The Jesuits, a religious order once abolished by the Vatican, say they are seeing a surge in the number of men considering the priesthood ever since Pope Francis became the first Jesuit elected head of the Roman Catholic Church.

Now, with Francis poised to visit the United States for the first time, the Jesuits expect even more attention and interest in their order.

Francis' election as pope has meant "a tremendous infusion of energy and a sense of pride in the Society of Jesus," the Jesuits' official name, said Thomas Cohen, a history professor at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. Most Jesuits "are very excited and fully supportive of Francis' mission."

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Michael Breault, a Jesuit brother who heads the order's national recruiting office, said Francis' trip to New York, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia this week will be "huge" for the Jesuits.

"The image that he projects is so appealing to people, this idea of being a man of the people, not ruling the people," Breault said. "You couldn't ask for something more effective" to promote vocations to the Jesuits than Pope Francis visiting here.

The Jesuits were founded in 1540 by Íñigo López de Loyola, a Spanish soldier who underwent a conversion while recuperating from serious war wounds and later became St. Ignatius Loyola. Today, the Jesuits are the largest male religious order in the Catholic Church, with 16,740 priests and brothers worldwide.

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Their work spans 120 nations and ranges from ministering to refugees in Africa to working with gang members in East Los Angeles.

They live in community, share everything and consider themselves "contemplatives in action" -- prayerful men who also actively engage in the world. The core of their Ignatian spirituality is to "find God in all things."

Preparing for ministry

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Jesuits are well-educated, typically going through at least 10 years of study and preparation after graduating from college before they are ordained. They often serve at least two years in another country and speak at least two languages.

The international leader of the group is known as the "Black Pope," partly because of the black cassock he used to wear and the perceived power and influence of the Jesuits. Their power and activism has sometimes caused tensions in the church. During the Chinese Rites controversy of the 17th and 18th centuries, Jesuit missionaries argued that some Chinese religious beliefs and practices were compatible with Christianity, a stance the Vatican ultimately condemned.

In the United States the Jesuits are known for their schools, among them Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., Fordham University in the Bronx, Boston College and Holy Cross in Massachusetts.

On Long Island, Jesuits run St. Anthony's parish in Oceanside and, until it was sold and demolished in 2013, a retreat house in North Hills that was the former Great Gatsby-era mansion of a prominent Catholic couple. In 1936 the future Pope Pius XII made it his home base during a monthlong tour of the United States.

For all their accomplishments, education and rich history, the Jesuits had never produced a pope. That was largely intentional: St. Ignatius Loyola never wanted his men to aspire to become bishops, much less cardinals or a pope, said the Rev. James Martin, author of "The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life."

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When parish workers walked into his office one evening in March 2013 to tell the Rev. Nicholas Lombardi, pastor of St. Anthony's parish, that a Jesuit had just been elected pope in Rome, Lombardi thought it was a joke.

"You have to understand," he recalled telling one worker, "the Roman Catholic Church does not elect Jesuit popes."

Finally Lombardi turned on the Vatican website's live stream. "I didn't believe it until I saw him walking out on that balcony and I said, 'Oh my God, I know that guy.' I don't think I was able to say anything for two or three minutes. I was so surprised."

The Rev. Timothy Kesicki, president of Jesuits USA, the group's national headquarters in Washington, D.C., said, "No one in their right mind expected the only Jesuit there to be elected, and he was."

Lombardi had met Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now known as Pope Francis, in Rome in 2001 when the Argentine was made a cardinal. Lombardi had traveled there with Jesuit Avery Dulles, at the time a fellow faculty member at Fordham who was also being made a cardinal.

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Bergoglio struck him as down-to-earth, "just one of the guys," Lombardi said.

As pope, it's clear Francis is still a Jesuit, he said. "A lot of what he says and does is typically Jesuit," he said, such as employing a "big tent" approach by appointing a range of consultors to advise him on major issues like a restructuring of the Vatican. His landmark encyclical on the environment issued in June, "Laudato Si" or "Be Praised," seems largely inspired by the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola and the search to find God in all things including nature, Lombardi said.

Francis also has underscored the Jesuits' global missionary spirit by appointing cardinals from all over the world rather than mainly from the traditional areas of Western Europe and the United States, Kesicki said.

Visit puts order in spotlight

The pope's six-day visit to the United States will put the Jesuits even more in the spotlight, Kesicki said. "He showcases the Jesuit vocation to the whole world."

Vocation directors for the Jesuits refer to the "Francis Effect" -- an increase in the number of men expressing interest in becoming a Jesuit, Breault said.

"Young men attracted to the Society of Jesus today are interested in service to the poor, simplicity of lifestyle, and preaching the mercy of God -- themes that are dear to the heart of Pope Francis," said the Rev. John Cecero, head of the USA Northeast Province of the Jesuits.

The Northeast Province has seen the number of men inquiring about joining jump from one or two a week to five to seven a week since Francis was elected, said the Rev. Charles Frederico, head of vocations for the province. Typically, about 10 percent of those become "active discerners" seriously considering entering the order.

Breault said it is a similar situation in the Jesuits' other U.S. provinces and that, although it is early to say how many of the inquiries will actually lead to men becoming Jesuits since the process is long, the increase is hopeful.

"If I post a picture of Francis on one of our social media sites, the responses jump," he said.

Similar to other groups of priests, the number of Jesuits worldwide has dropped -- from a high of 36,038 in 1965 to fewer than 17,000 today, said the Rev. Thomas Gaunt, a Jesuit who heads Georgetown's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.

In the United States, the number has fallen from a high of about 7,000 in the mid-1960s to 2,464 today.

In 1958, a record 419 novices entered the Jesuits in the United States. By 2007 it hit a record low of 30, Breault said. Last year 34 entered, still not enough to make up for those Jesuits dying or leaving the order.

While the overall numbers are not growing in the United States, they are in other parts of the world such as Africa and Asia, Kesicki said. India now has the largest number of Jesuits in the world, with 4,018, Gaunt said.

The order has seen far worse days. In a dispute with the Vatican, it was suppressed from 1773 to 1814, and nearly vanished. The Jesuits, by then wealthy and powerful, had earned the enmity of rulers in Spain and Portugal in part for their defense of indigenous people in Latin America during colonial times, when Native Americans were often abused or enslaved, Cohen said. The colonial powers pressured the Vatican to suppress the Jesuits.

After the order's restoration, it grew quickly again.

Skirmishes with Vatican

There have been other skirmishes with the Vatican over the centuries. As recently as 2005, the Rev. Thomas Reese was forced out as editor of the Jesuit weekly magazine America after his longtime foe, Joseph Ratzinger, was elected Pope Benedict XVI and ordered the Jesuits to fire him, according to David Gibson, author of "The Rule of Benedict: Pope Benedict XVI and His Battle With the Modern World."

Like other Catholic religious orders of priests, Jesuits take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. But Jesuits also take a fourth vow of obedience to the pope, indicating a willingness to go anywhere in the world they are needed. Unlike diocesan priests, Jesuits are not ordained to a particular diocese to serve the local bishop.

While the Jesuits have run schools for impoverished Puerto Rican middle school boys on Manhattan's Lower East Side, they also connect with the wealthy and powerful.

Former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, former Gov. Mario Cuomo and designer Oscar de la Renta are among those whose funeral Masses were held at the Roman Catholic Church of St. Ignatius Loyola on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

In taking the name of Francis, the pope has ingeniously blended two of Catholicism's most famous orders -- the Jesuits and the Franciscans, who were founded by St. Francis of Assisi and are known for their work with the poor. St. Francis was also known for his commitment to peace and his love of creation.

"He's a Jesuit who took a Franciscan name, which is the perfect combination," Martin said. "The choice of Francis telescoped early on his desire to speak out for the poor, to care for the poor, and to encourage a church that is poor."