There are times when the Roman Catholic leadership really makes people wonder if they have ever actually read the Bible. The latest case is Atlanta Archbishop Wilton Gregory, whose 2.2 million dollar residence is going on the market in May. This mansion is located in an exclusive neighborhood and was built with donated funds from a donor. But with Pope Francis’ new focus on serving the poor, keeping the house became untenable after a backlash from parishioners and so, the latest glitzy bishop in what is becoming a line of glitzy bishops is giving it. The Atlanta archbishop and others are having to make changes now that Pope Francis is in charge and it just goes to show how crucial his Jesuit influence is on the church.
Pope Francis has repeatedly called for the church and the rest of the world to do more to help the poor. He has lamented the widening economic gap and criticized those economic theories that have created this situation, an act that has many calling him a Marxist and a communist. In both cases, Pope Francis has responded to these criticisms with denials of belonging to any one economic ideology, focusing instead on the role of religion in the world to create greater equality and justice.
In fact, taking the Jesuit view, Pope Francis is simply being a good Christian by following the teachers of Jesus Christ who repeatedly told his followers to give all they had to the poor. That call in many parts of the Bible has been interpreted by many scholars as one of the most fundamental marks of a follower of Christ, but it seems to have been lost over the years as the Catholic Church became not only the largest religion in the world, but one of the richest organizations in the world. With that in mind, cases like this Atlanta archbishop and the so-called “bishop of bling” are understandable to many minds, though it raises concerns that they are more concerned with financial matters than actually being servants of God. These men are acting exactly as people would expect rich businessmen to act because that is essentially what they are – members of one of the biggest businesses in the world, the Catholic Church.
At least that was how things were going before Pope Francis was elected pope. Francis, with his background as a member of the Jesuit order, does not come from “within the business,” so to speak. The Jesuits have always been outliers in the Catholic church because their mission has been so distinctly focused on ground-level missionary work. Jesuits are famous for their educational prowess, one of their primary areas of service to the world. The Jesuit order has an emphasis not only on helping others but on a vow of poverty, something the rest of the church has ignored recently. But Pope Francis, a Jesuit himself, is bringing all that back to the papal office and with that is causing change throughout the catholic leadership.
To understand exactly what Francis’ focus is, one need only look at what the Jesuits themselves believe. In 2008, the Jesuit Order issued its General Congregation which contained decrees about what the order would be doing in coming years. Within this text, the discussion of the poor was extensive. Not only were economic inequalities laid on the back of self-interest and greed, but the Jesuit ordered affirmed its solidarity with the poor and marginalized by “acting for and with them.” From this perspective, the entire Jesuit order not only put itself firmly on the side of the poor, but made itself one of the poor, an appropriate move for an organization of clergy that requires a vow of poverty to join.
This emphasis on being “for and with” the disadvantaged will be instantly recognizable by any student who went to a Jesuit university. Not only does the Jesuit order require this focus from its members, it also teaches this value as a guiding principle to the impressionable minds it teaches. This mission has yielded countless cases of lay people going in to service work right out of college and maintaining that focus throughout their lives.
With his focus firmly on being a pope “for and with others,” Francis has gone about changing the worldview of the Catholic church from one in which having a multi-million dollar home is unsurprising to one where helping the poor is the overarching mission. Atlanta Archbishop Gregory is one example of the pope’s Jesuit influence has been crucial to the change in the church and shows, more importantly, that it is actually working outside of just the clergy and leadership.
Archbishop Gregory was actually approached by parishioners from Atlanta had asked him since January of 2014 to sell the mansion. They wanted a focus on charity rather than selfishness. One parishioner commented that his example is the one that everyone follows. His use of a donation for personal gain was a bad message to the people sitting in the pews and that was the main reason why he was asked to sell the property.
Pope Francis’ substantive changes to the tone and focus of the church are having their greatest effect on the lay people in the denomination. From there, change is working its way to the top. This points to a lasting change that will continue long after Francis is no longer pope. The people of Atlanta are just one instance where good is coming about.
The impact of Jesuit values on the pope and now the rest of the church cannot be under-emphasized. The mission of being “for and with” the poor is crucial not just the order, but to understanding Pope Francis himself. His subsequent influence on the rest of the church has been in line with this foundational principle and change is already happening rapidly. As the lay people follow the example of their pope, the rest of the clergy will follow. Indeed, some, like the Atlanta archbishop, will be made to follow Francis’ example by their parishioners and it all goes to show just how crucial that Jesuit influence is to substantive change within the church. Without it, none of this might be happening at all.
Opinion By Lydia Webb