MANILA - As Pope Francis begins his papacy as the Roman Catholic Church's first Jesuit leader, he is raising the profile of a religious order that has long been involved in missionary work in Asia.
The Society of Jesus - or the Jesuits as they are commonly known - is a Catholic order whose members are known for their austerity, ambitious missionary work and focus on education.
The nearly 500-year-old order is a few hundred years newer than the other prominent Catholic orders such as the Benedictines, Augustinians and Dominicans, which all have had popes chosen from their ranks.
The Rev. William Currie said one reason for the lack of a Jesuit pontiff until now may be “a certain amount of suspicion” surrounding the order. Currie is a Jesuit himself, and the former president of Sophia University, a Jesuit school in Tokyo.
“Jesuits are picked out for criticism more than most other religious orders, going back to England or the Reformation when ‘Jesuitical’ was a bad word. It meant someone who was devious and sly and cunning and that sort of thing. Those sort of things probably don't come to minds of cardinals when they're electing a pope, but it's a stereotype that dies hard,” said Currie.
The stereotype is far removed from Ricardo Jalbuena’s experience of Jesuits. The 56-year-old attended the Ateneo de Manila University, a Jesuit school, from elementary days through college. He admitted his bias for Pope Francis’s religious order.
“The beauty about the Jesuit community is that it is a very dynamic and diverse culture of great theological minds, who are always are there to study, explore, challenge ideas…” he said.
Some members of the Society of Jesus have been known for being outspoken on political and religious issues, and for living materially humble lives.
The Rev. Mario Francisco, president of the Loyola School of Theology at the Ateneo in Manila, called the new pope’s life “unusual” because it has been widely reported that Pope Francis, when he was Cardinal Jorje Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, gave up the cardinal’s mansion for an apartment and took public transportation.
“And I think the fact that he takes the name for Francis of Assisi is another indication of that sort of preference and love for the poor and a simple lifestyle. That is, I think, very, very good,” said Francisco.
Jalbuena said he believes Pope Francis chose his name after Francis Xavier, one of the Jesuits’ founders who spent years evangelizing in India, Indonesia and Japan in the 16th century.
The new pope has not yet said personally that either of those two major figures in the Roman Catholic Church was the inspiration for his name.