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With Pope Francis, it's prime time for Jesuits

Sunday - 4/7/2013, 5:46pm  ET

FILE - In this Sunday, March 31, 2013 photo, Pope Francis greets the faithful at the end of the Easter Mass in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican. Francis is the first Jesuit to be elected pope, and members of the order have only started absorbing the novelty of one of their own leading the church. But they have also started thinking ahead, to the potential impact of this pontificate on their many ministries, colleges and overall future. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini, File)

AP Religion Writer

NEW YORK (AP) -- For decades, the Society of Jesus has faced the same struggles to find priests that have plagued the wider Roman Catholic Church. The Rev. Chuck Frederico, one of the priests who evaluate Jesuit applicants, says he usually heard from five a week, or fewer.

Then, last month, the former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio stepped out on the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica -- the first Jesuit to be elected pope.

The number of queries jumped to four or five each day.

"Some guys who made contact in the past weeks are serious candidates," said Frederico, vocations director for the region from Maine to Georgia. "This election of the Holy Father has given them reason to examine this more fully."

Jesuits have only started absorbing the novelty of one of their own leading the church. Most were so shocked, they Googled to confirm the connection before they dared to celebrate. Robert Wassmann, an instructor at Washington Jesuit Academy, a middle school, told the Archdiocese of Washington newspaper he ran down the hall shouting: "He's a Jesuit! He's a Jesuit!"

But members of the order have also started thinking ahead, to the potential impact of this pontificate on their many ministries, colleges and overall future. Pope Francis could inspire new recruits and wider regard for the society. But he could also feel compelled to intervene in the inner workings of the order, which has had sometimes tense relations with the Vatican over the centuries.

"In the context of young men and women considering a religious vocation and calling, it has to have an impact," said the Rev. Thomas Gaunt, a Jesuit and analyst at Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. "And that impact will be at least a blip on the screen and could be more."

Bergoglio was more than a rank-and-file member of the Society of Jesus. He held the order's most trusted positions in Argentina.

Soon after he was ordained, he was appointed novice master, in charge of training the newest recruits. He went on to become provincial, or national leader, before joining the church hierarchy as a bishop in Buenos Aires. Francis has chosen a papal coat of arms featuring the Jesuit seal: a sunburst containing a red cross and the "IHS" abbreviation for Jesus Christ.

In pure marketing terms, it's the ultimate branding opportunity.

Many Jesuit-run colleges, such as Georgetown, are already prominent and a top draw for applicants, although most of the order's 3,700-plus schools worldwide are smaller and many are struggling.

The Rev. Tom Smolich, president of the Jesuit Conference USA, said some are half-jokingly wondering about a papal version of the "Flutie effect," a reference to Doug Flutie, quarterback for Jesuit-run Boston College whose last-second "Hail Mary" pass won a 1984 game against Miami. In the aftermath, BC's applications increased.

Mostly, though, the society is hoping for what the Rev. Matt Malone, editor of the Jesuit magazine America, called "a moment of reconciliation." Previous popes have disciplined Jesuit theologians over liberal teachings. In 2008, Benedict XVI sent a letter asking the order's worldwide members to pledge "total adhesion" to Catholic doctrine, including on divorce and homosexuality.

"That the cardinals would even consider choosing a Jesuit now, I thought, marked a new beginning in that relationship," Malone wrote.

Recognized by the church in 1540, the order was founded by Basque soldier Inigo de Loyola. Jesuits swear an oath of obedience to the papacy and have been dubbed "God's Soldiers" for their readiness to evangelize anywhere the pontiff sent them. Jesuits brought Christianity to 16th-century Japan. A 19th-century Belgian Jesuit was a peace negotiator between the U.S. government and Sioux Indians.

But depending on the era, the society could be viewed with as much suspicion as respect.

Their growing influence sometimes generated resentment. Anti-clerical European monarchs pressured Pope Clement XIV to abolish the society in 1773 -- a suppression that wasn't lifted until 1814. Still, Jesuits remained a target for anti-Catholic conspiracy theorists who believed the priests were scheming to overthrow foreign governments.

The order has become known more recently for academic rigor seen in the universities they built in the U.S. and around the world. Jesuit scientists have made so many advances in astronomy, physics and math that 35 moon craters have been named in their honor. But partly because of these intellectual achievements, claims of elitism often surround the society.

The Rev. Joseph McShane, president of the Jesuit Fordham University, opened a recent event with a quip playing on the order's reputation and Francis' no-frills papacy. The pope has kept the simple, iron-plated pectoral cross he used as bishop and living in the Vatican guesthouse rather than the grand papal apartment.

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