In America, Francis is Expected to Show His Jesuit Colors

By William Bole

September 17, 2015 — During his upcoming visit to the United States, Pope Francis will roam the corridors of power — at the White House, in the U.S. Congress and at the United Nations. But all through his three-city tour, the Jesuit pope will undoubtedly seek out ordinary Americans as well as those dwelling at the margins of society. That’s according to the experts who know him best — members of his religious order, the Society of Jesus.

“In the United States, Francis will continue to surprise people,” said Father Drew Christiansen, SJ, of Georgetown University, referring to past surprises dealt by Francis. These have included washing the feet of Muslims on Holy Thursday and choosing to live in a Vatican guesthouse rather than in the sumptuous papal apartments.

“He seems to not like scripted visits,” noted Father Timothy P. Kesicki, SJ, president of the Washington-based Jesuit Conference. He was alluding to the pope’s trips to some other places including the Middle East, where Francis stopped his motorcade to pray at a wall erected to separate Palestinian Bethlehem from Jerusalem.

Pope Francis prayed in front of the Israeli security wall in Bethlehem, West Bank, on May 25, 2014. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano, pool)

Fr. Kesicki pointed to the packed itinerary of Francis’s six-day trip, which begins September 22 and will take the pontiff to Philadelphia in addition to Washington and New York. “But I’m certain he’ll find opportunities to insert himself into the world, and he’ll reach people any way he can,” said the Jesuit. “He loves people, and he’s coming here to learn from this culture as much as to preach.”

Americans will be seeing up close not only the first Latin American pope but also the first pontiff to hail from the 481-year-old Society of Jesus. And, much of what will be on display during the six-day visit will be Francis’s Jesuit style and sensibility, according to many observers.

One mark of that style would be “his freedom, his fearlessness,” said Father Matt Malone, SJ, editor in chief of America magazine, a Jesuit weekly published in New York. The Jesuit journalist said, “He’s unafraid to be joyful and spontaneous, but still he’s intelligent and thoughtful. He has a kind of interior freedom that comes from knowing that God is the origin and destination for him.”

According to Fr. Malone, the pope’s credibility as a public figure derives in no small part from this way of carrying himself. “You can’t fake freedom. You can’t fake courage. People see that. They see the authenticity,” he said.

Pope Francis met with children at a home for former street children in Manila, Philippines, on January 16, 2015. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano via Reuters) 

Of course, Jesuits don’t have a monopoly on those traits, but they do have a distinctive spirituality that promotes a sense of radical openness to the world, said Fr. Malone. He cited the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, the Spanish soldier and mystic who founded the order. Through these daily exercises and meditations, Jesuits and other practitioners of this spirituality look to “find God in all things,” to see God’s grace at work in their everyday lives.

It’s difficult to say exactly where and when the pope will demonstrate these qualities during his East Coast pilgrimage. That’s partly because, as Fr. Malone quipped, “Spontaneity is hard to predict.” But he and other analysts are expecting a number of revealing, unscripted moments, some of these perhaps involving ordinary parishioners the pope will encounter.

For example, in Washington the pope is scheduled to join in a midday prayer with U.S. bishops at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle. Fr. Kesicki of the Jesuit Conference, who frequently ministers at the church, said he has told parishioners intending to turn out for the appearance: “If he [the pope] has a chance, he’ll drift over to you and ask you questions. Be prepared.”

Part of what lies behind the Francis factor is his missionary style, Fr. Kesicki added. Most people in the United States associate the Jesuits with the schools they run, especially their colleges and universities, but the priest pointed out that the Society of Jesus is officially a missionary order. And that is how most people around the world know the Jesuits.

Pope Francis dropped by a Jesuit community in Guayaquil, Ecuador, in July 2015.

As missionaries, Jesuits are used to ministering at the periphery, in far-off places well beyond the central administration of the Catholic Church. This is seen as part of the freedom Francis exudes. “You could see that in the way he likes to speak his own mind. Some of his most remarkable statements have been off the cuff,” the Jesuit Conference leader said. Those many impromptu remarks have included the pope’s now-famous “Who am I to judge?” comment about gays.

“It’s a very missionary kind of spirit,” Fr. Kesicki said. “You want to be approachable to everyone you meet, not impress everyone you meet.”

Among the Weak and the Strong

In addition, there are clues in the eclectic company Francis will keep during his visit to the United States.

President Barack Obama with Pope Francis during a private audience at the Vatican March 27, 2014. (CNS photo/Stefano Spaziani, pool) 

The pope will surely be mingling with the power elite — with President Obama, who will ceremonially welcome Francis to America, on the South Lawn of the White House; with U.S. legislators who will sit for the first-ever address by a pope to a joint session of Congress; and with world leaders at the U.N. Most of the advance media attention is focusing on those events, but Francis is also expected to mingle with people in less-lofty places. Among those he will seek out for conversation are homeless people at a parish soup kitchen in Washington, along with immigrants and refugees in Philadelphia and Harlem in New York.

In reaching out to them and others, Francis will illustrate a particular lesson taught by St. Ignatius, said Fr. Christiansen, who is the Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Global Human Development at Georgetown.

The message from Ignatius was that you could “deal with the elites at the same time that you are walking with the poor and marginalized,” Fr. Christiansen said. For example, the Georgetown scholar related that when Ignatius sent two prominent Jesuit theologians to the Council of Trent (1545-1563), he gave them instructions along these lines: “When you go there, don’t just give lectures. Teach catechism and visit with the sick and the poor. If you have a little extra money, give them gifts.” Fr. Christiansen explained, “The sense is that you have to be close to the poor, even when you’re with people in high places.”

In that spirit, Fr. Christiansen said that during his visit, “Francis really wants to make the impression that he is not a part of the elite, but a servant of ordinary people. He’s not here as a political figure. He wants to do pastoral work.”

“Pastoral,” rather than “political,” might be the key word.

Pope Francis cradled an infant while visiting a family in the Varginha slum of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in July 2013. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano)

“Francis never wanted to be a head of state. He doesn’t want to make the decisions that a politician makes about policies and programs," Fr. Kesicki said. Instead, the Jesuit added, “He wants to call people to act more justly. He wants all of us to act more lovingly.”

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