Father Howell discusses surprise election of first Jesuit pope

Updated March 15, 3:46 p.m.

Faculty, staff, students and friends of the university packed Wyckoff Auditorium to hear Pat Howell, S.J., left, present a talk on the change in the papacy a day after Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio's election as Pope Francis I. Francis is the first Jesuit pope and the first pope from the Americas.

Howell, whose talk had been scheduled for weeks, initially planned to handicap the field of papal candidates, but a relatively quick conclave necessitated a significant change to his March 14 presentation. "I was really hoping that the election (would not have) taken place," he joked. "It's a whole lot easier to speculate than to give facts."

And yet Howell, the rector of SU's Jesuit community, had plenty of facts to share, which he somehow packed into a riveting hour-long presentation. He began with an historical overview of the papacy in the past century, highlighting some of the strengths and drawbacks of previous popes.

Howell also addressed the unprecedented nature of Francis' election as the first Jesuit pope. "As Jesuits, we take a vow not to seek ecclesial (positions)." And yet all bets are off if the Church comes calling, as we saw this week. Howell believes that having a grounding in Ignatian spirituality and discernment may help Francis inspire and lead the Church.

That Francis was a delegate to the Jesuits 32nd General Congregation is of particular significance to Howell. It was at this worldwide gathering led by Superior General Pedro Arrupe that the Jesuits underwent what Howell called a "re-founding," dedicating themselves to the service of faith and promotion of justice. "(Francis) lived right in the heart of that time, and I'm sure he had to have been affected by that, as all the delegates were," said Howell.

Another dimension of Francis' background that Howell sees as significant is his Ignatian spirituality-which the SU Jesuit called "a great resource"-and more particularly the years he spent as novice director, "a very important (role) in the Society of Jesus, because you're talking about the formation of future Jesuits," Howell said. "(Francis) obviously has a lot to offer in terms of Jesuit spirituality."

Howell sees great symbolism in the pope's chosen name, Francis, as his simple lifestyle and solidarity with the poor and oppressed mirrors the life of St. Francis of Assisi. "If you think about the recent international, interfaith gatherings of world religious leaders--both of them have been held in Assisi. There's something about Assisi that is calming, peace-filled and a center of prayer."

Father Howell studied theology in Rome during the pontificate of Pope Paul VI. He personally met Pope John Paul II twice and once encountered Cardinal Ratzinger (who later became Pope Benedict XVI) coming out of the Holy Office in Rome. He is co-founder and former dean of the School of Theology and Ministry and continues to teach theology to undergraduates and graduates at SU. His most recent courses have been "The Theology of Vatican II" (graduate) and "Catholic Imagination in Art and Film" (undergraduate).

Howell's talk was sponsored by the Institute for Catholic Thought and Culture (ICTC) and the Catholic Studies Program.

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