Politics & Policy

A Welcome Francis

St. Francis of Assisi, of birdbath fame, is known as a Church reformer who led by example.

We have a pope! It wasn’t only the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics who tuned into this historic moment — it seemed that most everyone who had access to radio, TV, or the Internet was following. From the editor’s seat at a century-old Franciscan publication, I found it a bit of a surprise to hear a Jesuit cardinal, Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, take the name “Francis.” The Franciscans and Jesuits famously, after all, have different approaches. Jesuits are famous as academics; Franciscans like to think of themselves as more “of the people.”

Of course, it’s historic, the first non-European pope in many centuries. That’s a sign that the leadership of the Catholic Church worldwide is acknowledging that the majority of Catholics live in the Southern Hemisphere, in South America and Africa. Pope Francis himself joked with the crowd at St. Peter’s Square, at his announcement and initial blessing, that the cardinals had to go across the world to get a bishop of Rome.

Of course, the pundits are grasping for scraps as everyone researches this surprise election. But this same man was, according to reports, second to Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) in the last conclave. I picked up on a few themes.

First, in his short initial speech, Pope Francis exuded a sense of humor and warmth. That’s reminiscent of the deeply popular Pope John Paul II and his short-lived predecessor, Pope John Paul I. Second, he seems a man open to a new beginning. He described the future as a “journey”:  Let’s begin this journey, he said, with love, brotherhood, mutual trust. That, perhaps, is the kind of thing you’d hear from a citizen of the Western Hemisphere — a fundamental openness to a future that is fluid and filled with promise.

Finally, I couldn’t help thinking, What’s in a name? Clearly, this Jesuit, in picking the name “Francis,” is sending a signal. St. Francis of Assisi, of birdbath fame, is most accurately known as a Church reformer who led by example. The hallmarks of St. Francis’s approach were a deep devotion to personal poverty and simplicity, outreach to people in need, and deep loyalty to the Catholic Church. “Rebuild my Church,” St. Francis heard Christ say to him from a crucifix.

At a time when the Church is mired in the scandals of clerical sexual abuse (not only in the United States but, as we are seeing more and more, worldwide) and of Vatican politics (Lord knows what’s in that investigative dossier waiting in the papal apartment safe — we know at least that it involves the Vatican bank and infighting among members of the curia, the central governors of the Church), cries for all sorts of reform are being uttered. The Catholic Church could use another Francis.

— John Feister is editor in chief of St. Anthony Messenger, a century-old national Catholic family magazine based in Cincinnati. 


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