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alex beam

The pope’s freedom

The pope drives this used, manual-shift, 1984 Renault 4 around the Vatican grounds.

REUTERS

The pope drives this used, manual-shift, 1984 Renault 4 around the Vatican grounds.

Jorge Bergoglio, the Archbishop of Buenos Aires who became Pope Francis last spring, has revivified the papacy. He has chosen not to live in the Vatican’s lush Apostolic Palace, and he tools around Vatican City in a 1984 Renault compact. In a now-famous interview with the Jesuit magazine America, Francis called himself a sinner and reached out to gays, divorced couples, and other constituencies cold-shouldered by mainstream Catholicism.

The cynics, who are often right, say Bergoglio’s gestures are meant to divert attention from the church’s retrograde doctrines on women, same-sex marriage, and so on. Optimists hoping for change in the 2,000-year-old papacy welcome the breath of fresh air and hope that deeds will follow words.

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Catholics make much of the fact that Francis is the first Jesuit pope, a member of the Society of Jesus founded by St. Ignatius Loyola in the 16th century. Raised in a milieu of genteel anti-Catholicism, I always heard the Jesuits described as the “intellectual shock troops of the Vatican,” famed as the tip of the very sharp spear of the Inquisition. Neither “fact” is entirely accurate, nor do they shed much light on who Francis is and what he may be up to.

The intellectual tag sticks because Jesuits spend over 10 years in religious study, compared with six years for a diocesan priest. The added time is devoted to scholarship and spiritual formation. And if the Jesuits did indeed win their black robes by combatting the enemies of the church, that is no longer their primary function. Among many other causes, some Jesuits have embraced a social justice theology that can be dangerous to practice; the Salvadoran Army memorably gunned down six Jesuit priests on a college campus in San Salvador in 1989.

What is important to a Jesuit? “Freedom and detachment,” answers Father James Martin, editor-at-large of America magazine. “We strive to be free from anything that prevents us from responding from God’s invitation in our lives.”

“So the pope is someone who says, ‘I’m free enough not to live in a palace,’ and ‘I’m free enough to drive around my own car,’ ” Martin continues. “When Jesuits see him driving a crummy car, they think, ‘Well, of course that’s what we do.’ ”

It has not gone unnoticed that Pope Francis has appointed a shadow cabinet of eight “consultors,” or advisers, one of whom is Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley. This is a governance fillip torn straight from the Jesuit playbook; a Jesuit provincial responsible for a specific geographic region always names a group of consultors to aid him in his work.

The Jesuits’ bumper sticker maxim is “to find God in all things.” In this vein, St. Ignatius preached “discernment,” exhorting his followers to make good decisions based on experience and prayer. When Catholics try to explain the difference between Francis and his immediate predecessor, Benedict XVI, they point out that Benedict was, at heart, a theologian. Theologians seek spiritual truths in church texts and writing, while the Jesuits examine all life experiences for possible revelations.

It’s very possible that Catholic dogma may not change under Francis, but papal attitudes have changed already. “The pope is focusing on the basic gospel messages of Jesus,” Martin says. “Love, mercy, and compassion. He thinks we’ve been too focused on other matters.” Indeed, Francis has complained that the church’s pastoral ministry “cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.”

“How many divisions does the pope have?” was dictator Josef Stalin’s famous dismissal of the power and authority of the Vatican before and after World War II. It’s a naïve observation; the pope has plenty of divisions, it turns out. His priests helped free Poland from Soviet tyranny, and we can only hope that Pope Francis’s clerically collared foot soldiers will act as agents of change in Catholic and non-Catholic nations alike.

Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at alexbeam@hotmail.com.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, a previous version of this story misstated the number of years Catholic priests spend in seminary. It is six years.

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