VATICAN CITY – While the Vatican has picked the highly disciplined Jesuits as advance men for planning papal pilgrimages and to run its worldwide broadcasting network, the notion of a Jesuit pope is still being absorbed in the Holy See.
Before Pope Francis, no one from the nearly 500-year-old missionary order had been pope.
Previous popes have punished Jesuit theologians for being too progressive in preaching and teaching. The last pontiff, Benedict XVI, sent a polite but firm letter inviting the order's worldwide members to pledge "total adhesion" to Catholic doctrine, including on divorce, homosexuality and liberation theology.
So, just what is the Society of Jesus, as the Jesuit order is formally called, and what makes it so appreciated yet so feared at times by the Vatican?
WHO STARTED IT ALL?
Seven men, who bonded together as they took their first religious vows of chastity and poverty in Paris in 1534, founded the Company of Jesus. It later changed its name to the Society of Jesus.
Principal founder was St. Ignatius of Loyola, and companions in the venture included 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.
Visitors in Rome can see the four small rooms where Ignatius spent his final years, including the bedroom where he died and the dining room where he chatted with missionaries before they set out for India or the Americas.
WHO'S IN IT NOW?
The order counts some 19,000 members worldwide, making it the largest male religious order in the world.
WHAT'S THE MISSION?
The founders first hoped to go to the Holy Land to convert Muslims, but when Turkish warfare foiled those plans, they headed to Rome instead. Their order's constitution won papal approval in 1540.
The Jesuits set off to foreign lands where they zealously toiled as missionaries. Francis Xavier and Matteo Ricci, an Italian who helped introduce Christianity to China in the 16th century, were among them. In Latin America and North America, the Jesuits were nicknamed "Black Robes" by the 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 an essential entry on CVs for those aiming to rise in the Vatican's hierarchy, lead dioceses or become Vatican diplomats.
Three Jesuit priests who sailed into Yokohama harbor in Japan founded Sophia University in Tokyo. Another major Jesuit school is Georgetown University.
Pope Francis' 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.
WHY THE TANGLES WITH THE VATICAN?
The Jesuits push a social justice agenda and their work with the poor in Latin America in the late 20th century sparked worries in the Vatican that they were embracing Marxist political movements.
Some Jesuits, especially in the United States and the Netherlands, questioned papal pronouncements on birth control, priestly celibacy and the ban on women priests.
During Benedict's papacy, a Spanish Jesuit, the Rev. Jon Sobrino, a well-known champion of liberation theology, saw some of his writings condemned by the Vatican as "erroneous or dangerous."
Last year, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington blasted Georgetown University for inviting President Barack Obama's health secretary to give a speech. U.S. bishops have clashed with Obama's administration on health care and contraceptives.
Another Jesuit school, Seattle University, angered conservative Catholics by inviting a former governor who supported abortion rights to speak.
IF POVERTY'S THEIR THING, WHY THE FANCY CHURCHES?
Jesuits in Europe were a significant force in the Counter Reformation after the rise of Protestantism on the continent. Their imposing Baroque churches in Rome are one legacy of this.
WHY ARE THE JESUITS SO RELUCTANT TO BECOME POPES?
As the Holy See's own spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Jesuit, put it Thursday: Jesuits are "known for service" to others and not for wielding authority.
Milan Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, another Jesuit, was said to be a top contender at the start of the 2005 conclave that elected Benedict. But, suffering from Parkinson's disease, like John Paul II, he was quoted as saying that "the church doesn't need another ailing pope" and took himself out of contention.
In the same conclave, Bergoglio reportedly was the top vote-getter behind Benedict, but made clear to his fellow electors that he didn't want the job, paving the way for Benedict's election.
ARE THERE ANY JESUIT POLITICIANS?
The Rev. Robert Drinan, a Jesuit, was elected to the U.S. Congress during the height of the Vietnam War on an anti-war platform. When he died, in 2007, Sen. Edward Kennedy, hailed Drinan as a "profile in courage."