There has long been a playful rivalry among religious orders in the Catholic Church. This may surprise people accustomed to thinking of members of religious orders as a dull lot, their faces stuck in their Bibles or their eyes cast heavenward, far removed from such mundane matters as … humor. But there is a rich tradition of inter-order humor in which priests, brothers, and sisters take delight.
A favorite example: A man knocks on the door of a Franciscan church and asks a priest to say a rosary so that he might be able to afford a Lexus. “What’s a Lexus?” says the poverty-minded Franciscan. Frustrated, the man goes to a parish run by the Dominicans (the order, not the nationality). “Will you say a rosary so that I can afford a Lexus?” Says the Dominican: “What’s a Lexus?” Finally, the man figures he’ll go to the Jesuits, since they have a reputation for being so worldly. “Father,” he says to the priest, “do you know what a Lexus is?” The priest nods. “Good,” says the man. “Will you say a rosary that I can afford one?” “Sure,” says the Jesuit. “What’s a rosary?”
So when Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran stepped out onto the balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square and announced that name of the first Jesuit pope would be “Franciscum,” I suppressed a laugh. Was he honoring St. Francis of Assisi, the 14th-century founder of the Franciscans? A Jesuit pope with a Franciscan name could be the start of a joke.
The Jesuits, for those who may be unfamiliar with the term, are a Catholic religious order for men founded in 1540 by St. Ignatius Loyola, a hotheaded soldier turned practical mystic. In this country we’re best known for the vast network of schools we founded—from middle schools to high schools to colleges and universities. Every time I list the larger one, I feel a pang of regret for not including more modest-size colleges, so I’ll say that they include not only Georgetown, Boston College, and Fordham, but also Regis, Spring Hill, and St. Peter’s University. And every college named Loyola.
But we weren’t founded to found schools. When Ignatius Loyola was inspired to begin a religious order (and I mean inspired literally: His conversion happened after a series of intense mystical experiences), he planned not to start a group of men who would found colleges with top-notch basketball teams, but men who would do something simpler: “help souls.” The Society of Jesus (our official name) was begun to do anything for the “greater glory of God.” Still, Jesuits are often accused of being overly intellectual, and overly proud because of it. “You all have, like, three Ph.D.’s don’t you?” said a reporter to me the other day. Not true, though sometimes it’s fun to bask in the reflected glory of my brother Jesuits’ academic accomplishments. Some of my older confreres still trade Greek and Latin witticisms over the table. Usually I pretend to get it.
The basis of the stereotype is not hard to discern: We undergo seemingly endless training, which takes upward of 20 years to complete. I entered the Jesuit novitiate in 1988, pronounced my first vows two years later, studied philosophy for two years at Loyola University Chicago, worked with refugees in Kenya for another two, wrote for a Catholic magazine for one year, studied theology for four years, and then was, finally, ordained in 1999. Wait: I’m not finished. Then I worked for a few more years at the same magazine (called America), completed more of the spiritual training I’d begun in the novitiate, and took my final vows in 2009. That’s 21 years.
So when Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the archbishop of Buenos Aires—but perhaps more significantly for Jesuits, the former novice director, director of studies, and regional superior for the Jesuits in Argentina—took the name “Francis,” I was caught off guard. “Why not Ignatius?” the founder of our order, I thought.