My Brother, the Pope

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Why the new Pontiff’s Jesuit background matters.

By James Martin | In the spring of 1988, when I told my close friends from Penn that I was entering the Jesuit order, the reaction could be summarized, more or less, as: The what? The who?

Six years earlier I had graduated from Wharton, landed a good job at General Electric, and found a pleasant Upper East Side apartment with one of my Penn pals, Rob Schlakman. Later I moved to Stamford, Connecticut, to work in GE’s financial services arm.

But while business seemed like a real vocation for most of my Wharton classmates, it seemed to fit me less and less. One night in 1986, after a typically grueling day at work, I came home and caught a television documentary about the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, a Columbia University grad who had left behind a dissolute life to enter a monastery in Kentucky in the 1940s. Merton’s story captivated me, and prompted me to start thinking about doing something else with my life, though at the time I had little idea what that “something else” would be.

A few years later, over dinner at a luxe restaurant in Midtown Manhattan, I gathered three of my friends, Jim Ross, Andy Schiff, and Andy Kellner, along with Rob, whom I’d already told about my decision. He was, as usual, supportive and kind, asking polite questions and trying his best to understand what my new life would be like. He seemed concerned. He wasn’t the only one. Another friend would later say, bluntly, “I think you should see a psychologist.” When I told him that due to my lack of satisfaction at work I already was seeing a psychologist, he said, “Then you should see another one.”

But when I told Rob that I wanted to spring the news on three mutual Penn pals, he brightened. “Oh promise me you’ll let me come to that dinner.”

So Rob was invited to the big reveal. Almost immediately after sitting down at the restaurant, Andy Kellner got to the point: “So what’s the big news, Martin?”

I paused for dramatic effect. “I’m joining the Jesuits,” I said. “I’m going to become a priest.”

“You’re joining the what?” said Andy Schiff.

The waiter presented himself at our table. “Do you need more time?” he asked.

“Yes,” said Jim Ross, “we need a lot more time.”

Andy Schiff later told me that he went home that night and looked up Jesuit in his dictionary.

These days that question might not be necessary. With the surprise (to everyone, including me) election of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, a Jesuit, to the papacy, the question “What’s a Jesuit?” is being answered more and more. The day after Pope Francis’s election probably featured more articles, blog posts, and TV pieces about the Jesuits than in the previous 10 years.

But in case you don’t know, a Jesuit is a member of the largest Catholic religious order for men in the world. That means that, like other religious orders (and there are orders for women too, of course) we take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and live in community together. Unlike diocesan priests, however, our work isn’t focused as much on parish life. A diocesan priest—or “parish priest” in common parlance—enters a local seminary in order to prepare for his work in a series of parishes within a particular diocese: celebrating Masses; presiding at baptisms, weddings, and funerals; perhaps running a parish school; and entering into the lives of his parishioners.

Religious-order priests have a somewhat different “portfolio,” as we might have said in Wharton. For instance, besides our more well-known work in education (in middle schools, high schools, and colleges), Jesuits work as retreat directors, hospital chaplains, and prison chaplains. We also hold positions as varied as geologists, musicians, astronomers, social activists, physicians, and writers, among many others. We’re probably best known in this country for our work in higher education. Georgetown, Boston College, and Fordham are among the colleges we founded, and now help to run. (The old quip is that the Jesuits were founded to start schools with great basketball teams.)

Jesuits often work “on the margins,” with groups who may be underserved by the church and other organizations, particularly the poor and marginalized. A few examples: One of my Jesuit brothers is the Catholic prison chaplain at San Quentin prison; he regularly tells me about his experiences counseling men on death row. Another Jesuit works with gang members in Los Angeles, helping them stay out of trouble and find work, often telling them, “Nothing stops a bullet better than a job.” Another helps indigent youth in Camden, New Jersey, learn web design skills at a company called Hopeworks.

Our work on the margins means that we are occasionally viewed with suspicion in some quarters of the church. As one Jesuit said to me, “When you work on the margins, you sometimes step out of bounds.”

To confuse matters more, sometimes the local bishop asks Jesuits to take over a parish—so in some circumstances we end up working as “parish priests” after all. But my life, and my work at a Catholic magazine, while centered on God, is quite different from that of the daily life of a parish priest. Not better or worse, just different.

Sometimes, as in the case of Jorge Bergoglio, we’re asked to become bishops, in his case the archbishop of Buenos Aires. But that’s not the norm. Jesuit bishops are few, archbishops fewer, and cardinals perhaps in the single digits.

Many of my Penn friends attended my final vow ceremony in 2009, which followed more than 20 years of training. During a Sunday Mass they heard me not only pronounce the traditional vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience (repeating the vows I’d made as a Jesuit novice, years before) but also make a special promise never to “strive or ambition” for any high office in the Church. St. Ignatius Loyola, the 16th-century founder of the Jesuit order, was adamant that his men—whom he wanted to do anything at all that could “help souls”—would avoid the kind of careerist climbing that characterized the clerical culture of his day.

And thus the irony. Jorge Bergoglio, a man who had promised never to strive for a position, was elected to the highest one in the Church. A man who was probably seen as something of an “outsider” by many of the cardinals in the papal conclave became the consummate insider. But sometimes the one on the margins is just what the center needs.

What will Pope Francis do? Good question. He has a full plate in front of him, and some of the dishes are not so appealing. First of all, he’ll have to deal with the sexual-abuse crisis, the most important problem facing the Catholic Church today. There is no other way of addressing that scourge than tackling it head on: removing anyone credibly accused of abuse; holding to accountability any bishops responsible for shielding abusive priests; implementing safe-environment programs in every parish; and apologizing and making full restitution to victims.

Next, the pope has to respond to a Western culture that in large part thinks that religion, faith, and even God are irrelevant. The pope, like anyone working in the Church, needs to make the Gospel inviting and accessible to the world. Basically, he needs to introduce people to Jesus. In a sense, that’s his most basic, and most important, task.

Finally he has to overhaul a sclerotic Vatican bureaucracy that even the College of Cardinals thinks needs fixing—which is really saying something. That’s one reason I think the cardinals elected Bergoglio. As a Jesuit he’s a bit of an “outsider,” and so may be seen as just the person to clean things up. (If he ever called this Wharton grad for advice, I’d tell him not to be afraid to fire at will.)

Considering that in just his first few days Pope Francis made so many changes—dispensing with some of the more elaborate Vatican rituals and vestments, ditching the traditional red shoes that every modern pope has donned in favor of his worn black ones, greeting people after a Sunday Mass in Vatican City with hugs and kisses, and, most of all, talking about how he much he hopes for “a church that is poor, and that is for the poor”—I believe he’s up to the task. The Jesuit tradition of prayer, hard work, analysis, flexibility, and sense of humor will serve him, and the Church, well. That’s my prayer.

When I had dinner all those years ago with my friends, I remember having a hard time explaining what it meant to be a Jesuit, and so I focused on what they did: ran schools, worked with the poor, wrote books, and of course celebrated Mass, baptized infants, and so on. Now it’s not what I do; it’s who I am.

Of course now I can add, “Oh, and sometimes we’re popes.”

At Penn’s career-services office, one adviser urged me to “aim high” when interviewing season came around. As I’ve mentioned, I’ve made a promise to do no such thing.

Still, wouldn’t Pope look great on a resumé?

James Martin W’82 is a Jesuit priest, editor at large of the Catholic magazine America, and author of The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life.

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