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Of course, there are not “the Jesuits.” As with any order or other group, there are varied tendencies. But all share one aspect, which was the most invigorating and transformative part of my exposure to Jesuit intellectualism—its radicalism. And by that I mean the word as originally used—going to “the root” of any issue. Beginning there clarifies an issue. It also necessarily challenges one to think and see in different ways, as it forces one to try to discard all manner of arguments and viewpoints that have been added to an original insight.
That’s Francis. He is speaking to the root of the Gospel—God loves all people, especially the poor, unconditionally; we see that love modeled in Jesus; imitating Jesus, putting others before self, is the path to life; meaning sharing, right now, in the source of life, God. when a person imitates Jesus, they participate in a life of love that is both fully human and fully divine, as those are two sides of the same coin. we can experience this now, and all will do so when Jesus returns to directly govern the world. This is the Gospels and the rest of Christian scripture, especially Paul’s letters.
Of course, making this concrete means a lot of things. And Francis speaks to those. More importantly, he acts on them.
This is all necessarily opposed to the prevailing values and structures of the time. Just as Jesus and Paul were opposed to those of their time. (Paul describes and sets up what could be viewed as an anti-Roman religion, deliberately opposed to many of the assumptions of the Roman imperial religion, including talk of Augustus as the son of god (Caesar). But that’s an entirely different discussion).
And that’s what’s so bracing about Francis. I wrote a piece in the early 90s asserting it was a “Catholic moment.” The USSR and its alternative to capitalism had collapsed. The US, though preaching universal values, had established global hegemony, and its actions would be increasingly organized around maintaining that position—and, crucially, be seen as doing so. That left one other institution that aspired to, and had something of, global reach—the Catholic Church. Given the enduring human attraction to “radical” values that provide a way to transcend the impulses and actions that put humans in the company of other animals, that left an opening for the Church’s—Jesus’s—message of experiencing something fundamentally different. With Francis, has that moment arrived?
On the personal level, his pontificate helped inspire my wife and I to go back to Holy Trinity Church in Georgetown. Our daughter is in religious education, we regularly attend Mass and are involved in other parish activities. I have to say I’m surprised by this, as both of us were extremely impacted by the child abuse cover up and I have deep problems with certain Church dogma, especially its ideological exclusion of women from power. Discussions with fellow parishioners indicate others have felt inspired to give the Church another chance, or otherwise intensify their involvement.
If you’re ever interested in experiencing a Jesuit atmosphere, attend a Mass at Holy Trinity and check out its various activities.