Jesuit background, choice of name are reasons to have faith in Pope Francis, local observers say
Early in his ministry, St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226), as the legend goes, had a vision of Jesus in which he was told, “Francis, Francis, go and repair My house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.”
As the Pope Francis era begins, those words hold a special meaning for hundreds of millions of the world’s Catholics who have watched their beloved church fall prey to a number of secular scandals, ranging from financial irregularities to sexual abuse lawsuits.
Pierre Zundel, president of the University of Sudbury, said the sex scandals have taken the greatest toll on the church, with many of the faithful questioning actions of leaders who either participated in the abuse, or helped cover it up.
“It’s a terrible legacy to inherit,” Zundel said. “The church’s image surrounding all of the sex scandals certainly has to be dealt with … He’ll have to do something about that.”
That’s one of the reasons why his choice of name is significant, he said. Francis was known as someone who cared about spiritual issues over worldly concerns.
“St. Francis of Assisi’s tradition was one of poverty and renouncing riches and being active with the poor,” he said. “It will be fascinating to see what his perspective brings to the church.”
A Jesuit, Pope Francis is also something of a “hometown” boy, Zundel said, since the University of Sudbury was founded by the order, which played has a major role in founding schools across the world.
The Society of Jesus, as the order is known, was founded in the 1500s and evolved into an intellectual order, open to new ideas and known for going anywhere in the world to open schools and spread the faith.
“They are a teaching order,” he said. “They very quickly became builders of schools, of colleges and universities, and many of the top universities and colleges in the world were started by the Jesuits.
“There was a Jesuit mission on Manitoulin Island a very long time ago. The Jesuits have been in the Georgian Bay area since the 1600s.”
It takes a long time to become a Jesuit – 10 years after ordination – and members have a reputation as being disciplined and open minded.
“They tend to be people who are very well prepared,” Zundel said. “They have a very well-developed set of spiritual exercises and disciplines they go through to maintain their spiritual life.”
The Jesuits grew so powerful that, in the late 1700s, the order was cast out from the church, an edict that remained in place well into the 1800s. Despite a vow that obliges them to obey the pontiff without question, Zundel said “the Jesuits have had a sometimes difficult relationship with the popes.”
Marie Bouclin knows something about being kicked out of the church. Bouclin is part of a renegade sect of the church that is pushing for the ordination of women and for females to have an equal say in church decisions. She was ordained as a priest, along with a number of other women, and all of them have since been kicked out of the church.
“I really hope he has the courage to lift the excommunication of women who have been ordained,” she said. “If I had a wish, that would be it.”
Bouclin said the pope’s choice of name, Francis, was “inspiring,” because Francis was a reformer known for being close with the people.
“Aside from the fact that not one Catholic woman was consulted, because women don’t have a voice in this,” she said. “But I found the choice was full of hope, first of all, because of the choice of his name. Francis of Assisi was a church reformer. He also asked the throngs of people to bless him before he gave them a blessing. It signalled that there was going to be a change, that the will of the people, the needs of the people, are going to be heard.
Despite his age, 76, Bouclin said Francis reminds her of another old pope who ended up leading Vatican II, the biggest wave of reform the modern church has ever seen.
“I’m old enough to remember when John XXIII was elected, and they said the same thing about him,” she said. “People say (Francis) is a conservative. Well, they all are. One can only pray and hope.
“There was the Berlin Wall, there was apartheid in South Africa, there was an Arab Spring. A lot of us are praying for a Vatican Spring.”
Bouclin said her excommunication and that of others like her especially rankles because clergy who have truly disgraced the church have not suffered the same fate.
“All the priests and bishops and cardinals who committed pedophilia – none have been excommunicated, and that’s an injustice,” she said. “We’re being punished for wanting the church to survive.”
Zundel said that’s an issue among many Francis will have to confront, along with the widespread apathy and disengagement among the flock in western nations.
“Some people are pushing for reforms in the role women play in the church, but I have no idea where he stands on those sorts of issues,” he said. “We will have to see what one person can do.”
Dr. Melchoir Mbonimpa, who teaches at the University of Sudbury, said the election of the first pope in history not from Europe is a sign the Catholic church is turning toward a part of the world where it’s still growing and relevant.
“I hope the southern (hemisphere) will get more cardinals,” Mbonimpa said. “The cardinals picked someone from a geographical region of the world where Catholicism is still alive … For now, the majority of (Cardinals) are from Europe and North America.”
The only place where the church is growing and continues to play a big role in most people’s lives is in the Third World, he said. So it only makes sense that influence of clergy those parts of the world should grow now that Catholics have a pope from Argentina.
“If the Third World had bigger representation, it would recognize that fact,” Mbonimpa said. “And not just from South America, but from Africa and countries where religion is still very meaningful.”
Pope Benedict set an important example for Francis and all future popes, Mbonimpa said, by retiring.
“That was very good news for Catholics, that a pope who feels he is too old is able to resign and hand things over to someone who has the energy to lead,” he said. “Personally, I think at John Paul II was not able to rule the church for the four or five last years. He was very diminished, and I don’t think that’s a very good thing.”
Despite differences in churches across the world, Mbonimpa said Francis should have the support of Catholics across the world as he begins his tenure.
“I don’t think there’s a very great danger right now of separation or schism in the church,” he said. “I don’t see such a danger.”