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Pope Francis breaks another barrier as first Jesuit pontiff

Marcos Brindicci / Reuters

Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina is both the first Latin American pope and the first Jesuit pope.

Pope Francis is unique not just for being the first Latin American pope. He's also the first Jesuit pope, possibly signaling a renewed emphasis on traditional Catholic theology by the church.

The Society of Jesus, as the Jesuits are formally known, observes a vow of poverty, and as archbishop of Buenos Aires, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was known for his accessibility and simplicity, said Michael Sheeran, president-elect of the American Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities.

"Pope Francis took the bus to work every day," Sheeran said in a live online discussion of Bergoglio's election. "He sold the cardinal's residence and lived in a small apartment where he cooked for himself."

But that simplicity hides a steely determination to advance Jesuit principles, especially on the importance of traditional Catholic teachings and protection of the poor and the oppressed, Sheeran said. 

That determination emerged during Bergoglio's service as the top Jesuit leader of Argentina beginning in 1973, Sheeran said, noting, "He was a tough guy who made sure his men toed the mark."

"I think you'll find a man who is conservative theologically but very strong on matters of social justice," Sheeran said.

George Weigel, a senior fellow at the nonprofit Ethics and Public Policy Center who is a Vatican analyst for NBC News, agreed that the choice of Bergoglio "speaks to the church's commitment to the poor of the world and compassion in a world that often needs a lot of healing."

At the same time, "this is a John Paul II guy," Weigel said, referring to Pope John Paul II, who elevated Bergoglio to archbishop in 1998 and cardinal in 2001. As archbishop of Buenos Aires, "he tried to call that community back to orthodoxy," Weigel said.

The new pope has been a vocal opponent of abortion and especially of same-sex marriage, saying in 2010 that its role was to "seriously injure the family." He said the practice deprived children of "the human growth that God wanted them given by a father and a mother."

That position drew a rebuke from Argentine President Cristina Fernandez, who called Bergoglio a relic of "medieval times and the Inquisition."

Ultimate redemption for Jesuits
The Society of Jesus is the largest religious order of men in the Catholic Church, according to church statistics, and the largest single order of Catholic priests. But there has never before been a Jesuit pope, reflecting both the order's own reluctance to get deeply involved in church politics and its history as a polarizing force within Catholicism.

NBC News Special Report: The Vatican crowd cheers as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina is blessed and elevated to Pope Francis, successor to Pope Benedict XVI, on the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica.

"I'm amazed (Francis) was selected," Sheeran said, because "the Jesuits steer clear of getting high-ranking jobs like this."

The society was founded in Rome in 1540 by St. Ignatius of Loyola and St. Francis Xavier as a movement devoted to living in the imitation of Jesus. 

From the beginning, the Jesuits have been aggressively evangelistic; they were the shock troops in the church's resistance to the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century and among the first missionaries to set up shop in such far-flung locales as India, Asia, and Central and South America, the Catholic Encyclopedia records.

That activism earned the society a reputation for political scheming by the 1760s, leading to its official suppression by Pope Clement XIV in 1773. Expulsion of the order quickly followed across much of the Catholic world, from France and Portugal to as far away as the Philippines.

"It thereby contributed to the polarization and politicization of the European public sphere in the age of enlightenment," Christine Vogel, a historian at the University of Rostock in Germany, wrote in a 2010 examination of the suppression.

The order remained in the wilderness for 41 years before Pope Pius VII restored its recognition after the Napoleonic Wars wound down in 1814.

In the modern era, the Jesuits have focused on social justice and education, having founded scores of prominent colleges  around the world, including 28 in the U.S., among them Georgetown in Washington, Boston College, Fordham in New York, Holy Cross in Massachusetts, Marquette in Milwaukee and Loyola in New Orleans. (An earlier version of this story inaccurately located Marquette University.)

That's in keeping with Pope Francis' own background — like his predecessor, Benedict XVI, Bergoglio is an academic as well as a priest.

Before he became a bishop in 1992, Bergoglio earned a doctorate in theology in Freiburg, Germany. He returned to Argentina and was a theology instructor at and later rector of the Philosophical and Theological Faculty of San Miguel in Buenos Aires.