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Jesuit commentator to talk at Canisius College about Pope Francis

The Rev. Thomas J. Reese chuckles when he recalls the origins of his role as a “go-to” commentator on all things Catholic.

Reese, a Jesuit priest and political scientist writing for the Catholic journal America, was covering the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops as the group developed a pastoral letter on war and peace in 1983.

Inside the press room during down time of the bishops’ meeting, a reporter asked if anyone knew anything about an item on the agenda that day. Reese had read up on that subject a few days earlier and began explaining.

“All of a sudden, everybody had their pens out, taking notes from me,” said Reese, whose Roman collar convinced reporters that he knew quite a bit about Catholicism. “I started to back away and said, ‘Wait a minute, I’m covering this, too.’ ”

Despite his early reluctance, Reese has become one of the media’s most sought-after experts on the inner workings of the Catholic Church. He’s written several books about the hierarchy, including “Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church.”

Most recently, he spent several weeks in Rome as a special analyst for the National Catholic Reporter during the election of Pope Francis – a topic he will discuss during a lecture at 7:30 p.m. today in Grupp Fireside Lounge on the second floor of the Richard E. Winter ’42 Student Center at Canisius College.

Canisius President John J. Hurley, an avid reader of America, personally asked Reese to speak at the Jesuit college well before the new pope was elected. The invitation was made last year, after the two met in Washington, D.C., where Reese is now senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Woodstock Theological Center.

“I really do think – and not just because he’s a Jesuit – he’s one of the most important voices in American Catholicism today,” said Hurley.

Reese also was in Rome for the election of Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. But two weeks after Benedict’s installation, he resigned as editor of America after seven years in the post, reportedly under pressure from Vatican officials who objected to Reese publishing articles that included criticism of church teachings on as same-sex marriage and condom use in Africa.

Many American Catholic academics and theologians bristled at the development as an affront to free expression and scholarly debate.

Reese declined to discuss his departure from America, but he acknowledged a feeling of greater optimism about the future of the Catholic Church since the election of Francis, a fellow Jesuit priest who has charmed many American Catholics with his emphasis on simplicity and charity.

The new pontiff is striking a chord, particularly with younger people who have no interest in the kind of church pageantry that Pope Francis has taken pains to avoid.

“All this kind of pomp and churchiness turns off young people today. The Vatican comes off as some sort of 17th century court, and that’s just so irrelevant to most people today,” said Reese. Pope Francis’ early gestures are mostly symbolic, but they still matter, he said.