When friends or family ask what I think of the new pope, I reply that I view the choice with enthusiasm and optimism. It is not just because Pope Francis is from Latin America, where 40 percent of the world’s Catholics live. It is because he is a Jesuit. Throughout my life, I have had many experiences that have led me to admire them.
As the oldest of 12 children in the family of a poor dry land farmer who could scarcely put enough food on the table, I had virtually no chance of a college education. But by working many jobs I was able to save enough to work my way through Marquette University in Milwaukee.
I was deeply impressed with the Jesuits I met there, the atmosphere they created, their intellectual gifts, their faith, forbearance, patience, and courage. My most vivid memory is of the night before my wedding to Penelope Ann Gartman in 1955. I was a 25-year-old graduate assistant in journalism and she was a 20-year-old junior in the same field.
We were sitting in the rectory after the last wedding rehearsal. My wife’s parents, who did not find me worthy of marrying their daughter (a view they later modified), were trying to persuade the assistant pastor of Gesu, the university parish, to cancel the wedding.
He was gentle but firm, telling them that we had a right to get married and he was going to witness our vows. And he did. This year Penny and I will celebrate the 58th anniversary of our life together.
I saw that kind of elan in countless Jesuits I met during the 30 years I traveled to many parts of the mission world while working for Maryknoll.
A description often said in jest about Jesuits in Latin America goes like this, "Vows of poverty but very well equipped." While the joke is about the modern technology at their disposal, what has always impressed me are their intellectual gifts.
Those whose knowledge, wisdom and experience have enriched my life also are men of independence and dedication, unafraid to carry out the commands of the Gospel in unconventional ways.
I remember, for example, Father Michael Kennedy, who in the 1990s opened the doors of his church, Dolores Mission Parish in Los Angeles, to immigrants who would otherwise have to sleep in the streets. They slept in the pews. He also developed an enterprise called Homeboy Industries to create meaningful employment for gang members.
I have met many others, too many to name here, who were similarly creative and enterprising. An unforgettable priest, one of many Hispanic Jesuits to whom U.S. Hispanics owe a great debt, is Father Edmundo Rodriguez, who helped organize the poor of San Antonio’s barrios into a powerful group called Communities Organized for Public Service. "Mundo," as everyone called him, is a big man from Texas, "a world all by himself," as his Chicanito friends joked, an inexhaustible fountain of good ideas.
Much has been said about Pope Francis’ voluntary poverty, forgoing the archbishop’s mansion in Buenos Aires for an apartment and riding the bus instead of being chauffeured to work. I met many other Jesuits who chose similar poverty at Nativity Mission Center in New York’s Lower East Side, El Salvador, Africa or El Paso, Texas.
Hispanics have great hopes for Pope Francis, not only as the powerful voice of the poor but also as a man who will have the courage to make the changes needed to carry the Gospel to the centers of power, whether ecclesial or secular.
Sandoval is a columnist for Catholic News Service.