In the wake of the election of the first Jesuit pope, the superior general of the Society of Jesus, Father Adolfo Nicolás, said that members of the order "accompany with our prayers our brother, and we thank him for his generosity in accepting the responsibility of guiding the Church at this crucial time."

In his statement, quoting Jesuit norms, Father Nicolás observed that the "distinguishing mark of our society is that it is ... a companionship ... bound to the Roman Pontiff by a special bond of love and service. Thus, we share the joy of the whole Church and, at the same time, wish to express our renewed availability to be sent into the vineyard of the Lord, according to the spirit of our special vow of obedience that so distinctively unites us with the Holy Father."

Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond spoke March 14 with a prominent American Jesuit, Ignatius Press founder Father Joseph Fessio, about the landmark election of a Jesuit Vicar of Christ and what that will mean for the Church and for the Society of Jesus.


What was your initial reaction to the news that a Jesuit had been elected pope?

I don’t know the new Pope, but I have heard good things about him. He was a Jesuit master of novices, a position usually given to someone with spiritual depth, and, later, he was appointed provincial. He was also well regarded in the 2005 conclave.

I like one of the titles for the pope, Pontifex Maximus, which means "the greatest builder of bridges."

He has an Old World heritage: His parents were born in Italy. But he’s also New World because he was born in Argentina in humble surroundings. His father worked the railroad.


How will the Jesuit charism likely influence his Petrine ministry?

There is a paradox. Ignatius of Loyola put in the [Jesuit] constitution that Jesuits were not to be named bishops. But he also stressed complete, full obedience to the Holy See.

So while Jesuits should not seek to become a bishop or take a higher office, if they are asked to do it by the pope, they should accept. The cardinals at the conclave asked if he would accept this, and he did.

For Jesuits, this means not seeking ecclesial preferment, but being obedient.

To be Jesuit is to obey. We have our own superior general who we must obey. He himself must obey the pope. Who will Francis obey? He will obey the real shepherd — Christ. He will be faithful to Christ.

That won’t distinguish him as a Jesuit who is pope because that is what distinguishes all of us as Catholics — we accept what has been handed on by the apostles.


What are your thoughts about the name he chose — Francis?

I was delighted. There has never been a Pope Francis.

The immediate image is Francis the joyful saint of the poor. This is a Pope that has a love for the poor and comes from an area with great poverty. He has taken that name while he is elevated to the highest office of the Church. The "Servant of the Servants of God" is one of the pope’s titles.

One of the most famous incidents in the life of Francis was when Our Lord spoke to him from the cross and said, "Rebuild my church." Francis misunderstood at first, but then he realized Jesus was asking him to renew and restore the Church.


What does it mean to "renew the Church"? What kind of emphasis would you like to see?

People always look for new things. But the Church is an old thing by definition and yet is always new in ways that surprise us. Look at the surprises of Benedict, but doctrinally nothing was new.

I expect the same from Pope Francis. He may be a pope of the people, of the poor. He will not be the same kind of "professor pope" as the previous two popes were. He is a scholar, but not prolific.


Earlier, you noted that Jesuits must be obedient to the pope, yet, over the past half century, relations between the Holy See and members of the order have often been tense. John Paul intervened at one point, seeking new leadership of the Society of Jesus. How will a Jesuit pope change that dynamic?

We don’t know how much emphasis he’ll place on that relationship. The cardinals have spoken about the need for a good administrator to deal with the Curia, so we’ll see.