This is a column about the recent installation of Pope Francis as the head of a billion Roman Catholics. While it does not relate to the normal police-related topics of Blue Byline, it was too intriguing to pass up.
As some people have pointed out to me in the past, I am a bit of a stereotype. Son of an Irish immigrant, Catholic by default and a cop by choice, I’ll admit my life does sound like a cliche.
That includes a typical Catholic education which started the first day of kindergarten, when my mom dropped me off with Sister Mary Felicitas, and ended when Father Ryan handed me my diploma thirteen years later. This was a common path for the many sons and daughters in San Francisco – a Catholic smorgasbord of Irish, Italian and Filipino immigrants – who grew up in its parishes.
The nuns taught me how to split infinitives, dodge a swinging ruler (for elderly women dressed like penguins, they were super quick), and play the holy game of basketball.
The Jesuits, on the other hand, taught me to think.
Better known as the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits are a holy order of priests whose origins date back to the sixteenth century. Over half a millenia they have gained notoriety as missionaries, but many have also lived their faith as scientists and physicians, musicians and social workers. Fortunately for my friends and I, the Jesuits excel as educators.
This is an important distinction now more than ever, because the new leader of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis, is not only a Jesuit, but the first one to sit the throne of Saint Peter. The question is, does the “SJ” at the end of the new pope’s given name, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, really matter?
In today’s Catholic church, where “Lapsed” seems to have replaced “Roman” as a qualifier, there is growing impatience with the Vatican status quo. In a world where hunger, overpopulation and AIDS are causing catastrophic suffering and death, the church is distracted by pedophile priests and feminist nuns. Its evangelical message is distorted by visions of purple-robed princes of the church wandering through the Vatican’s priceless art collection and Swiss guardsmen flying the retired Benedict XVI to his new villa in the papal helicopter.
That is disconnect writ large.
The current image of the church contrasts sharply with my experience as a student at a Jesuit high school. There we were taught to value freedom of thought, kindness towards others and to live our lives with the welfare of others foremost in our minds. Despite the cynicism I have been harboring, those lessons inspire me to this day.
So the new guy has a lot of work to do. Fortunately, he has already begun the recalibrations. In the first few days of his papacy, Pope Francis has exemplified his “SJ” creds by wading fearlessly into crowds, paying his own bills and foregoing the luxurious cars, rings and wardrobes of his predecessors. Jorge Mario Bergoglio, SJ, is the right man for the job, and his installation as the 266th leader of Roman Catholics worldwide suggests the church is ready for his cleansing leadership.
The new Pope’s Jesuit resume makes me hopeful that the Roman Catholic Church can recreate itself anew, a bastion of free thinkers, a beacon for those seeking inspiration and a place where love of one’s neighbor and selfless example are the only treasures worth collecting.
I can’t help but think that is the type of church a humble carpenter’s son from Nazareth would appreciate.