Once a pope makes the covers of Time and Rolling Stone, it’s obvious the PR machine is hard at work shaping that man’s public image. This makes Pope Francis both more visible and easier to misunderstand, since PR is prone to pigeon-hole people so that our impressions of them are reduced to the mental equivalent of sound-bites. When Rolling Stone says Francis is to John XXIII as Keith Richards is to Chuck Berry, it creates a sharp image for a generation raised on rock music, but gives us no insight into the difference between guitarists and popes. To understand this pope, we need a more nuanced perspective.
Everyone knows that Francis is Jesuit. And everyone knows he named himself after Saint Francis of Assisi. So is worth asking: why choose the founder of the Franciscans rather than the famous Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier? And the answer opens the gate to deeper understanding, for it turns out that our new pope is, in many ways, as much a “Franciscan” as he is a Jesuit.
Most Americans have a vague sense of Saint Francis’ importance. San Francisco bears his name. The California missions reflect the legacy of Franciscan missionaries. The San Diego Padres are named after them. Some Americans attend Franciscan schools, and many coffee-lovers know that cappuccino is so named because its color matches the traditional Franciscan “capuche” (hood).
But to grasp this pope’s “Franciscan” identity, one must look to Saint Francis himself. In a recent re-reading of Donald Spoto’s biography The Reluctant Saint, I found 10 ways in which the pope echoes the saint. Each is a key to a fuller understanding of Pope Francis.
1. Identifying With the Poor. Saint Francis made the poor a chief focus of his work. This was a radical move in a time when (much like ours) the Church was seen as a place of privilege and ambition. Spoto says “Francis’ identity with the social fringe could have been seen as a revolution against the Church.” He also points out that Francis chose poverty for himself as well. This “did not primarily mean having no possessions but rather not been possessive about anything or anyone”--to make sure that nothing wedged into the bond between himself and God.
Pope Francis has likewise made the poor his priority from day one, and his work and lifestyle in Argentina and in Vatican City embody a commitment to a simple detachment from possessions.
2. Action Over Theory. Saint Francis was a man of prayer, but he was no theologian. Rather than ponder the subtleties of scripture, he acted out its Gospel spirit. Thus he mixed contemplation and action, breaking the monastic tradition of cloistered living. This fusion of the “via contemplativa” and the “via activa” proved a powerful inspiration for several 20th century heroes: Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Dag Hammarskjold, and Martin Luther King. And it inspires Pope Francis today as he calls for a Church that proves its spiritual values by acting them out. This contrasts sharply with Benedict XVI, who never escaped the persona of an ivory-tower intellectual more comfortable in his study that in the trenches.
3. Preaching Peace and Service. Saint Francis was known as a powerful but simple preacher, and Spoto tells us that the theme of his preaching was “Invariable: peace among individuals.” By this Francis meant the refusal to seek vengeance to defraud, to hurt others--but also it meant “the conformity of every life to the spirit of the gospel, which meant an ethic of loving service.”
Clearly Pope Francis has embraced Peace as his own theme: thus his early decision to wash the feet of prisoners (men and women, Christians and Muslims alike) and his recent public appeals for peace in Syria and Ukraine.
4. A New Model of Evangelization. When Saint Francis abandoned the old monastic model, he introduced a new but simple strategy: he went out to people, “meeting them wherever they were and speaking to them in their own language and style.”
From the day of his election, Pope Francis has modeled himself on the saint: asking for the crowd’s blessing on his first appearance, wading into the slums of Rio during World Youth Day, proclaiming to clergy everywhere the need to become less enclosed, less “self-referential,” and to reach out to others. When an Italian journalist (a non-believer) published an open letter to the pope, Francis personally called him to arrange an interview.
5. Rejecting Anger. Saint Francis’ time was tainted, like ours, by corruption among clergy. Yet he urged only charity in confronting them:
We must be careful not to be angry or disturbed at the sin of another, for anger and disturbance impede charity in us and others.
In fact, this was the saint’s attitude to everyone: public sinners, reprobates, even felons. That same attitude has been the pope’s all along. He began by calling himself a sinner, uttered his famous “Who am I to judge?” about gays, and has proclaimed that atheists and non-believers can be good people and even partners in building peace and justice. He has made himself a model of charity like his model saint.
6. No Condemnations. This attitude led both the saint and the pope to proclaim a God of mercy rather than condemnation. As Spoto observes:
There was in Francis none of the sanctimonious sensor; he rarely alluded to damnation, and he pronounced no condemnations against any person or any specific belief. Such a loving, positive of the embrace of the Gospel had not been heard of in anyone’s memory.
Clearly the pope has gone out of his own way to avoid anathemas, stressing God’s mercy at every turn and conveying the strong message that God’s church welcomes everyone. Spoto refers to the saint’s “habit of forgiveness,” and we see this constantly in the pope. Witness his recent moves to honor and rehabilitate the founder of liberation theology, Gustavo Gutiérrez, after years of Vatican censorship.
7. Getting Beyond Rules. When one of his friars became deathly ill fasting on Francis’ orders, Francis realized that his true power had to depend on something beyond rules:
From this time, he was on the alert never to set down all require adherence to an abstract set of laws; the norms of charity and good example would henceforth always take precedence.
When the pope washed the feet of laypeople instead of seminarians, when he refused to live in the papal palace, when he rode with fellow bishops to pay his own hotel bill, when he carried his own luggage--on all these occasions, Pope Francis shown a willingness, even a penchant, for making good example his priority even if it meant going beyond the rules, protocols, and customs that surround the papacy.
8. Courtesy. Saint Francis was from a moneyed family. Early on he aspired to knighthood, and all his life he remained a francophile--so the spirit of chivalry was built into his character: “Ever the courtly knight, Francis believed that kindness and gratitude superseded mere human prescriptions.”
So for him, simple courtesy was often reason enough to set aside the usual norms. When his old friend Jacoba arrived at his deathbed, she was challenging the rule against women in his private quarters. But his chivalrous spirit prevailed even as he lay dying: “The command against it need not be observed in the case of this lady,” he said.
Pope Francis, like any pope, lives a life apart from others, yet he repeatedly demonstrates his own chivalrous nature. Whether he is donning funny hats, waving a soccer jersey, joining a group of teens for history’s most famous “selfie,” kissing a man afflicted with skin disease, or simply allowing a young child to hug his leg while he continues preaching, the pope’s public appearances offer ample evidence of his natural kindness and warmth.
9. Doctrinal Conservatism. Saint Francis broke no ground on church teachings. Not only was he not a theologian or bishop, he was also essentially conservative in relation to the controversial movements of his day. Against the heretical Cathars, he praised the material world. He remained faithful to the Church’s creeds, he did not favor distributing vernacular bibles. He did not even claim the right to preach doctrine at all.
So too, Pope Francis shows no inclination to challenge official teachings. Rather, he seems bent (as was his namesake) on challenging the failure of even his fellow bishops to live up to those teachings or present them in an authentic way. He seems especially convinced that many bishops have strayed from the central priorities of our tradition. Like his namesake, he models a focus on the radical core of Catholic tradition over a preoccupation with its bells and whistles. Ironically, this promotes a radical renewal without touching doctrine!
10. Resistance from the Guardians of the Status Quo. Spoto describes the gap between Saint Francis’ hopes for his “lesser brothers” and the clerical order the Franciscans became, and blames that gap on church officials bent on protecting the existing hierarchical system from Francis’ radical vision:
The hierarchy of the church, struggling to retain its identity against the tide of Muslims and heretics, simultaneously admired and feared Francis of Assisi…In the end, as institutions will do, the church did away with everything that identified the friars with the poor…The lesser brothers became a clerical order.”
Similarly, there are rumblings about disquiet among both the curia and the hierarchy about Pope Francis’ agenda--and the blogosphere is full of “traditionalist” Catholics already convinced this pope is dangerous, a heretic, or even the antichrist.
The difference, of course, is that Pope Francis has power that Saint Francis never had. He can and has fired bishops, curial officials, and bureaucrats. He can enforce his vision for a genuine, kind, non-judgmental Church that reaches out and makes service to the poor its priority.
In short, dealing with resistance is the one area where being a pope offers the advantage over being a saint!
But all told, these 10 qualities go long way to explaining what makes our new Francis tick. For all his Jesuit training and experience, he clearly takes special inspiration from the saint whose name he chose, and whose rare qualities he echoes so loudly today. In that sense, Pope Francis may be the greatest “Franciscan” of all.
© Bernard F. Swain PhD 2014