| New focus on Jesuits' role within the church
Members of the Society of Jesus, widely known as missionaries and social justice advocates who are highly educated and rigorous educators, also serve as attorneys, researchers and astronomers.
On March 13, Pope Francis became the first member of the Society of Jesus to rise to the papacy. Less than two months later on May 3, another Jesuit, Michael C. Barber, was appointed Bishop of Oakland.
Members of the order admitted that stereotypes abound about the society, but that critics often fail to consider the broad scale of work carried out by the world's largest order of religious men.
"Anybody who thinks they can label the Jesuits are fooling themselves," said Jesuit Father Richard Salmi, president of Spring Hill College in Mobile, Ala. "That's the joy of being a Jesuit, you don't have to be one little thing."
"The Jesuits were founded to be less cloistered, more out in the world," Jesuit Father Mark Lewis, superior of the order's New Orleans province, told the Tennessee Register, newspaper of the Nashville Diocese. "Our religious life is lived in the midst of activity."
Jesuits may lead busy lives, but they take a break once a year for a silent eight-day retreat. They also make two or more silent 30-day retreats during their life.
Jesuits usually live in community with other members, but they stand ready to go anywhere on mission. In addition to the traditional religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, Jesuits take a fourth vow of obedience to the pope, to serve wherever he desires they serve. While such papal requests do not come often, "the church does ask us to go to the frontiers, geographically, spiritually and intellectually," said Jesuit Father Brian Paulson, rector of the Jesuit community at Loyola University Chicago.
Latin America, home to Pope Francis, is one such place.
Jesuits have established deep roots throughout Latin America, placing them as intimate witnesses to the region's complicated history. The Jesuits' initial foray into Latin America came after St. Ignatius of Loyola founded the order in the 16th century. A second push began in the mid-20th century to minister to people who were suffering under strong-arm dictatorships.
"The Jesuits were sent to make sure the faith stayed strong," Father Lewis said.
Their renewed presence in the mid-20th century paralleled the birth of the liberation theology movement, which interprets the teachings of Christ in relation to liberation from unjust social, economic and political conditions. Many Jesuits working in Latin America in more recent times acted alongside the people they were serving against military and government oppression.
"Pope John Paul II was very keen that we be involved in theology, not politics, but in Latin America that can be very difficult to distinguish," Father Lewis said.
When popes criticize the liberation theology movement, they are "not rejecting the care for the poor," Father Lewis explained, but rather they are warning against the movement skewing too Marxist or becoming violent.
"If it moves in that direction, it would start to lose its scriptural basis," he said.
The Jesuits also are known for overseeing a worldwide network of educational institutions. Today's schools are a far cry from the way Jesuit missionaries dealt with non-Christians in 16th-century Latin America.
"The focus of our colleges is education, not proselytization," said Spring Hill's Father Salmi.
"We do a lot to help nourish the faith of our Catholic students, but we are mindful and respectful that not everyone shares our faith," he said.
Catholic students at Jesuit institutions are encouraged to know their own faith well "because people are going to be asking questions and you have to answer them," Father Salmi said.
Most of the U.S. Jesuit-run institutions are geared toward traditional undergraduate and graduate students who have no intention of entering the religious life. Some schools, including Boston College and Loyola University Chicago, also serve as houses of formation for Jesuit seminarians.
In Chicago, Father Paulson oversees 70 Jesuits, about half of whom are teaching at the university; the others are studying for the priesthood. They share community life together.
Like many Jesuits, Father Paulson holds advanced degrees from prestigious institutions including Loyola, Georgetown, Harvard and the Weston Jesuit School of Theology. He said the years of schooling require Jesuits to "wrestle with the answers to the hard questions" and to do so "in communion with the church."
"Jesuits can have a reputation for being liberal, renegades, and questioning authority," Father Paulson added. "Some brothers who are known for dissident theological positions can sometimes cause the order as a whole to be painted with the same brush, and that's not fair.
"I hope people appreciate that the Jesuits are men of the church who are loyal to the church."
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