Fairfield’s president and faculty reflect on the election of Pope Francis.

by Alan Bisbort

When the announcement of the election of a new pope swept through the American media on the cold afternoon of March 13, Fairfield University President Jeffrey P. von Arx, S.J., was asked to respond in the pages of the New York Post.

In a piece published the following day, Fr. von Arx hailed “the first pope from the New World” marking “yet another step in the globalization of Roman Catholicism.” He then pointed out another distinction that was a particular source of pride and excitement at Fairfield University — Argentina’s Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was “the first Jesuit elected to the papacy.”

Indeed, it was hard to determine which was the most surprising dimension to this historic moment in Church history — that the new pope was the first from Latin America, the first Jesuit, or the first pope to take the name of St. Francis of Assisi, who, as Fr. von Arx wrote in the Post, is “nearly everyone’s favorite saint, well known for his love of nature, of the poor, and of a simple life.”

Fr. von Arx noted that Pope Francis had served as a bishop in Argentina during the 1970s, a time of social upheaval and violent political reaction. “As such, he would have faced some of the most difficult times in the Church’s and the Jesuits’ history, when many old ways were being challenged and new experiments in religious life attempted.

“He would have had to navigate between liberals and conservatives in the Jesuits and assist young priests in finding their way in confusing times,” Fr. von Arx continued. “He will know many of the tensions and pressures that have impacted the Church in recent years, as well as some of its brightest and most talented members.

“He will come to his new job as pope, therefore, as both insider and outsider… as someone who will have the perspective of a place very different from Rome — ‘from the other side of the world,’ as he said in his address,” Fr. von Arx concluded.

One of the questions on the minds of faculty at Fairfield University — and presumably at all 28 of the Jesuit colleges and universities in the United States — is how the election of Pope Francis may affect the future of Jesuit universities, or whether it will have any appreciable impact. While it is still too early to be able to answer those questions, two Fairfield faculty shared their thoughts with Fairfield University Magazine.

Rev. Richard Ryscavage S.J., a professor of sociology and founding director of Fairfield’s Center for Faith and Public Life, said of the appointment: “We all considered it highly unlikely, so it came as a big surprise. Some of us had heard of Cardinal Bergoglio through the Jesuits in Argentina. We knew he was being considered as a possibility in the last papal election, but we never thought that he would win enough votes.”

Dr. Paul F. Lakeland, the Aloysius P. Kelley S.J. Professor of Catholic Studies and director of Fairfield’s Center for Catholic Studies, said of the election: “Jesuits themselves are puffed up about it, understandably. But there’s also some anxiety that if he proves less than popular, they worry that they will bask in the reflected un-glory.”

Fr. Ryscavage added: “Having a Jesuit pope means that Jesuit universities around the world will be expected to support the teachings of Pope Francis more explicitly than other Catholic universities.”

Lakeland, however, does not believe Pope Francis will have quite as much effect on the Jesuit colleges and universities in the U.S. as he may have elsewhere in the world.

“Take Fairfield, for example,” he said. “It’s separate from the Society of Jesus and from the Church. Yes, Jesuit-ness is built into the ethos of the place and, yes, Jesuits teach here, but the University is not overseen by the Church or by any Jesuit organization, and most of the administration is comprised of lay people.”

Though Lakeland noted that Pope Francis is “more conservative than what most would think about Jesuits, and more conservative than most Latino Jesuits,” he said that the chances of the Pope interceding in matters on the university level appeared, at present, slim.

“The list of things that Francis has to attend to is so long,” said Lakeland. “No one is hopping up and down in anticipation. It could be that he will have a list. ‘Let’s see, clean the Curia,’ check, ‘ordinations,’ check, ‘bishops,’ check, ‘now let’s look at the Jesuits.’ The anxiety is that he will turn on the Jesuits and try to reform them, but that would be a distant eventuality, if at all.”

Both Fr. Ryscavage and Dr. Lakeland were pleased by the Pope’s selection of the name Francis.

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