Pope Francis: Living Up to the Name?

Shortly after Pope Francis was elected the Bishop of Rome, I wrote in these pages about the significance of the name “Francis” as it comes from St. Francis of Assisi (“What’s in a Name?”). In light of the six-month mark of his pontificate and the unprecedented interview given in August and published earlier this month, it seems fitting to revisit some of the themes that are so importantly tied to the name Francis to consider how the pope may or may not be living up to the name. In other words, while there have been many excellent commentaries on the interview and the six-month pontificate, there hasn’t been much explicit discussion about the courageous decision to take the name after the Poverello, the most famous saint in Christian history. So here are a few thoughts from a Franciscan contributor to America.

There were three overlooked yet significant themes about the legacy of St. Francis that I named in the April article: The renunciation of power, reform with love for the church, and peacemaking that included proper love for creation.

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As far as the renunciation of power is concerned, Pope Francis discusses his “experience in church government” in the America interview. There is a sense of humility that deserves recognition in Pope Francis's acknowledgment that he has made many mistakes in the past. “My style of government as a Jesuit at the beginning had many faults.” Furthermore, he believes that he has learned from his mistakes, stating: “Over time I learned many things. The Lord has allowed this growth in knowledge of government through my faults and my sins…I believe that consultation is very important.”

It appears, through concrete actions and manner of living, Pope Francis has embraced a more collaborative, consultative, and humble approach to leadership. Rather than offering leadership “from above,” he reaches out for advice and assistance when pontiffs of the past preferred to appear to make decision unilaterally. Although no one can ever truly “renounce power,” especially given certain circumstances tied to one’s social location (it’s hard to be an average person when you’re nevertheless still the pope), the decision to eschew so many of the trappings– symbolic and concrete alike – of an antiquated and monarchical pontificate seems to suggest a positive effort to follow in the footprints of the Saint after whom he is now named.

It is clear that Pope Francis loves the church. What sort of reformer he will be remains unseen in the full, but there are glimpses that suggest a way of moving forward that bears a reflection of St. Francis’s way of being. Take his advocation of “thinking with the church,” an Ignatian concept from the Spiritual Exercises, in the America interview earlier this month. There is a connection between his preferential consideration of the church as the “People of God” (Lumen Gentium no. 12 and passim) and reform in terms of church discipline and doctrine (for more on this, see Richard Gaillardetz’s commentary in NCR, “Francis Wishes to Release Vatican II’s Bold Vision from Captivity”).

For example, he says: “Thinking with the church, therefore, is my way of being a part of this people [of God]. And all the faithful, considered as a whole, are infallible in matters of belief, and the people display this infallibilitas in credendo, this infallibility in believing, through a supernatural sense of the faith of all the people walking together.” Following his love of the church, which is the People of God or all the baptized, the pope seems to gesture toward the possibility of a deeper, renewed, and unfolding sense of our faith that can be better understood in time and together.

Finally, his consistent reiteration of the need for the church and world to turn its attention to the poor and those at the margins is emblematic of what it means to be a peacemaker in the spirit of St. Francis. The poor man from Assisi let nothing get in the way of his embracing his sisters and brothers. Pope Francis, perhaps more clearly than in any other aspect of Christian discipleship, has modeled this in word and deed.

However, what remains to be seen is how the Bishop of Rome will encourage women and men of faith and all people of good will to renew their understanding of their right relationship with the rest of creation. Will he draw on the Franciscan theological and spiritual vision of kinship with all of the created order, rooted as it is in Scripture and the tradition? Will he help us to see that, like Leonardo Boff’s famous book by a similar title suggests, the cry of the earth is inextricably tied to the cry of the poor? Time will tell.

In the meantime, six-months in office as the Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis seems to be living up to the name “Francis” as best as one might expect so far. There is a lot that can still (and should) be done, and I believe much more will be revealed when his next Encyclical Letter, which rumored to be on the theme of poverty, is published.

Daniel P. Horan, O.F.M., a columnist for America, is the author of several books, including most recently the forthcoming The Last Words of Jesus: A Meditation on Love and Suffering

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