Skip to main content

A key to understanding Pope Francis

By James Martin
March 12, 2014 -- Updated 2107 GMT (0507 HKT)
Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected the Roman Catholic Church's 266th Pope on March 13, 2013. The first pontiff from Latin America was also the first to take the name Francis. It was a sign of maverick moves to come. Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected the Roman Catholic Church's 266th Pope on March 13, 2013. The first pontiff from Latin America was also the first to take the name Francis. It was a sign of maverick moves to come.
HIDE CAPTION
Pope Francis' first year
Pope Francis' first year
Pope Francis' first year
Pope Francis' first year
Pope Francis' first year
Pope Francis' first year
Pope Francis' first year
Pope Francis' first year
Pope Francis' first year
Pope Francis' first year
Pope Francis' first year
Pope Francis' first year
Pope Francis' first year
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • James Martin: Jesuits wonder if Pope Francis, when elected, was still a member of their order
  • Martin: He has identified with the Jesuits, and his life reflects the order's teachings
  • Humility, poverty, prayer and "finding God in all things" are Jesuit ideals, he says
  • Martin: Pope Francis is a great leader who would please St. Ignatius, founder of Jesuits

Editor's note: James Martin, a Jesuit priest, is editor at large of America magazine and author of the new book "Jesus: A Pilgrimage" (HarperOne). Follow him on Twitter.

(CNN) -- It was one year ago Thursday that Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope Francis. From that moment, Jesuits around the world asked the same question: "Is he still a Jesuit?" If someone becomes a pope, and therefore head of all Catholic religious orders -- Franciscans, Dominicans, Benedictines, Jesuits and so on -- is he still a member of his religious order?

Since then, that question been answered several times by Pope Francis, who in gatherings with his brother Jesuits has spoken of "We Jesuits."

Jim Martin
Jim Martin

Beyond the Jesuit parlor game of "Is he or isn't he?" the Pope's Jesuit identity is a key way to understand this world phenomenon of a pontiff. In fact, many of the words and deeds that have so shocked the world flow naturally from his Jesuit background. Let's look at five:

Humility. Is there anyone who has not noticed Francis' humility? His first public gesture as Pope was not to bless the vast crowd in St. Peter's Square but to request the crowd's blessing. A few days later, he turned down the traditional papal digs in the grand Apostolic Palace in favor of a modest suite at a Vatican guesthouse.

Just this week, a photo taken of members of the Vatican staff on their annual retreat showed the Pope seated in their midst, along with the other bishops and cardinals, as just another person on retreat.

Pope Francis sits among bishops and cardinals at their recent annual retreat, as one of many.
Pope Francis sits among bishops and cardinals at their recent annual retreat, as one of many.

Humility of course is a Christian virtue, but it is also something that St. Ignatius Loyola, the 16th-century founder of the Jesuits, specifically asked Jesuit priests and brothers to embrace. There are three kinds of humility, St. Ignatius said. The first is exemplified by the person who does nothing immoral. The second is the one who, when faced with honor or dishonor, is "indifferent." The third is the person who chooses the humbler path, to be more like Jesus. Pope Francis exemplifies this "Third Degree of Humility."

How to really measure the 'Francis effect'

Poverty. Francis is the first Jesuit Pope and the first from a religious order since 1831. That means he is the first Pope to have lived under a "vow of poverty" since the mid-19th century. All priests are supposed to live simply, but members of religious orders take a specific vow of poverty. "Almighty and eternal God ..." begins the Jesuit vows: In other words, members of religious orders make a promise to God to live simply.

Thus, for most of his adult life -- until he became a bishop and was released from that vow -- Jorge Mario Bergoglio owned nothing of his own. As all members of religious orders, he had to live on a strict budget. He had to turn into his community anything he earned and any gifts. He had to ask for cash for large purchases, such as a suit. This accustomed Bergoglio to a simple life, which many find one of his most appealing aspects. It also heightened his compassion for people who live not in voluntary poverty, as he did, but involuntary poverty, as the poor and marginalized do.

Governance. Pope Francis had some longtime Vaticanologists scratching their heads when he appointed a group of eight cardinals to advise him and assist him in reforming the Vatican Curia, or central bureaucracy. The "G8," as the cardinals have inevitably become known, have already implemented changes in such complex areas as the Vatican Bank. Many wondered why the Pope didn't rely more on the heads of the specific Vatican offices for this kind of close consultation. Why weren't the "G8" the prefects of the largest Vatican congregations?

Valentine's Day advice from Pope Francis
Pope Benedict: Papacy rumors 'absurd'

But to most Jesuits his "way of proceeding," as St. Ignatius liked to say, was familiar. Before becoming archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio was the Jesuit "provincial," or regional superior, of Argentina. As all Jesuit provincials do, he selected province "consultors" who advise the provincial on all manner of decisions. Because they usually do not work directly in province governance, the provincial can rely on them to speak openly and candidly. With the "G8," the Pope is replicating the familiar Jesuit model of governance.

Prayer. Often you will hear Pope Francis say something similar to what he said in a homily recently to a parish in Rome when he asked parishioners to close their eyes and imagine themselves in a Gospel scene, in this case at the Jordan River at the Baptism of Jesus. "Now speak to Jesus," he said.

Last Easter he asked listeners to picture themselves with the women disciples approaching Jesus' tomb on Easter Sunday. This is a key characteristic of Jesuit prayer: asking the person to use their imagination and let God work through that.

In homilies, reflections and speeches, Francis most often does not tell his listeners what to think, he invites them to imagine and think for themselves. It is not the Pope's Jesus whom you are invited to meet, but your own.

Openness. Jesuits are asked to "Find God in all things." Again, this is not simply a Jesuit virtue but a Christian one. Yet that brief motto is the most commonly cited way of summing up Jesuit spirituality. And "all things" means all people.

This includes those people who have felt excluded, or unwelcome, in the church. So although his message is based on simple Christian mercy, the world has witnessed the Pope repeatedly inviting the church to experience God in places that some other Catholic leaders may have overlooked or even ignored. Atheists, divorced and remarried Catholics, and gay men and lesbians, have all seen the Pope reach out to them.

Francis is not so much trying to find God there -- because he knows that God is already there -- as he is reminding others to look for God in the lives of all these people.

Other Jesuit hallmarks could be added to the list, such as flexibility, freedom and an emphasis on social justice. But overall, when Jesuits watch the Pope, we often nod our heads and say, "That's very Jesuit."

Over the past year, Jesuits have been accused of being too proud of Pope Francis. I'm guilty myself. So at the risk of pride, I'll say that I think he's a great Pope, a great priest and a great Jesuit. And I'll bet St. Ignatius would be proud -- or as proud as he would allow himself to be.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of James Martin.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 0102 GMT (0902 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT