The Rev. Jack Butler, a Jesuit priest at Boston College, was in his office Wednesday when he overheard students gathered around a television set down the hall, buzzing about a new pope.
On the screen he saw the joyous crowd and felt a surge of hope and love after a trying period for the Catholic Church. Then he saw that the new leader, a cardinal from Argentina, was a Jesuit, just like him.
“I was flabbergasted, because Jesuits aren’t supposed to be popes, and Jesuits aren’t supposed to be bishops, and yet I’d be lying through my teeth if I didn’t say as a Jesuit it gave me a great sense of joy and pride,” said Butler, BC’s vice president for mission and ministry.
The Latin American background of Pope Francis, the former cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, grabbed headlines worldwide. But on Chestnut Hill, it was Francis’s standing as the first Jesuit pope in the nearly 500-year history of the order that sent a wave of gratification across campus.
At one of the nation’s most prominent Jesuit universities, the joy was first about Bergoglio being steeped in the Jesuit traditions of social justice through faith and what they call Ignatian spirituality. But it was not just about that.
“We’re Jesuits for the sake of the people of God; we’re Jesuits for the sake of the world — we’re not Jesuits for the sake of Jesuits,” said the Rev. Joseph M. O’Keefe, interim director of BC’s Center for Ignatian Spirituality. But “one of our own family who becomes pope, there’s something really nice about that.”
O’Keefe, also an administrator and professor in BC’s education school, said the new pope could help demystify a religious order that has attracted what he called some “Dan Brown-ish” conspiracy theories about secret power.
Mostly, those who know the Society of Jesus know its commitment to global education, scholarship, and the the disadvantaged, O’Keefe said. The order, which ran afoul of the Bourbon kings in the 1700s and was briefly suppressed by the Vatican, has never been known for a central role in Church administration. Jesuit priests are also subjected to a fair amount of ribbing from others who don Catholic vestments.
“Diocesan priests will say to me, ‘Oh, Jesuit, are you also Catholic?’ It’s going to be difficult to say that to me now,” said O’Keefe, grinning from an armchair in his office, beneath an image of the Madonna and Child from Rome’s Church of the Gesù, where the first Jesuit, St. Ignatius of Loyola, is buried.
Across campus, church bells pealed for the selection as students carrying book bags walked the paths that crisscross campus. Senior Shannon Griesser heard by text message during math class and kept a steady conversation going with friends and family while the professor lectured. “It’s really a historic day to be at a Jesuit university,” Griesser said.
Chris Knoth, a junior, said he was excited to see a Jesuit lead the church and hoped that Francis would bring some of the order’s spirit of self-
discovery and growth to Catholicsm. “Hopefully this pope will be – I don’t know if I would say more liberal – but more open to kind of the youth movement that’s been going on for decades,” Knoth said.
The Rev. Gustavo Morello, a visiting sociology professor who is a Jesuit priest and an Argentine, emerged from a meeting, turned on his phone, and discovered more than100 texts, missed calls, e-mails, and Facebook messages.
Both identities make Bergoglio an exciting – and surprising — selection, Morello said. “But it’s not about the nationality. It’s a global institution, and you have to have a global mind.” He predicted that Bergoglio’s sensitivity to the poor and his familiarity with everyday people will make him a more pastoral and accessible pope than Benedict.
“I think that he will try to keep that feel,” said Morello. “He feeds from the people; the people give him strength, so I hope he will try to keep in touch with the people.”
Those less familiar with Bergoglio’s biography took comfort in knowing he had gone through the same years of study and retreat in formation, or training, as other Jesuits, focused on human dignity and improving the world in hand with faith.
“It would be hard to be a Jesuit and not draw a great deal of consolation from that and gain hope,” Butler said.
Like the Jesuits, Argentines in Boston and across Massachusetts were astonished and elated. Celebrations with champagne and tango music erupted in homes and workplaces. Many joyously called relatives, e-mailed friends, and posted congratulatory messages to one another on social media. At Tango, a popular Argentine restaurant in Arlington, the Mermet family and their workers planned a toast for the man many are now affectionately calling Francisco.
“Nobody expected he was going to be pope,” said owner Ricardo Mermet. “We are very content and very happy. I think Buenos Aires is filled with joy.”
Former Chelsea city councilor Roy Avellaneda, now a project manager for the state Department of Transportation, said his father called him at work. “He could barely speak through the tears,” he said.
Avellaneda said he was overjoyed to have a pope who can represent the Americas. “To have a representative from our side of the world, to be now the leader of the church, it’s an amazing feeling,” he said.
Alberto Delloca, an accountant from Whitman, was also pleased. “The pope is an important religious figure, but he’s also a world figure, and he’s Argentine,” he said. Then he joked, “We always say God is Argentine.”
Maria Sacchetti of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Eric Moskowitz can be reached at email@example.com.