What's in a Name?: The significance and challenge of St. Francis for Pope Francis

At first glance, there are several intuitive and striking similarities between Pope Francis and the saint who inspired his new name. The news coverage of the newly elected pope has focused a lot of attention on these points, including his simple lifestyle and pastoral care of H.I.V./AIDS patients—images that evoke St. Francis’ embrace of the infirm and marginalized of his own day.

Few commentators, however, have delved into some of the more significant and challenging implications of the pope’s choice of the name Francis, motivated by the example of the poverello, the “little poor man,” of Assisi. There are at least three important aspects of the life of St. Francis that are often lost amid romantic depictions of the saint standing in birdbaths or taming wolves. And these underappreciated dimensions of the saint’s legacy could make all the difference in the church of the 21st century.


A Renouncer of Power

Paying attention to St. Francis’ love of poverty is not unwarranted. Indeed, the medieval man from Assisi sought to “follow in the footprints of Christ” in the most authentic way possible. For him this meant that one should, like the poor Christ who proclaimed he had “nowhere to lay his head” in this world (Lk 9:58), dispossess oneself of those material things that inhibit living the Gospel to the fullest.

This did not mean, however, that St. Francis advocated abject poverty. Like Gustavo Gutiérrez, O.P., who in his classic book A Theology of Liberation makes a distinction between abject and evangelical poverty, St. Francis embraced the Gospel virtue as a means to an end, not an end in itself. The means was what St. Francis called sine proprio, or “living without anything of one’s own,” the vow Franciscans still profess today. The end was unencumbered relationship with God, with others and with the rest of creation.

At the core of St. Francis’ obsessive focus on evangelical poverty was his renunciation of power. This radical dimension of St. Francis’ way of life is frequently overlooked. Instead there are caricatures of a nature-loving proto-hippie or a gentle, popular preacher. Yet St. Francis’ conviction was grounded in the belief that like Jesus Christ, all human beings are called to be in relationship with their sisters and brothers. This helps explain the distinctive, twofold quality of the newly emergent Franciscan way of life.

On the one hand, St. Francis eschewed the traditional religious cloisters of the monastic religious and the separated lifestyle of the secular clergy of his day. His desire was to remove all barriers between himself and others. On the other hand, St. Francis’ refusal to participate in the emerging market economy and activity of the rising merchant class of medieval Italy reflected his prescient fear of the monetary valuation of goods, labor and even people themselves. He recognized early on what we continue to witness in our own age: women and men treated according to their wealth or social class and status. For this reason he forbade his fellow friars from “receiving coins or money in any form,” insisting they renounce that way of relating to others.

The French medieval historian Jacques Dalarun makes the point, in his book Francis of Assisi and Power, that, “with Francis, there is less of a merely visible break with the world; at the heart of his life there is instead more intransigence toward any compromise with the world and its powers.” Poverty was the most overt sign of St. Francis’ renunciation of power and of all those dehumanizing facets of his time that stood in the way of an unmitigated embrace of others.

A Reformer Who Loved the Church

Some have attempted to paint a picture of St. Francis as a radical reformer and something of a rebel. Others, like Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, have sought to present the poverello as an unwaveringly loyal son of the church. Both views are correct, but neither is complete. St. Francis was a man whose primary loyalty was to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But he also recognized the importance of remaining a loyal member of the church, a point he reiterated frequently in his writings and actions. In his Rule, or way of life, St. Francis explains that “the Rule and Life of the Lesser Brother is this: to observe the Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ by living in obedience, without anything of one’s own, and in chastity.” He then “promises obedience and reverence to our Lord Pope Honorius and his successors canonically elected and to the Roman Church.”

From the very foundation of St. Francis’ community, ecclesiastical approval was sought at the local level (first from the Bishop of Assisi) and at the universal level (from Pope Innocent III in 1209). In the 13th century there were many penitential reform movements, a number of which were eventually denounced as heretical. St. Francis always and explicitly expressed his commitment to the church and never wished to step outside of communion with it.

This did not prevent the saint, however, from performing what might anachronistically be called acts of “ecclesiastical disobedience,” akin to civil protests against unjust laws. The best-known example is St. Francis’ peace mission to Sultan Malik al-Kamil during the Fifth Crusade. Against Pope Innocent III’s instruction for the universal church’s support of the effort and, as some legends suggest, against the explicit instructions of the ecclesiastical representatives on the crusaders’ front line, St. Francis made history by engaging with the Muslim leader in what is remembered as a peaceful and fruitful dialogue.

Against the social proscriptions to avoid lepers and other marginal figures, St. Francis and his friars made a commitment to live among all people, to minister to and to sincerely enter into relationship with them. And at a time when clergy and religious were separated and lived apart from the rest of the community, St. Francis saw the Gospel pattern of life calling him to be with his sisters and brothers in Christ.

St. Francis’ refusal to conform to the expectations of his day, both ecclesial and social, came not from the outside, but from a place deeply situated within the church. He was not afraid to follow the Gospel when it seemed that such an action might contradict the conventions of his time, but he was also not interested in breaking communion with the church.

A Peacemaker and Lover of Creation

St. Francis’ most famous text is probably “The Canticle of the Creatures.” Sung in churches around the world in adapted forms like “All Creatures of Our God and King” or Marty Haugen’s lively “The Canticle of the Sun,” the spirit of the Franciscan poem is well known. What is less known is the theological significance of the text for authentic Christian living.

The first 9 of the 14 verses of the canticle highlight the way St. Francis recognized God’s loving presence through the elements of creation, and they also express his understanding of how each aspect of the created order praises God by doing what God has intended each to do. The sun gives praise to God, for example, by being “beautiful and radiant with great splendor”; the earth gives praise to God by being that which “sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with colored flowers and herbs.”

After naming several aspects of the created order, St. Francis finally gets to human beings in verse 10. Here he explains how human beings are to give praise to God:

Praised by You, my Lord, through those who give pardon

for Your Love,

and bear infirmity and tribulation.

Blessed are those who endure in peace

for by You, Most High, shall they be crowned.

To be authentically human and to praise God means to be a reconciler and a peacemaker, to forgive and to love. St. Francis is not so concerned about rationality or the brilliance of technological invention. He understood that to be truly human was to be like Christ, whose whole life and ministry in the Gospel was about enacting the forgiveness, peace and love of God.

Throughout this Canticle, and elsewhere in his writings, St. Francis refers to the other-than-human elements of creation as his “brothers” and “sisters.” Though this may appear “cute” to modern ears, he was revealing a deep theological truth about our intrinsic kinship with the rest of God’s creation. Humanity is not above and over against the rest of the created order, but part of it and alongside animals, plant life and the rest. We have a special role to play in creation, but we should never forget our interdependence with the whole cosmos.

From Assisi to Rome

Pope Francis recognized and expressed many of these things in his address to media representatives at the Vatican on March 16. “That is how the name came into my heart: Francis of Assisi,” Pope Francis explained. “For me, he is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation; these days we do not have a very good relationship with creation, do we? He is the man who gives us this spirit of peace, the poor man.”

The challenge of St. Francis of Assisi’s way of life and worldview for Pope Francis of Argentina’s papacy is broader and more complex than the real but superficial similarities that can be recognized at first glance. The humility of an archbishop who forgoes private transportation to travel with his working-class sisters and brothers or the sensitivity of a pastor who rebukes his priests for their refusal to minister to single mothers does indeed reflect the spirit of the poverello. But there is much more that offers promise and hope to the church in the 21st century.

The promise and hope of the name Francis might be found in the continued divestment and renunciation of power, especially in an age skeptical about the trappings of antiquated bureaucracy and rightfully suspicious of cultic clericalism.

The promise and hope of the name Francis might be found in the potential reforms of a church that, as the Second Vatican Council proclaimed, is “in the modern world.” These reforms, or aggiornamento (“updating”), as Pope John XXIII called it, are not external impositions on the church from a “secular” society, but potential exercises for a return to the basics of the Gospel, motivated by a deep love for the church.

The promise and hope of the name Francis might be found in a pastoral leader of the universal church that models reconciliation, peacemaking and care for all of creation.

All of these aspects of St. Francis’ legacy point to the centrality of relationship. Pope Francis already has begun to demonstrate his desire to be connected with all sorts of people (much to the chagrin of his security detail). It is my hope that Pope Francis will continue to rise to the challenge of his name. The church really could use the spirit of Assisi today.

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