The election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the archbishop of Buenos Aires, as pope comes as a surprise to most of us Jesuits. A surprise because we do not think of ourselves as moving up in the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. We Jesuits see ourselves as working for the Holy Father, and we try our best to do what has been asked of us.
Usually, this has meant going to the frontiers—the frontiers of knowledge, of the geographic world, and of service, where the poor are marginalized and forgotten. Our best work is in schools and colleges, in parishes, in refugee camps, and in retreat houses, not in the halls of church administration.
But the man who has chosen Francis as his new name, signifying his new identity, is certainly one of us. He was a professor and the head of a theological faculty. He knows academia. He was a provincial of the Argentine Jesuit Province. He knows about the management and care of priests and the institutions in which they serve. He rose through the ecclesiastic ranks in Buenos Aires to become a cardinal, largely because of his competence at administration and his experience with complex problems of a temporal and spiritual nature.
But, I suspect, his fellow cardinals turned to Cardinal Bergoglio because he can make difficult decisions and his theology is conservative, in the style of his predecessors John Paul II and Benedict XVI. However, he also represents the New World, where Christianity and Catholicism are still vital, critical players in the debates over social equality and fairness. And also, I suspect, because of his personal qualities, such as his simplicity of lifestyle: He lives in an apartment, not a bishop’s mansion or rectory, he cooks for himself, and he rides the bus to work in the mornings.
Well, not anymore. But, in short, he knows how most of us on this planet live and survive. That may have been key to his being chosen, especially at this time in the Catholic Church’s history.
What might this mean for those of us who are Catholic educators and for our institutions? Could there be significance here for all of us in higher education? Again, we will need to see as this papacy unfolds, but there will no doubt be an emphasis on the needs and rights of the poor. Access to a good education, and the preparation of leaders with deep concern for the welfare of all, is a theme Pope Francis has sounded before.
We should also expect that he will understand, as did his predecessors, that research and scholarly endeavors can be powerful contributors to building a just society, even as they can be harnessed for forces that do the opposite. As a Jesuit, the pope has expectations for the role education can play that may well be quite high.
My guess is that his approach to the issues and challenges that the Catholic Church faces today will be firm and clear, in short order. His positions, however, may be disappointing for some who will feel that they do not adequately deal with the problems the church is facing.
Those who “knew him when” may see in Pope Francis a different man from the younger one they remember, one who now is tempered by his times—and who will look to the lessons of his past as he leads his church into the future.
The Rev. Michael J. Garanzini is president of Loyola University Chicago and secretary for higher education for the Society of Jesus.