Election of Pope Francis may be signal to new era of service
When he learned the new Pope was a fellow Jesuit, Father "Don" Keegan, S.J., said, "I almost fell off the chair I was sitting on."
"I mean, I was thrilled," said Keegan, who is pastor at St. Patrick Parish in Milford. "This sense goes through you. You get goosebumps."
The election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, S.J., to be the 265th successor of Saint Peter sent a similar thrill through the Society of Jesus, a religious order that operates high schools, colleges, retreat centers and parishes around the world.
Founded in the mid-16th century by Ignatius of Loyola, the Jesuits, as they are commonly called, are known for their deep scholarship and devotion to the poor.
For Americans of a certain age, they are also associated with a brand of social activism dating back to the anti-Vietnam-war and Watergate eras.
So what will it mean for the Catholic Church to have a Jesuit as its spiritual leader?
Ignatius' vision was for Society of Jesus members to walk in Christ's footsteps, Keegan said. "What we're doing is doing what He did...preaching the gospel, reaching out to the poor and the marginalized. And that's how we get this reputation, I guess, for being radical."
Keegan said he was touched when, after Pope Francis finished blessing the crowd for the first time from the balcony at St. Peter Basilica, he removed his red stole. It was, he said, "his way of showing, 'I'm a simple kind of guy. I don't need this trapping.'"
It was a very Jesuit moment, Keegan said. "Our founder, St. Ignatius, said the Jesuits should not be seeking, or take, external honors to ourselves."
The Rev. Thomas Frink is associate pastor at Saints Mary and Joseph Parish in Salem, the state's only Jesuit parish. He, too, said he was surprised and proud to have a fellow Jesuit chosen to lead the church at this time.
Frink said many have been touched by the new Pope's simplicity, by reports that he sold the lavish archbishop's home in Buenos Aires, cooked his own meals and rode the bus when he went about town.
That gives him "great credibility, especially maybe with the younger generations, for his witness that it's not about the pomp and circumstance," Frink said. "He's all about really trying to serve God."
"I think he's walking in the footsteps of Jesus, the Lenten footsteps." Frink said. "He's showing us that's the way, not riches or power, but simplicity and following Christ."
All Jesuits undergo a lengthy and rigorous period of formation, a process that can take 15 to 20 years before ordination and another five years or more before final vows, Frink said.
Because of that training, the early Jesuits became chaplains to the royalty of Europe, he said. At the same time, the order was devoted to working with "the poorest of the poor," caring for plague victims, for instance.
In addition to taking vows of "perpetual poverty, chastity and obedience," Jesuits promise "special care for the instruction of children," and "special obedience to the Sovereign Pontiff."
The order's Spiritual Exercises, written by St. Ignatius, Frink said, provide "a process of coming to know God better and understanding what He wants you to do in life." Having a Pope who has gone through that kind of spiritual discernment, he said, "is a wonderful asset for the church."
Keegan said the Jesuits' reputation as a more "radical" order "comes from the actions of individual Jesuits" - the Berrigan brothers, for instance, who were arrested for anti-war activities during the Vietnam era, and the late Rev. Robert Drinan, who served in Congress and called for Richard Nixon's resignation over the bombing of Cambodia.
But he said social activism "flows from that kind of formation, where we see ourselves as companions of Jesus Christ.
"And Jesus Christ spent his time with the poor, with the outcasts," he said. "He was a radical himself."
Lee Alphen is a lector, Eucharistic minister and sacrist at St. Joseph Church in the Salem Jesuit parish. She said she's "ecstatic" about the new Pope.
"The more I hear about him, the more excited I get," she said. "He's a real breath of fresh air."
"I think he wants to be more in touch with the people, which is what I think the Jesuits try to do," she said. "They don't really go for a lot of that pomp and circumstance."
The Rev. Jonathan DeFelice, O.S.B., president of St. Anselm College, a Benedictine college in Goffstown, said he's "just delighted" with the choice for Pope. "I think the Holy Spirit really did his work with the cardinals," he said.
"My first impression of the new Holy Father is that he is a complex man," he said. "He's a very humble man who is now the leader of the Catholic Church."
In his first public appearance after his election Wednesday, Pope Francis bowed before the people and asked for their blessing.
"I was very impressed with that," DeFelice said. "There's a man who understands the church is not him alone, that it is those hundreds of thousands of people standing out there; it's the people he has served in his home archdiocese."
"My hope is that he's going to continue to teach both by word and example, and that he will continue to bring a really positive image of the church for all of us."
Sister Maureen Sullivan, O.P., is a theology professor and Vatican II expert at St. Anselm College. The selection of the Argentine cardinal reminded her of another critical time in the church's history.
It was 1958 and the conclave of cardinals chose 76-year-old Angelo Roncalli, who became Pope John XXIII.
"At that time, they saw Roncalli as an interim, that he was old and what could he do?" Sullivan said. "And of course we know what he did."
Three months after his election, Pope John XXIII called for an ecumenical council, a gathering of church leaders that would author the church reforms known as Vatican II.
Sullivan said the election of Pope Francis, who is also 76, feels like a similar moment in time. In light of the crises facing the modern church, the choice of an "outsider" was a recognition, she said, by the cardinals that "all credibility was on the table."
"I have no idea what is in the mind of Pope Francis, but I don't rule out the possibility that this could be another moment of reform," she said. "Whether or not it involves a Council or anything as big and momentous as Vatican II, who can say?
"But there's not a doubt in my mind the vote represents that we can't keep doing business as usual," she said. "It's a new moment. It's a new time."
Sullivan expects Francis will appeal both to social progressives for his views on poverty and social justice, and to conservatives for his "hard line" on sexual morality. "Many in the church will find something they will be able to gravitate towards in this man," she said.
Brother Paul Demers is the chaplain at Bishop Guertin High School and at Rivier University, both in Nashua. He expects Francis will bring what he called "the spirituality of the Jesuits" to his new office: "You discern, you take your time, you evaluate situations before you make a move."
"They're very careful about listening to the word of Jesus. If you're in authority, you're not there to lord it over other people, but you're there to be a servant of other people."
"So the greatest is the one who serves."
Demers said he has seen that attitude already in the new Pope. And he sees a powerful symbol in his choice of Francis for his name. "St. Francis in the 13th century got a message ... he was to rebuild the church in the midst of a lot of scandals that were taking place at the time," Demers said.
"So I think this Pope said, 'I'm going to take Francis. And I'm going to undertake the rebuilding of my church.'"