From the moment he appeared on the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica, Francis has been breaking precedents. He wore only the simple white cassock, not the traditional velvet cape trimmed in ermine. He asked the crowd to bless him before he blessed them. He declined the offer of a papal limousine, returning instead by van with the other cardinals to the place they had been staying, where he paid his own bill. The man who had registered as Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, Argentina, now checked out as Francis.
He broke the tradition of a papal Mass of the Lord's Supper in the Basilica of St. John Lateran, instead opting to celebrate the ceremony in the Casal del Marmo youth detention center and wash the feet of the prisoners. All of this comes about in the wake of another precedent-breaking event, the resignation of Benedict XVI, for whom Francis prayed when he first stepped onto the balcony.
This Jesuit cardinal, by choosing the name of Francis of Assisi, has brought together two spiritual traditions. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits in 1540, drew much of his early inspiration toward holiness from Francis of Assisi: “If he could do it,” asked Ignatius, “why can't I?”
By his simplicity and love of nature Brother Francis helped to rebuild a Church corrupted by the love of luxury, wealth and prestige. Ignatius chose a simple life too—requiring Jesuits to renounce any ambition for prestigious positions inside or outside the Church—but added to that a deep respect for the value of learning. By the time of his death in 1556, Jesuits were running 35 high schools and universities. And Jesuits would become missionaries to India, China, North and South America, following explorers who were opening up new geographical frontiers.
Before becoming auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires in May of 1992, Fr. Bergoglio served as novice master, introducing newly entered Jesuits into the spirituality and customs of the Society of Jesus. Later that same year, Bergoglio became provincial superior of the Jesuits in Argentina. The second half of his term as provincial overlapped the brutal military dictatorship that ruled from 1976–83. In 1998, Bergoglio became Archbishop of Buenos Aires.
The papacy of Francis has stirred hope in people around the world longing to see a simpler, more modern and more accessible papacy. Pope Francis, who comes to the Chair of St. Peter in the year of faith declared by his predecessor, Benedict XVI, has rekindled the hopes born during the Second Vatican Council. He seems, like another of his predecessors, John XXIII, to be opening windows and doors to the renewing breath of the Holy Spirit. We long for the completion of Vatican II. We will be praying, as he has asked us to, that God will bless him in his ministry.
Peter Ely, S.J., is vice president for mission and ministry and associate professor of theology and religious studies.
Out of the highly traditional process of electing a pope has come an untraditional choice, Pope Francis. First pope from outside Europe, first from South America, first Jesuit, first to choose the name of the beloved saint of Assisi.