Pope, ‘black pope’ are both men from the global south

Recently, the church marked the feast of the North American martyrs — Saints Isaac Jogues, John de Brebeuf, Rene Goupil and their companions. These priests and lay brothers were members of the Society of Jesus killed during their missions to the Huron, Iroquois and Mohawk tribes.

A few days before their memorial, delegates from around the world gathered in Rome to elect the 30th successor to their patron, Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the man who sent Francis Xavier to the far ends of the world, inspiring men like Jogues and Goupil to follow his example years later. After days of consultations and prayerful murmuratio (chatting and listening), the men elected the first non-European leader of the order, Venezuelan prelate Arturo Sosa, S.J.

The Jesuits have widely been considered one of, if not the most, influential order of religious priests in the world, and that was largely acknowledged before the first pope of the Society of Jesus brought their unique brand of spirituality with him into the Chair of Peter. Former leaders have indelibly stamped the church from Saint Francis Borgia (a descendant of the infamous cardinals of the same surname) through Pedro Arrupe and Peter Hans Kolvenbach in recent decades. Father Sosa replaces Adolfo Nicolas, a Spaniard who resigned because of age at 80.

Father Sosa is conversant in Spanish, Italian, English and French. He was a former provincial in Venezuela, where their influential schools for poor children were among the inspirations for the Cristo Rey movement in our own country. He’s been involved in social justice research and higher education, even spending time teaching Latin American studies at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. He inherits an order ever re-committing itself to global societal and economic issues, academic excellence, spiritual discernment, and “setting the world ablaze” with the love of Christ, as they often put it.

He also takes on the somewhat facetious moniker of the “black pope.” Because of their influence nearly rivaling the men in white, the superior generals of the Society have long been referred to by this title.

In his homily in the Mass of Thanksgiving in the Church of the Gesu, where his spiritual father-figure and founder of his order lies in rest, Father Sosa made clear the priorities of his time of service in a leadership role in the Society: “As Ignatius and his first companions, like so many brothers who fought and lived under the banner of the cross in the service of the Lord and his church, we also want to contribute to what seems impossible today: a humanity reconciled in justice, living in peace in a common house well-kept, where there is room for everyone because we recognize that we are siblings, sons and daughters of the same and unique Father.”

This is the first time that both the papacy and Society of Jesus are led by men from the global south, as I would argue the earlier African popes centuries ago were by and large still formed in the context of Mediterranean world and a Eurocentric church. It represents then a dramatic shift in perspective, and one entirely without precedent. Even the dynamic between them is many ways uncharted waters, as the previous generals never had to deal with the unusual reality of a member of the Society as pope, or earlier popes with a general of his own largest order steps away, who was elected not by cardinals, but by his Jesuit confreres. It will be fascinating to watch them interpret, accentuate and prioritize pastoral and governance issues from a wider, international, polycentric perspective.

Collingswood native Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D. teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.

Categories: Columns, Growing in Faith

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