Thousands and thousands of people waited – Italians and visitors to Italy – a sea of people gathered to find out who had been elected the 266th Successor of St. Peter by the conclave of cardinals.
Excitement grew and there was a hushed silence as the newly elected pontiff’s name was read aloud: Pope Francis, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina.
Pope Francis I is first pope from outside of Europe in almost 1,300 years and the first-ever pope elected from the Americas. Additionally, the fact Pope Francis I is the first Jesuit priest elected to run the church for the world’s 1.2 billion Christians in the Roman Catholic tradition had the media – secular and Catholic – abuzz. Nobody expected a Jesuit to be elected.
What’s a Jesuit?
Catholics understand who the Jesuits are and what the Society of Jesus, their religious order’s full name, is all about. For non-Catholics who haven’t already Googled to find out: A priest with the Society of Jesus, called a Jesuit, belongs to an order founded by St. Ignatius of Loyola. The Jesuits are known for their dedicated focus on education, charity, and evangelization and were believed to be a true force behind the Counter-Reformation, or defending the faith during the Reformation.
There has been some controversy around the Jesuit order, either esteemed as educated by liberal Catholics or feared as free-thinking renegades by conservatives. For this reason the election of a Jesuit for pope came as a surprise to many.
The significance of Francis
Catholics immediately seized upon the name chosen by the new pope. The Vatican has confirmed that the new pope chose his name in honour of Saint Francis of Assisi, Italy’s beloved Franciscan saint who gave up riches to follow Jesus and preach of peace, not Saint Francis Xavier, a founding member of the Society of Jesus. St. Francis of Assisi, whose peace prayer and living a life of poverty in service to the poor is so well known, is patron saint of Italy and animals.
The choice of Francis for his papacy implies that the new Holy Father will be leading as a humble servant, focused on peace, the plight of the poor, love of neighbour and the world, and evangelization. Pope Francis I started his pontificate in just this way, asking first for the blessing of the people gathered before him before he offered the traditional blessing as the new leader of the church.