of the vehicle to bless a man with a physical disability. He spoke, as he has before, of the need to protect "the poorest, the weakest, the least important." He called for humility and service, invoking the values of his chosen namesake, Francis of Assisi.

The Pope and Education

Pope Francis is, like many Jesuits, an academic with a great appreciation and commitment to education as a means to a more informed citizenship and a better world. The first Jesuit school was established in 1548 in Messina, Sicily, and since then, Jesuits have been educators -- first of religious scholars and seminarians, but soon the doors were open to lay people as well. St. Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuit order, believed that education was necessary to form responsible and ethical leaders of society. It is this belief that informs Jesuit education, in hundreds of institutions around the world -- yes, fine to say hundreds to this day. The Pope was a professor and head of a theological faculty with a rich history of scholarship and learning.

Given all of this, we could expect that a Jesuit pope will be significant for those of us in higher education. We can trust that he understands the value of education and the truths it can reveal about our world. Also, especially given Francis's emphasis on our responsibility to the poor, we can expect that he will focus on the importance of access to a good education, one that prepares leaders with deep concern for the welfare of all. These are themes he has sounded before.

The Pope and the Environment

Francis has also spoken, even in his short time as pope, about care for our environment, which is an expressed priority of both the Jesuit order and Jesuit educational institutions. Environmental stewardship acknowledges not only our responsibility to God's natural creation, but to the people who live on this increasingly taxed planet. Surely Pope Francis understands the need to educate our young people about the sustainability challenges they will certainly face and to equip them to develop creative, interdisciplinary, evidence-based solutions.

With Anticipation

We will watch closely as this milestone papacy unfolds, but I am optimistic that Francis will champion the need for access to education that prepares ethical leaders. I expect he will continue to emphasize the needs and rights of the poor. I hope that he will focus on environmental responsibility and the ways education can promote it. The strength of the Jesuit order is that we are grounded in the realities of life on this earth even as we seek spiritual perfection for ourselves and those we serve. I pray that Pope Francis will rely on this strength to navigate the challenges of the unequal but hopeful world in which we live.