A Jesuit Pope With a Franciscan Name

It makes more sense than you’d think.

Newly elected Pope Francis after holding his first audience with journalists in Vatican City on Friday.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

There has long been a playful rivalry among religious orders in the Catholic Church. This may surprise people accustomed to thinking of members of religious orders as a dull lot, their faces stuck in their Bibles or their eyes cast heavenward, far removed from such mundane matters as … humor. But there is a rich tradition of inter-order humor in which priests, brothers, and sisters take delight.

A favorite example: A man knocks on the door of a Franciscan church and asks a priest to say a rosary so that he might be able to afford a Lexus. “What’s a Lexus?” says the poverty-minded Franciscan. Frustrated, the man goes to a parish run by the Dominicans (the order, not the nationality). “Will you say a rosary so that I can afford a Lexus?” Says the Dominican: “What’s a Lexus?” Finally, the man figures he’ll go to the Jesuits, since they have a reputation for being so worldly. “Father,” he says to the priest, “do you know what a Lexus is?” The priest nods. “Good,” says the man. “Will you say a rosary that I can afford one?” “Sure,” says the Jesuit. “What’s a rosary?”

So when Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran stepped out onto the balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square and announced that name of the first Jesuit pope would be “Franciscum,” I suppressed a laugh. Was he honoring St. Francis of Assisi, the 13th-century founder of the Franciscans?* A Jesuit pope with a Franciscan name could be the start of a joke.

The Jesuits, for those who may be unfamiliar with the term, are a Catholic religious order for men founded in 1540 by St. Ignatius Loyola, a hotheaded soldier turned practical mystic. In this country we’re best known for the vast network of schools we founded—from middle schools to high schools to colleges and universities. Every time I list the larger one, I feel a pang of regret for not including more modest-size colleges, so I’ll say that they include not only Georgetown, Boston College, and Fordham, but also Regis, Spring Hill, and St. Peter’s University. And every college named Loyola.

But we weren’t founded to found schools. When Ignatius Loyola was inspired to begin a religious order (and I mean inspired literally: His conversion happened after a series of intense mystical experiences), he planned not to start a group of men who would found colleges with top-notch basketball teams, but men who would do something simpler: “help souls.” The Society of Jesus (our official name) was begun to do anything for the “greater glory of God.” Still, Jesuits are often accused of being overly intellectual, and overly proud because of it. “You all have, like, three Ph.D.’s don’t you?” said a reporter to me the other day. Not true, though sometimes it’s fun to bask in the reflected glory of my brother Jesuits’ academic accomplishments. Some of my older confreres still trade Greek and Latin witticisms over the table. Usually I pretend to get it.

The basis of the stereotype is not hard to discern: We undergo seemingly endless training, which takes upward of 20 years to complete. I entered the Jesuit novitiate in 1988, pronounced my first vows two years later, studied philosophy for two years at Loyola University Chicago, worked with refugees in Kenya for another two, wrote for a Catholic magazine for one year, studied theology for four years, and then was, finally, ordained in 1999. Wait: I’m not finished. Then I worked for a few more years at the same magazine (called America), completed more of the spiritual training I’d begun in the novitiate, and took my final vows in 2009. That’s 21 years.

So when Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the archbishop of Buenos Aires—but perhaps more significantly for Jesuits, the former novice director, director of studies, and regional superior for the Jesuits in Argentina—took the name “Francis,” I was caught off guard. “Why not Ignatius?” the founder of our order, I thought.

“That would have been a little overkill, don’t you think?” said a Jesuit friend later. Yes. A Jesuit pope taking the name of the Jesuit founder? I could imagine the response from my Franciscan, Dominican, and Benedictine friends: “Typical Jesuit!”

Besides, the name Francis telegraphs something in a way that our founder’s name does not: poverty, simplicity of life, care for the poor. Of course St. Ignatius was famously poor and Jesuits worldwide take a vow of poverty, but “Francis” is better shorthand for the church of the poor, something the new pope would mention in one of his first public remarks.

It’s a healthy mix of spiritualities, too. The best way to sum up Jesuit spirituality may be the shorthand “finding God in all things.” We’re also encouraged to be “contemplatives in action,” to keep a contemplative heart even in the midst of activity. And we’re meant to be “available,” free enough to go wherever we are most needed. Plus, we’re always “discerning,” that is, weighing, analyzing, and meditating on life.

It’s that last quality that sometimes needs a little levity, and here is where the Franciscan simplicity and playfulness comes in. Sometimes Jesuits can discern and analyze too much, leading to an overserious nature. Lightheartedness, by contrast, is part of the Franciscan “charism,” the in-house Catholic phrase for the guiding spirit of a founder of a religious order. I’ve always thought that if you placed Ignatius and Francis in front of a sunrise, Ignatius might say, “What is God revealing to me in this?” Francis, though, would say, “Relax, Ignatius. Just enjoy it!”

Funnily enough, it was Francis who prompted Ignatius, at least in part, to his conversion. When in 1521, Ignatius, then a vainglorious soldier, was wounded in a battle after some needless derring-do, he was carried home to his family’s castle in Loyola. With too much time on his hands, he asked for some books. But there were none of the chivalric tales he preferred, only—to his dismay—a book on the life of Christ and another on the lives of the saints.

But as the wounded Ignatius, his dreams of military success shattered, read on, something strange happened. When he thought of his old life, of trying to impress others with his exploits, he felt dry afterward. But when he imagined living as simply as the saints did, and devoting his life to God, after his reading was over, he felt happy. Slowly he realized this was one way that God was leading him to choose a more life-giving path. He wrote, “What if I should do what St. Francis did, or what St. Dominic did?

Thus the life of St. Francis of Assisi, with its dramatic renunciation of wealth and loving embrace of “Lady Poverty,” appealed to the wounded soldier as he mused on the path that his life might take. What a favor Francis did for Ignatius.

Last week, almost 500 years later, one of Ignatius’s spiritual sons, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, repaid that favor in part, by taking the name of Francis to begin his pontificate.

But the jokes continue. One Jesuit opined that Cardinal Bergoglio had actually intended to honor St. Francis Xavier, the Jesuit missionary. In response, I told my friend that the new pope emphasized that it was Assisi, not Xavier, who was being commemorated.

“Well,” said my Jesuit friend, “He had to say that. Otherwise we would have never heard the end of it from the Franciscans!”

Correction, March 18, 2013: This piece originally misstated the century St. Francis of Assisi founded the Franciscans. It was the 13th century, not the 14th. (Return to the corrected sentence.)