Vive il papa! Jorge Mario Bergoglio became the new Pope on Wednesday—the first Jesuit pope since the Society of Jesus was founded nearly 500 years ago. What does that mean? A breakdown of what you need to know about Jesuits.
Pope Francis waves to the crowd from the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican, Wednesday, March 13, 2013. (Gregorio Borgia/AP)
1. What are the Jesuits?
You may have a hazy recollection of the Jesuits from the days you applied to college, but the Society of Jesus is much more than an administrator of prestigious American universities. Also known as “God’s Marines” or “The Company,” the order of priests and brothers was founded by St. Ignatius of Loyola in 1534 with six other students at the University of Paris. St. Ignatius had a military background, and early adherents referred to themselves as the “Company of Jesus,” hence both of the nicknames that live to this day. Probably happy that the Jesuits were not forming their own church, like Martin Luther a few decades earlier, Pope Paul III granted them commendation in 1537 to become priests. Three years later, he gave them the right to become their own order of priests. As the head of the new order, Ignatius sent his priests throughout Catholic Europe to start schools, colleges and seminaries. By Ignatius’s death in 1556, the Jesuits had already founded 74 colleges on three continents. With missionary work as a core value, the Jesuits have been known for spreading Catholicism throughout the world. Pope Francis’s namesake, St. Francis Xavier, is in particular credited with the Church’s expansion in Asia.
2. So what’s at the heart of being a Jesuit?
Under St. Ignatius, the Society of Jesus believed that reform in the Catholic Church began with reform of the individual. The founding members of the Society of Jesus took a vow of poverty, chastity and obedience under Ignatius. Current Jesuits take the same three vows today, along with a vow of obedience to the Pope.
3. What does this have to do with my Georgetown degree?
With its focus on education, the Jesuit order has been linked to some of the best universities in the world. In the United States, Georgetown was the first Jesuit university, founded in 1789. Today, there are 28 Jesuit universities and colleges in the United Sates alone (including Georgetown, Fordham University, Loyola University, and Boston College), and there are approximately 189 Jesuit institutions of higher learning throughout the world. Since its founding, Jesuits are known for free-thinking, which has helped make its universities so well-regarded. Pope Francis attended Universidad del Salvador, a Jesuit institution in Buenos Aires.
4. If the Jesuits are smarty-pants Catholics with a poverty vow, why hasn’t there been a Jesuit pope before now?
Although the Jesuits now are well-regarded, the order wasn’t always in such good terms with the Catholic Church. Look at its name—Jesuit was originally a derisive term for those one who used too frequently or appropriated under the name of Jesus. Jesuits managed to retake the narrative on that one, and the term Jesuit is embraced by the order and has a mainly positive meaning. But in 1767, led by the charges that the Jesuits were too influential and elitist, Pope Clement XIV signed the Suppression of the Society of Jesus, which was enforced in Catholic countries such as France, the Spanish and Portuguese empires, among others. But the order was not followed in non-Catholic countries, causing the Jesuits to continue in Russia and its territories. In 1814, Pope Pius VII restored the Jesuits—but not all countries followed suit. In fact, Switzerland banned the Jesuits in the Constitution, which was not lifted until a national vote in 1973.
5. Jesuits are free-thinking? What does that mean? Also what’s the poverty vow? Does that mean Jesuits are Socialists?!?
The Jesuits encourage toleration for other religions, teach other theology in their institutions, and also believe in free education for all. This emphasis on free-thinking—and especially the order’s opposition to opulent riches—has some calling them out as the founders of Socialism. Pope John Paul II, for instance, denounced some Jesuits in Latin America for their emphasis on liberation theology, which is focused on the liberation of oppressed people (you may have heard of a form of it from Jeremiah Wright, supposedly a believer in liberation theology, or from Glenn Beck, who says liberation theology has “completely perverted Christianity”), particularly of the poor from their rich oppressors. But perhaps the most damning link to socialism comes from Fidel Castro—the former Cuban dictator studied under the Jesuits for 12 years, although Castro later forced his former teachers to leave in 1961.
6. What is AMDG? Sounds kind of like OMFG.
The Jesuits’ Latin motto is AD MAIOREM DEL GLORIAM, or AMDG, Latin for “for the greater glory of God,” meaning everything is offered up to God. Some Jesuit institutions have students mark their work with AMDG, and Pope John Paul II, though not a Jesuit, often included AMDG in his signature.
7. What does all this have to do with Robert De Niro?
Before Robert De Niro became famous for his Mafia connections, he starred in the Oscar-nominated British film The Mission in 1986. The Mission, set in 1790, tells the story of a Spanish Jesuit mission in South America. Robert De Niro does not play a priest, however, he plays a mercenary and slave driver who kidnaps natives and sells them to nearby plantations—although he later travels with the Jesuits as a penance. Another instance of a Jesuit in popular culture? Father James Martin, has appeared on The Colbert Report, and is called “Chaplain of the Colbert Nation,” and most recently appeared on Feb. 13 to discuss Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation. Coincidence?