Pope Francis waves to the journalists attending his first public...

Pope Francis waves to the journalists attending his first public audience in the Paul VI Hall at the Vatican. (March 16, 2013) Credit: AP

VATICAN CITY -- When former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, an Argentine Jesuit, walked onto the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica last week as the new Pope Francis, he transformed the history of Roman Catholicism: No one from the well-regarded 500-year-old order had ever been selected for the church's highest position.

Indeed, Jesuits have been better known for their intellectual rigor. They are considered highly disciplined and capable advance men who, among other things, plan papal pilgrimages and run the church's worldwide broadcasting network.

It's just that none had served as leader of a flock of 1.2 billion Catholics -- until now.

"This choice moves the entire thread of our history," said Jesuit priest Giovanni La Manna, who heads the Astalli Foundation in Rome, a Catholic nongovernmental organization for refugee rights. "If the Lord has called the only Jesuit cardinal to become pope there must be a reason, and I'm sure we'll understand later why."

Perhaps it was just a matter of time before a Jesuit was selected, as the Vatican itself is located near a 16th century fresco in the center nave of the Church of Jesus in Rome where lie the remains of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the revered founder of the Society of Jesus.

In his day, St. Ignatius was called on by Pope Paul III to help reform a broken church that was combating corruption and a waning influence.

Experts believe that, last week, another Jesuit was elected in a conclave to shepherd the Catholic Church out of a crisis of credibility -- but, this time, directly as pope.

The announcement left many Jesuits dumbfounded as they heard the name of their only cardinal elector being spelled out in Latin from the balcony on the night that white smoke wafted over St. Peter's Square.

"It's just such incredible news because Jesuits don't expect to become bishops, let alone the pope," said Gerard Whelan, Jesuit professor at the Gregorian University in Rome.

Indeed, popes have punished Jesuit theologians for being too progressive in preaching and teaching. The just-retired Benedict XVI, sent a polite but firm letter inviting the order's worldwide members to pledge "total adhesion" to church doctrine, including on divorce, homosexuality and liberation theology.

The order, which now comprises about 19,000 men worldwide, was founded by seven men who bonded together as they took their first vows of chastity and poverty in Paris in 1534.

They called their group the Company of Jesus but later changed its name to the Society of Jesus. Founders included St. Ignatius of Loyola and St. Francis Xavier, whose evangelical zeal inspired, along with Franciscan founder St. Francis of Assisi, the Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio in his pontifical name choice, Pope Francis.

The founders first hoped to go to the Holy Land to convert Muslims, but when Turkish warfare foiled those plans, they headed to Rome. Their order's constitution won papal approval in 1540.

The Jesuits set off to foreign lands where they zealously toiled as missionaries. In Latin America and North America, they were nicknamed "Black Robes" by Native Americans for their characteristic garb.

Another claim to fame is education. Some 3,730 Jesuit-run schools worldwide educate 2.5 million students.

Ignatius founded what became the most prestigious pontifical university in Rome, the Gregorian, whose degree is essential for those aiming to rise in the Vatican's hierarchy, lead dioceses or become Vatican diplomats.

Major Jesuit schools include Georgetown and Fordham.

Francis joined the order at age 22. His academic training is classic Jesuit -- broad and intellectually challenging, a mix of practical material and humanities. He trained as a chemist and taught literature, psychology, philosophy and theology.

His chosen name, Francis, "evokes the Holy Father's evangelical spirit of closeness to the poor, his identification with simple people, and his commitment to the renewal of the church," said Rev. Adolfo Nicolás Pachon, superior general of the Jesuit order.

With Zachary R. Dowdy

and AP

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