When Jesuit priests profess solemn vows, they also make simple vows to never “strive or ambition” for any dignity in the church, like becoming a bishop, or any higher office in the Society of Jesus. Thus few Jesuits become bishops. In fact, at the most recent papal conclave, there was only one Jesuit in the Sistine Chapel, and at age 76, no one viewed him as a serious candidate.
Enter the Holy Spirit.
Like most others, I never anticipated the result of that conclave — nor what would unfold in the subsequent 16 months: a Jesuit pope named Francis quickly evolves into a popular global leader with uncharacteristic humility and moral credibility; the public perception of the Catholic Church undergoes a dramatic shift; many people in the pews (and beyond) feel renewed and rejuvenated in their faith; and many new opportunities for missionary outreach emerge.
Francis has many of the traits I admire in fellow Jesuits and those of history: intellectual and spiritual depth, missionary zeal, pastoral sensitivity and compassion for those who are marginalized in church and society. At the same time, he seems to carry few of our faults. At least, he does not seem afflicted with two of the classic Jesuit weaknesses: spiritual pride and an exaggerated sense of self-importance. The Jesuit president of Fordham University in New York City said it best: “A humble Jesuit? An oxymoron. A Jesuit pope? An impossibility. A humble Jesuit pope? A miracle.”
More evidence of the Holy Spirit.
Francis has challenged Jesuits in word and deed; we have a lot to learn from him. He is immensely popular but remains grounded. He is the shepherd of a global church but still takes on the smell of the sheep. He seeks counsel but is decisive and takes responsibility for his decisions. His writings and homilies are sophisticated but also accessible. People see in him the love and compassion of Jesus. He embodies the Gospel teachings of love, mercy, forgiveness and commitment to the poor in fresh and attractive ways. Francis has expanded my imagination of what discipleship — and church leadership — look like in the 21st century. The following three moments have especially inspired and challenged me.
Just two weeks after his election, Pope Francis celebrated Holy Thursday at the Casal del Marmo prison for minors. He knelt down before 12 young people, including at least two Muslims and two women, and washed, dried and kissed their feet. “To wash your feet, this is a symbol, a sign that I am at your service,” he explained. “Jesus came exactly for this, to serve and to help us.”
On his first papal trip outside of Rome, Francis visited an island off the Italian coast that serves a crossing point for migrants from Africa. Thousands have died traversing these waters. Referring to one particular shipwreck, Francis asked, “Has any one of us wept for these persons who were on the boat? For the young mothers carrying their babies? For these men who were looking for a means of supporting their families? We are a society which has forgotten how to weep.”
During an interview on his return flight from World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, Francis remarked, “If a person is gay and seeks the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge him?” The comment, which drew global media attention, signaled a change in tone and approach on what is a contentious topic among Catholics and in the larger culture. In an interview published in America, Francis reiterated his point: “Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person? We must always consider the person.”
Like each of us, Francis is a person with flaws. He has acknowledged a past history of authoritarian decision-making that led to “serious problems.” He also struggles to understand women and to hear their concerns. When asked to describe himself, he acknowledged, “I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.” He means it.
Francis makes me want to be a more compassionate human being, a better Jesuit, and a dedicated pastor who smells like the sheep. He has given us an example, against all odds, of a humble Jesuit.
Hansen is an associate editor of America, a Jesuit-sponsored media ministry. In August, he will resume theology studies toward ordination to the priesthood at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif., a graduate school of Santa Clara University. His parents, Glenn and Joyce Hansen, are members of St. Katharine Drexel Parish in Kaukauna.