While everyone agrees that the election of Jorge Bergoglio as Pope Francis is unprecedented in many ways, it is not entirely a surprise. He was runner up to Joseph Ratzinger in the 2005 Conclave that saw him elected as Pope Benedict XVI.
Bergoglio is the first Jesuit, first Latin American and first Pope from the South. He is of Italian migrant parents but not a “Romano” or a Curial Cardinal having had no time in his working life at the Vatican.
He is considered a theological conservative but an informed pastor and especially attentive to the needs of poor, reflecting that commitment in the simplicity of his own life style.
It is not so much his being a Jesuit that interests me. As one myself, I am certain that the stereotype of the liberal intellectual associated with membership of the Order does more to obscure than reveal the reality of its members’ views. The Society of Jesus offers a rich panorama of ideological, theological and ecclesiastical inclinations.
What I find significant about the appointment of this Jesuit are the times and forces that have shaped him, the jobs he has done and the challenges he has had to face.
Raised in the high time of socialist fascism – a political cocktail mixed uniquely for Argentina by Juan Peron – he joined the Jesuits in the 1950s. Quite unusually, he was made Provincial of the Jesuits in Argentina in his 30s – 1973 to 1979 – when the Jesuits in Argentina were in turmoil and the Jesuits internationally were reinventing themselves.
The 1970s were years when the Jesuits in Argentina were riven with factions and conflicts, with many leaving the Order, The conflicts were as much about directions for the Order and the Church as Liberation theology burst upon the scene in Latin America as they were about local politics. Decades of political conflict over Juan Peron and his legacy followed by a military dictatorship divided Argentineans and the Jesuits there too.
Holding the Jesuits together at that time in Argentina was no slight challenge but he was also fully engaged with the worldwide impulses for change in the Jesuits then. They received their decisive expression in 1975 at an extraordinary meeting of the highest level of governance in the Order – a General Congregation. Bergoglio was intimately involved in that process.
For both Argentina and the Jesuits, the 1970s were a point of highly contested decisions about direction. The direction of the Jesuits incurred the wrath of the Vatican with John Paul 2 in 1981, setting aside the General of the time, Pedro Arrupe, proroguing the Jesuit Constitutions and imposing a Visitor to investigate and if needed correct alleged excesses during his time as General.
Maggie Thatcher’s escapades in the 1980s over the Falklands began the process of removing the military dictatorship and the restoration of democracy.
Bergoglio is criticized for his apparent fence sitting during the dictatorial regime in Argentina during this period but led public calls for the repentance of the Church for its silence over the “dirty wars” and “disappearances” during the military dictatorship.
Bergoglio has been a bishop since 1992 and archbishop of Buenos Aires since 1998. While not the largest archdiocese in Latin America, that leadership experience gives Francis a solid 15 years in charge of something substantial and an experience of the political and, as an Argentinean, the economic games that are played.
His time leading that archdiocese and the Jesuits during their turmoil in the 1970s should have led him to ask the right questions, appreciate the processes required for systemic change and insight into the sort of people he needs around him to effect change.
He might also have a few others in mind – two Jesuits : the missionary Francis Xavier and the third Jesuit General, Francis Borgia, a widower, father of a large family and Duke of Gandia who joined the Jesuits in mid life and because of his administrative experience, quickly shot the top job in the Jesuits.
It only remains to be seen if a smart and experienced outsider is equal to the task of reforming the Curia and bringing wider Church processes closer to what Vatican 2 invited the Church to become. In taking the name of Francis, Bergoglio is said to invoking the memory of Francis of Assisi.
Michael Kelly SJ