MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
For one more view of the man who will now lead the world's 1.2 billion Catholics, we turn to Father Robert Ballecer of the Jesuit Conference of the United States. Thanks so much for coming in.
THE REV. ROBERT BALLECER: Well, thank you for having me.
BLOCK: We've been mentioning that Pope Francis is the first pope to come from the Jesuit order, the largest single order within the Catholic Church. What does it mean for Jesuits this moment?
BALLECER: It's a realization of something we thought would never happen. We've just accepted that Jesuits would not make for good popes because of the nature of our religious order. So this is a surprise. It's exciting. And especially with the name that he's chosen and the history that he comes from, it's this interesting dichotomy between who he is and what he wants to be.
BLOCK: You're talking about the name Pope Francis, which alludes...
BALLECER: Of course, yes.
BLOCK: ...back to St. Francis of Assisi, also some question of whether it evokes Francis Xavier, one of the founders of the Jesuit order itself?
BALLECER: Actually, I believe that that is the perfect dichotomy to put this in. You've got the two Francises, Francis Xavier, who's a Jesuit, and Francis of Assisi, who is a Franciscan. Francis Xavier was known to be the typical, stereotypical Jesuit. He was a missionary, he went out, he did things, he made things happened, whereas St. Francis was a humble man. He believed in retreating from the world and the simple things and in living a simple lifestyle. And I think that's contained within Pope Francis. You have a man who his history is in the Society of Jesus, but he's shown that he's a very humble man, a man who lives simply.
BLOCK: When you say that Jesuits never thought this would happen, that they thought that the impression was that Jesuits wouldn't make a good pope, what do you mean?
BALLECER: Well, if you look back to our history, it's been contentious. Jesuits, we have a lot of nicknames. We're known as the marines of the pope. We're the defenders of the papacy. We're the first ones in. And that doesn't typically make for a good pope. When you have what has been looked at as a liberal order, people expect a bit more consistency, a bit more conservatism within the pope. And so to have Pope Francis, it's a nice change.
BLOCK: There's a fascinating bit of history here when you think about the papacy and Jesuits going back to the 18th century and Pope Clement XIV. What happened?
BALLECER: Oh, well, so this is actually a really good history lesson. A Franciscan pope decided that because of many things going on at the church at the time that the Society of Jesus would be suppressed. We ceased to exist. And this went on for many years until we were called back. And some would say that the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits before the suppression, are not the same as the Jesuits after the suppression. In fact, in these coming years, the Jesuits will be going through some soul-searching to really look at who we are and who we have become. And I'm sure that now we have Pope Francis, he will be a big part of that discussion.
BLOCK: I gather that there's a vow taken by those in the Jesuit order not to seek offices of honor or prestige. It doesn't get much more prestigious than the papacy. So how do you square those two things?
BALLECER: Right. We have a vow that we will not seek out office, but there have been cases where office seeks us out. We see this time and time again when we have Jesuit bishops or Jesuit cardinals. And in each case, the story goes that they refused the first time, maybe even a second time, maybe even a third time. But being obedient priests and being obedient Jesuits, if they're asked again and again to serve their church, they will.
BLOCK: Was it an emotional moment for you when you saw Pope Francis come out and you realized this was one of ours, he's a Jesuit, he's now the pope?
BALLECER: It really was because, again, there's that Jesuit cynicism where we thought it will never be a Jesuit. It can't be a Jesuit. And to finally see him walk out on that balcony, there was - we were in the conference room here in our office, and we just looked around the room, and there was this incredulous smile going around of what does this mean, what does this do to us and what do we have to do now that we have a Jesuit pope.
BLOCK: Father Ballecer, thanks so much for coming in.
BALLECER: Thank you for having me.
BLOCK: Father Robert Ballecer, he's national director of vocation promotion with the Jesuit Conference of the United States. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.