As the newly elected pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s papacy has already been historical. His is a part of the world no other pontiff has hailed from. His is an order no other pontiff has claimed. His is a name no other pontiff has taken. Even from this, it may be fair to expect that the pontificate of Pope Francis will be one to break with precedents and blaze new paths for the faithful. If ever there was a saint that did such a thing, it was his namesake. If ever there was a time that the Church would welcome a Francis, it is now.
The Vatican confirmed that this first Pope Francis is named after the first Saint Francis: St. Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscan Order. There was initially speculation that Cardinal Bergoglio, a Jesuit, chose “Francis” after St. Francis Xavier, the co-founder of the Society of Jesus with St. Ignatius of Loyola. Such is not the case, however, and the choice may be seen as an immediate gesture of unity in evangelization.
The last papacy dedicated to St. Benedict preserved the culture of faith like St. Benedict did, from deep within the fortress of sacred, solemn tradition. Now may the papacy dedicated to St. Francis propagate the faith like St. Francis did, in the wide landscape of joyful, jubilant creation. As Benedict XVI was precise, so now may Francis I be passionate.
The first thing Pope Francis said when he stepped out on the balcony before the world was quite significant because it was a joke. It seemed that the Conclave, he said, in appointing a bishop for Rome, had somehow managed to select someone from quite another part of the globe. “Here I am,” he said with a sheepish smile.
“Let us begin this journey together,” he went on to say, “the successor and the people; this journey for the Roman Catholic Church. It is a journey of friendship, of love, of trust, and faith between us. Let us pray always for one another. Let us pray for the whole world. Let us have a big brotherhood.”
To begin a journey with a joke is very fitting for a pope called Francis.
St. Francis, the son of a wealthy merchant, began his journey to rebuild the church with a joke as well. The only difference was that, in his case, he himself was the joke. Renouncing the world in public, he kicked off his clothes before his bishop and marched off like a mad fool, singing as he went. Francis sallied forth with his soldier spirit to do everything God wanted of him with nothing. And we can be sure that he joined in the laughter. So began that famous ministry of simplicity and charity. Francis was a glad servant to the poor and sick, ever happy in poverty, and ever praising God with poetry as he roamed through God’s own great, substantial poem.
St. Francis followed a Christian extremism, which, unlike other forms of religious extremism, is nothing to be wary of—unless the extreme love for God and duty to neighbor is a cause for concern. In other words, to be a Christian extremist is nothing more than to be extremely Christ-like. St. Francis’ extremism rendered the multitude of stars and beasts his brothers and sisters, every peasant a king, and every stone a building block for a holy edifice. His earthly extremism was characterized by a heavenly optimism.
If anything can come close to summing up St. Francis’ extraordinary character, it may be ventured that he was a gentle man of intense action—which is to say he was an excellent model for a pope. Our new pope, who invites us all to join him in sharing a brotherhood with the whole world, is off to a good, Franciscan start.
Pope Francis, like St. Francis, is well known for his simplicity. He is an unpretentious Prince of the Church, who always preferred to live in a small apartment instead of a palatial residence in Buenos Aires, where he tended to his own needs and rode in public buses instead of private limousines. Like the chivalric Saint of Assisi, our new Pope has worn the colors of Lady Poverty with pride, treasuring her favors as other men treasure barren metals.
As brotherhood was mentioned in his opening remarks in St. Peter’s Square, so does Pope Francis live by the principles of devoted and genuine brotherhood and sisterhood. He was never one to hide behind his clericals, but administered to the sick personally and spoke out in defense of the poor against the burdens imposed by international development. This pope has a voice and it has been the voice of conscience for years—a voice for social justice and peace between liberals and conservatives in the Church. His is a voice that proclaims the realities of brotherhood and friendship in Christ.
Pope Francis also bears the martial attitude of his patron, having fought valiantly against the errors of same-sex marriage and contraception. As Cardinal, he held the orthodox line with regard to abortion, despite criticisms and pressures from Argentinean government officials. As Pope, he can expect criticisms from a much wider audience. With a reputation for a sharp intelligence, pastoral instinct, and humility before God and men, a worthier, savvier head of the Church Militant we could not ask for.
Perhaps most poignant about the message implicit in the selection of the name “Francis,” is the notion of rebuilding a church that has fallen into some disrepair. St. Francis began his journey as a newly born, naked child in heaven’s infantry after praying before a crucifix among the ruins of the church San Damiano. “Francis,” called a voice, “seest thou not that my house is in ruins? Go and restore it for me.” At that moment in Assisi, a young man’s eyes beheld the world and he saw things for the first time as a mystic and a saint. G. K. Chesterton explains this vision in his inspired biography of Francis:
…he sees things go forth from the divine as children going forth from a familiar and accepted home… he hails them with an old familiarity that is almost an old frivolity. He calls them his Brother Fire and his Sister Water.
Now a new Francis has been called by Christ to mind His Church in a way that is at once similar and dissimilar. At that moment in Rome, an old man’s eyes beheld the world and we pray that he now sees things for the first time as Francis. There is good reason to rejoice, for Pope Francis spoke of a vision—a vision of big brotherhood and a joyful journey that we all are bound upon with our crosses gladly slung across our backs.
Let us follow him.
Editor’s note: The image above of St. Francis was painted by Jusepe de Ribera in 1643.