In the summer of 1206, St. Francis went into the small chapel of San Damiano near Assisi to pray. As he knelt before the crucifix, he heard Jesus’ invitation: “Francis, go rebuild my Church, which you see is falling into ruins.” “Yes!” said Francis, “This is what I want; this is what I long for with all my heart.”
800 years later, the first Pope Francis took up the same challenge–to rebuild a Church that was in almost total disgrace, disarray, and irrelevant. The message of the Gospels had become lost to dogmatic meanness and nit-picking.
Inside the Jesuits: How Pope Francis is Changing the World and the Church by noted journalist and former Jesuit Robert Blair Kaiser, offers insights on the pope’s “Jesuit DNA.” It is this DNA that impels him with a “holy boldness” to push the boundaries to make the world a better place, and rebuild the Church to a house of mercy and humanity.
The Jesuit DNA includes several things: a striving for the greater glory of God (ad majorem Dei gloriam); but especially to go to the edges, the margins, to learn, understand and serve. After Vatican II, the author relates that most Jesuits call salvation “being all we can be in this life” and not simply to get to heaven, but to make a difference in the lives of other people.
Pope Francis’ emphasis on humanity vs. rules and regulations is changing the culture of judgement (abortion, same-sex marriage, doctrinaire fixation (“are you pure enough to call yourself ‘Catholic?’) to a culture of mercy and mission. He wants to be fully engaged with people, and is leading the Church to do likewise. He starts by calling himself a sinner who has made many mistakes (when was the last time we heard a cardinal, bishop, or priest do that?) and reminds us that Christ came to us so that we might know life more fully.
The author framed this motivation wonderfully by describing his own experience as a teacher and coach at Saint Ignatius Prep, a high school for boys in San Francisco, CA: “I was trying to show them that their religion, fully lived, was something that would make them more human, happier individuals, with a humanity and happiness that would bring joy to those around them. I wanted to destroy the image of religion as something that made people less human, less joyful, less real.”
The author doesn’t back away from the warts. He examines Pope Francis’ time as provincial of the Argentine Jesuits and as archbishop of Buenos Aires. He has come under criticism for both periods because of his lack of support for liberation theology, and for not standing up to the military junta that caused the death or disappearance of over 20,000 people.
The pope did not shy away from his record, but doesn’t go into specifics. He explains the Lord leads to a growth of knowledge through his faults and sins, and also that he made decisions alone and in the midst of an interior crisis. If experience leads to a conversion of heart, who are we to judge?
Robert Kaiser also raises the pope’s, Church’s, and Jesuits’ poor records and lack of engagement with women–half the Church. My good friend, theologian Dr. Mary E. Hunt, challenges the pope on this issue: “It is intellectually embarrassing to hear a man who is so conversant with music, literature and poetry have such a palty vocabulary when it comes to women. Thus far, Francis has not had any public conversation with a woman church leader of any sort. The continued oppression of U.S. women religious, officially approved by him, is a negative sign as well.”
The author thinks Dr. Hunt is mistaken, but I agree with her. The pope needs to address the impact of our closed, male-oriented institution on the poorest of the poor–Catholic women. Women continue to wait for meaningful action from Pope Francis. His Jesuit DNA won’t help us there–Jesuits have little to do with women’s issues or women as a group.
One surprise in the book for me was the suggestion that 46-year-old Jorge Bergoglio had been in love. In March 1986 he went to Frankfurt, Germany for two years to pursue a doctorate. In 1987 his provincial ordered him back to Argentina, his thesis only half finished. He was put on severe restrictions for correspondence and communication. This kind of discipline is only warranted if the man has told superiors he has fallen in love, or if a fellow Jesuit found out he is having a love affair.
Would love and separation make a person more emphathetic to its effects in other people’s lives? I think so. Perhaps this period in the pope’s life has led him to emphasize mercy, forgiveness and the human vs. ideological. Pope Francis has described himself as a sinner who has made hundreds of mistakes. It sounds like it’s true–not some stock piety.
About half the book is devoted to Pope Francis, the remainder is parables about fellow Jesuits and former Jesuits who illustrate the best of “Jesuit DNA.” Like Marines–once a Marine, always a Marine, Jesuits forever identify themselves as brothers, and retain their values, friendships and network for a lifetime.
The men profiled include Fr. Marie Joseph Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a scientist and humanist; Fr. George Dunne, writer and social justice crusader; Bill Cain, playwright and screen writer; Fr. John Baumann, co-founder of PICO (Pacific Institute of Community Organizing); Governor Jerry Brown of California, John Dear, peace activist; and, of course, Inigo Lopez de Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits. There is a lot to inspire all of us in their generous lives.
When Jorge Bergoglio became Pope Francis people and pundits wondered what it would mean to have a Jesuit pope? How does he think? What is important to him? What can we expect?
On the way back to Rome from World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro Pope Francis addressed this question by reporter Caroline Pigozzi from Paris Match:
“Good evening, Holy Father. I would like to know if you, since you’ve been Pope, still feel yourself a Jesuit?”
Pope Francis: “I feel myself a Jesuit in my spirituality, in the spirituality of the Exercises, spirituality, the one I have in my heart. But I feel so much like this that in three days I’ll go to celebrate with Jesuits the feast of Saint Ignatius: I will say the morning Mass. I haven’t changed my spirituality, no. Francis, Franciscan, no. I feel myself a Jesuit and I think like a Jesuit. Not hypocritically, but I think as a Jesuit. Thank you.”
My Rating: ***** Read this book if you are the type of person who likes to know the “why” behind people and events.
Author: Robert Blair Kaiser is an American author and journalist, best known for his writings on the Catholic Church. A former Jesuit, Kaiser left the Society of Jesus three years before his ordination to pursue a career in journalism. He served as an award-winning religion reporter for The New York Times, CBS News, Newsweek and Time. Throughout the Second Vatican Council, Kaiser was Time magazine’s reporter in Rome and the preeminent reporter on the Council in the English-speaking world. For his work on the Council, Kaiser won the Overseas Press Club Award for best foreign reporting on foreign affairs. He is the author of sixteen other books, including A Church in Search of Itself.