Wednesday 17 January 2018

Books: The very first Jesuit pope

Non-fiction Inside the 
Jesuits Robert Blair Kaiser Rowman and Littlefield, hdbk, 224 pages, £19.99

Different approach: Pope Francis was never going to step into Benedict’s red Prada shoes
Different approach: Pope Francis was never going to step into Benedict’s red Prada shoes

Eilis O'Hanlon on a new book explaining why Pope Francis is so different... and why he'd never wear Prada

What do the following people have in common? James Joyce, Joseph Plunkett, Tim Pat Coogan, Terry Wogan, Garret FitzGerald, Richard Bruton, Brian Lenihan, Adrian Hardiman, Owen Dudley Edwards, John Bowman, Henry Kelly, Tony O'Reilly and Cian O'Connor.

Answer: they were all educated by the Jesuits, and at a single school at that - Belvedere College in Dublin. Fellow Jesuit college, Gonzaga, has also had more than its fair share of illustrious alumni: Michael McDowell, Anthony Clare, Paul Durcan, Eunan O'Halpin, Peter Mathews, Peter Sutherland and Paul Carney. The list goes on. All joined a host of other well-known names worldwide, including Bill Clinton, who were educated at one time or another by Jesuits. As indeed was George Takai, aka Mr Sulu in Star Trek.

The roll call of the great and good who've been beamed up to better things under the guiding hand of the Society of Jesus, to give the order its proper name, is a testament to the huge influence which the Jesuits have had, and continue to exert, both on Irish life and further afield; and their reach shows no sign of waning. Five hundred years after Ignatius Loyola founded the society, the Jesuits - the "largest, brainiest order in the Church", as this new books puts it - have finally bagged their first ever Pontiff in the shape of Jorge Bergoglio, the former cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires now better known as Pope Francis.

Robert Blair Kaiser was asked to write Inside the Jesuits to explain to non-specialist readers what this man's ascension to the Seat of Peter would mean for the Catholic Church.

As a journalist and author of 16 previous books, Kaiser has a long-standing interest in church affairs, honed when he was a New York Times bureau chief in Rome. More significantly, he was himself a Jesuit-in-training for 10 years, and writes a fascinating chapter here, "adapted" from his 2003 memoir Clerical Error, about his time under their tutelage, where his thinking was moulded by rigorous study, daily spiritual exercises, Gospel readings ("we called it 'Scripture' because 'Bible' was a Protestant term"), all fostered under a characteristic atmosphere of male camaraderie.

That is important. This is a book written, not by a disinterested outsider, but by one of the club. Throughout, Kaiser is keen to emphasise not only that Pope Francis is different to his predecessors and will lead the church in a new way, but that the nature of his difference lies precisely in the fact that he is a Jesuit. The thrust of the argument is summed up in a quote from another member: "Jesuits are never content with the status quo."

Kaiser calls this the "Jesuit gene… an inner compulsion to do more". To boldly go where no man has gone before, you might say. As he sees it, the Church under the last two Popes had become "more of a museum than a mission", crippled by child abuse and financial scandals and an obsession with enforcing conservative doctrine.

In short: "Francis was not going to follow in his predecessor's royal footsteps - most especially not in Benedict's red Prada shoes". Miaow.

Kaiser is a liberal. He doesn't believe in the literal existence of Hell. He wants the Church to open itself up more to women. He'd like to see an end to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which rigidly lays down dogma. Naturally, he sees the same tendencies in Pope Francis.

The new Pontiff, Kaiser writes, is intent on bringing "less doom-and-gloom spirituality, more laughter, more joy in just being human", by concentrating, as the Society of Jesus teaches, not on dogma but on the person of Christ and on speaking in a plainer language which reaches out to ordinary people. This is a revival of the spirit of Kaiser's beloved Vatican II, described by one scholar (another Jesuit, naturally) as moving "from commands to invitations, from threats to persuasion, from monologue to dialogue".

This, the author claims, is the refreshing language which the new Pope has adopted. "Francis's Jesus… does not want us to obsess over our sins, but to give ourselves a break. We're all sinners, but so what? That shouldn't stop us from serving God and one another by making a better world."

If there is one glaring fault in the book, it is that it is rather repetitive in its eulogising of this "Jesuit DNA". Its central argument could have been summarised as effectively in a magazine article rather than a 200-page book. The author also pads out the narrative too much by cannibalising some of his previous publications. One chapter is a rehash from his 2006 book A Church in Search of Itself. Another is, by his own admission, "taken" from a 2002 article for the Tablet.

Wearing his sympathies so openly, Kaiser also comes across as a bit of a fan boy at times. He concedes that individual Jesuits can be hypocritical, and that they have covered up for their own when it comes to sex abuse. But generally he is a breathless proselytiser for the order's merits and for Francis's own qualities. Ultimately, though, it's difficult to escape from Kaiser's own admission in the final chapter: "What may happen under Francis's leadership remains to be seen." Well, exactly.

In the meantime, it may take another, more objective book to explain why a 500-year-old order which today numbers less than 20,000 members worldwide continues to spawn such a disproportionate number of high fliers, not least in Ireland, as all those Belvedere and Gonzaga boys have discovered to their benefit.

Available with free P&P on or by calling 091 709 350

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