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Pope Francis' Message Comes From His Jesuit Roots

by Michael C. McCarthy |

He's Time magazine's Person of the Year. He's garnered positive commentary from everyone from Stephen Colbert to the Wall Street Journal. Even critics who fear he's taking a soft line on hot-button issues concede he's a shining example of pastoral mercy and grace. To me, he is simply a Jesuit priest.

What makes Pope Francis unique is that he has been thrust into a role that no one ever imagined a Jesuit to be in. But his manner of living out that role can be traced to the spirit of St. Ignatius, founder of the Jesuit order, which Jorge Mario Bergoglio joined 55 years ago in Buenos Aires. It's a spirit that has also animated many educational institutions around the world for almost 500 years now, including Santa Clara University in Santa Clara and Bellarmine College Preparatory in San Jose.

His Jesuit DNA can be witnessed, first and foremost, in his focus on others. From what we see on television, it appears that this pope is constantly challenging his security detail to keep him safe behind the lines. Like Jesus, who often crossed established religious boundaries, Francis knows deep in his bones that his calling is to be for and with others, even if it entails risk.

In this respect, he embodies key values that Jesuit schools and universities try to impart to our students. At Santa Clara University, for instance, students are required to spend anywhere from one week to several months in an experience that places them outside our beautifully manicured campus. Students often report that their experience of gritty reality shapes their lives, makes them think differently and calls them to use their gifts for the good of others, especially the disadvantaged and oppressed.

When Pope Francis said to a reporter on a plane, "Who am I to judge?" it may have shocked the world that a pope said such a thing, but his words resonated with most Jesuits.

A few weeks later, when he was asked in an interview to explain "Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?" he replied simply, "I am a sinner. ... It's not a figure of speech. ... I am a sinner." In 1975, a young Bergoglio attended the global meeting of Jesuits as the head of Jesuits in Argentina. That year, the congregation created a set of documents, including one that began by asking what it means to be a Jesuit today. The answer was: "It is to know that one is a sinner yet called to be a companion of Jesus as Ignatius was." It's not just that Jesuits are not perfect (that's easy to say) but that we deeply need mercy, forgiveness.

Perhaps one of the reasons the pope has said that the Catholic Church need not harp on the issues of abortion, contraception or same-sex marriage is that he knows deep in his own heart that what the church needs to communicate foremost is mercy, not judgment.

For that reason, the pope knows the importance of "meeting people where they are." I love the fact that he personally phoned up the editor of an Italian journal to invite him for a conversation. As he told the journalist, a well-known atheist: "We need to get to know each other, listen to each other and improve our knowledge of the world around us."

Many conservative Christians have been suspicious of this kind of dialogue. Yet neither the pope nor the church is compromised by candid exchange. Jesuit universities such as Santa Clara University are also places where we often disagree about issues of deep concern. What the pope models and what Jesuit education aims to foster is the ability to disagree in a way that also builds bridges. It is a nice antidote to what we often see, sadly, in the American political arena.

To me, the remarkable selection of Bergoglio as pope and then of Pope Francis as Person of the Year should encourage each of us to live our lives true to our values, with kindness, humility and courage.

Michael C. McCarthy, S.J., is the executive director of the Ignatian Center for Jesuit Education at Santa Clara University.

Read the article on SF Gate.

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