Surprised by Joy: An excerpt from ‘What Would Pope Francis Do?’ by Sean Salai, S.J.

In this excerpt from the beginning of his new book What Would Pope Francis Do? Bringing the Good News to People in Need,Sean Salai, S.J., a contributing writer for America, uses a personal story to illustrate the theme of joy from “The Joy of the Gospel” (“Evangelii Gaudium”) by Pope Francis.

“What if the next pope is a Jesuit?”

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With an impatient sigh, I turned from the projector screen to identify the 15-year-old student who had asked me this question.

It was March 2013. Blue skies and 72 degrees of Florida sunshine awaited us outside the windows of our darkened classroom in Tampa. I, the all-knowing Jesuit theology teacher, did not want to spend much time speculating about a “Jesuit pope” during our lesson on the upcoming papal conclave.

I wanted a cup of coffee.

After all, I had four more sections of freshman boys to teach that day at Jesuit High School, and we hadn’t even gotten to the white smoke. At the rate we were going, our next pope might be elected before we learned how to count the votes.

Maybe that explains why, rather than giving a nuanced answer, I loaded my intellectual guns and aimed to stop the question in its tracks.

“That’s not going to happen,” I told the kid, using my most matter-of-fact teacher voice.

Bang. I felt pretty good about myself.

But the kid, one of my favorite students, quickly shot back: “Why not?”

I sighed again.

“It won’t happen because we Jesuits take a vow to avoid positions of honor in the Catholic Church whenever possible.

We don’t become monsignors, and we don’t become bishops unless the pope insists. And there’s never been a Jesuit pope. St. Ignatius didn’t want us messing around with that stuff.”

As I gave this answer, I could hear in my head all of the wisecracks from the Jesuit rec room, reassuring me in my certainty.

“Hell will freeze over before a Jesuit becomes pope.”

We’ve all heard that sort of thing before.

If a Jesuit cardinal wasn’t seeking the papacy, but was following the Jesuit rule to avoid politicking, there was no reason for the other 114 cardinals to elect him. That was common sense. Right?

The Election

Yet my freshman theology student, who had a soft spot for underdogs, wasn’t going to let me off the hook about the slim possibility that a Jesuit might become pope.

He spoke up again.

“Who are the Jesuit cardinals? I just want to know.”

Softening to his curiosity, I clicked through the list of cardinals on my computer and pointed out an Asian Jesuit who was not attending the conclave due to illness. Then I pulled up the Vatican website’s biography of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, S.J., the only Jesuit cardinal who would actually be attending and voting for pope. He was archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina.

After glancing at Cardinal Bergoglio’s photo and briefly reading some of his biography out loud, I told the class I was reasonably certain—as a fellow Jesuit—that this guy would not get elected.

My hopeful student, of course, was not so sure. He asked:

“But what if it happens? What if he gets elected anyway?”

I just shrugged.

Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America. This article is excerpted from the introduction of What Would Pope Francis Do? Bringing the Good News to People in Need (Our Sunday Visitor, 2016).

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