The Lowest Among Us: A New Pope, An Age-Old Christian Message
Pope Francis will preach humility and fraternity in the spirit of his namesake St. Francis of Assisi. Can he make it relevant in the 21st century?
On Wednesday, Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, archbishop of Buenos Aires, was elected 266th pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church. He chose the name Francis. While some are investigating his past, others prefer to look forward.
Let us begin by pausing at that instant when protodeacon Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran announced the choice of the College of Cardinals. Moments later, the newly elected Pope Francis stepped out to address the massive crowd gathered below in St. Peter’s Square.
This unexpected choice of a new pope has brought with it a wind of true change: the first non-European pope since 731, Gregory III of Syria; first pope from the American continent; the first Jesuit pope. Bergoglio himself was not responsible for all this -- it was the two-thirds majority of his fellow cardinals who made the choice.
Instead, he alone chose an unprecedented name, which has only happened twice in the past millennieum, in 913 with Landon and 1978 with John Paul I.
And yet, though it is a new papal name, Francis evokes quite a familiar ring to Christians around the world. It refers to the 13th century saint known for his ecclesiastical innovation, who seemed drawn to tradition rather than change, or at least disguised it under the name of tradition. Francis of Assisi indeed lived his life as a new man: “And so, the Lord told me to be a new madman on this earth,” he was to have said, according to his companion Brother Leo.
Francis' name evokes that of a kind man, the most popular of the saints: the one who talked to the birds and the Gubbio wolf, Saint Clare’s friend, the founder of the Order of Friars Minor (the Franciscans), which remains the largest of the Catholic Church communities.
As a Jesuit, Cardinal Bergoglio arrives as a cultured man. If we believe the Vatican experts, the 2005 election was a close call between him and then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, meaning his papal name wasn’t improvised in the Sistine chapel on March 13th. The new pope could have decided to refer to the saint who founded the Jesuits, Saint Ignatius. He did not.
Nor did Bergoglio choose the name of a saint who was an apostle or early martyr from the first centuries -- and, as we said, his name follows no pope before him. This choice stresses the uniqueness of a name, of one man in Church history.
The Argentine chose the name of an Italian saint, “the most saintly of the Italians and the most Italian of the saints.” This decision bears even more meaning if it’s true that the cardinals from around the world indeed wished to block the Italians from regaining the papacy: the man reigning at the Holy See cannot rule against his people.
But the message ultimately goes far beyond matters of politics or management. Francis of Assisi professed fraternity among men and women, teaching that everyone comes from the same Father, making us all brothers and sisters.
Himself the son of a merchant, he and his disciples disavowed money. The poverello and “father of the poor,” mingled with the fringes of society, spent time among the lepers. Within what he preferred to call a brotherhood rather than an order, he wanted his followers to be called “ministers” which in the middle ages meant servants.
Never did he preach for the holy crusade, nor did he play a part in the struggle against heresy that led to the inquisition. Francis wished to express his Christian faith through his physical presence and a brotherly lifestyle. He cursed no category, identified no enemy.
Refusing money for himself, offering service instead, seeing brothers and sisters rather than clashing civilizations, he kept his absolute focus on Christ. These, ultimately are the ideals the name of Francis evokes.
More recently, his spirit was reignited when Assisi became the site of the international day of interreligious prayer organized by John Paul II in October 1986.
The speech the new Pope gave on St. Peter’s balcony confirmed the choice of name. The tone was set right from the beginning: simplicity, fraternity. Here was a 21st century Francis, now the bishop of Rome, who spoke to his flock before him, chuckling that the Cardinals had chosen from a pope from the "edge of the world.”
But the most forceful gesture from the “Franciscan” pope was to ask the flock to pray for him, even before he was to impart his blessing on them. The message has been successfully communicated, both in form and content. For the rest, as medieval Francis would have put it, the acts will speak for themselves.
When he claimed himself as a follower of the legacy of a medieval figure whom the writer and poet Christian Bobin described as the “very lowly,” Pope Francis has accepted the most exalted of challenges.