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Pope Francis – what’s in a name?

We need a new pope with the steel of St Francis

By on Thursday, 14 March 2013

Pope Francis (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

Pope Francis (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

What’s in a name? Evidently a great deal. When we heard the name “Francis” as that chosen by the new Pope, everyone was startled – it had never been used before – and then reassured; after all, St Francis of Assisi must be everyone’s favourite saint. Obviously I am a little partial to him as he is my own patron, but in the world’s eyes he manages to be very attractive – all that love of animals and nature – while not seeming uncompromisingly “Catholic”. It is, however, a mistake to see St Francis in this sanitised and sentimental way, just as it would be a mistake to see Pope Francis as just a man whose origins are humble (his father was an Italian immigrant and railway worker) and who clearly loves the poor. Piers Paul Read, in an article in last week’s Herald, spoke of the new pope needing the quality of “rigeur” – a character of steel in defending Church teaching. St Francis had this “rigeur” when necessary, and so, from what I have read, does Pope Francis.

Not only that, as a Jesuit, the choice of name might also have been influenced by the example of St Francis Xavier, the great missionary Jesuit who died of a fever on the island of Shangchuan while waiting for a boat to take him to mainland China, a nation he longed to convert. So our new Pope has two significant saintly traditions attached to him: simplicity and renewal of the Church from its tendency to worldliness – and the longing to bring the good news of Christ to the far corners of the earth.

Naturally enough, the media is scrutinising the new Pope’s life in order to understand his personality. In trying to find the person behind the speedily constructed mythology, certain details stand out: Joe Carter on LifeSiteNews writes that the former Cardinal Bergoglio was very critical of fellow members of the hierarchy in Argentina who wanted to “clericalise” the Church i.e. to make a false division between their own sacred caste and the laity. He has also been uncompromising about the wrongs of abortion, even in the hard cases that liberals love to raise in its justification, pointing out, for instance, “A child conceived by the rape of a mentally ill or retarded woman can be condemned to death.”

The motto Bergoglio chose when he became a bishop was “miserando atque eligendo” (“lowly and yet chosen”.) His demeanour on the balcony of the Vatican yesterday evening suggests this same personal humility and the recognition that, as Christ said to his apostles, “You did not choose me; I chose you”. There is also the story, related by Sandro Magister, that when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires he “visited the deathbed of an ex-archbishop, Jeronimo Podesta, who had married in defiance of the Church and who was dying poor and forgotten by all. From that moment Mrs Podesta became one of his devoted fans.”

Added to this is the news that when once asked if he would be prepared to take up a Curial position in the Vatican, the Cardinal is said to have responded, “I would die in the Curia.” Of course the Church needs its diplomats and bureaucrats, just as any other huge organisation. But Bergoglio wanted to remain looking after his own people in his own country – a pastor of souls. If it is hard for rich men to get to heaven, I feel it might also be a struggle for certain Church bureaucrats; it must be harder to hold fast to the core of your priestly vocation when working in some Vatican office than when living, as the then Archbishop of Buenos Aires chose to do, in a simple flat and cooking your own meals. A further detail: the Archbishop looked after an elderly bishop who had moved into the flat with him, cooking the evening meal for them both.

Finally, my son has texted me as I was writing this to say that the new Pope’s favourite film is Babette’s Feast – from the story by Karen Blixen of a poor servant woman who wins a fortune on the lottery and who squanders the whole lot in preparing a magnificent feast for the small, sad Christian community she had stumbled among, which has lost its way and forgotten its mission. Perhaps, in the manner of Babette, Pope Francis intends to squander his life’s blood in the service of the Church which, in the eyes of the world at least, seems adrift, irrelevant and beset by internal divisions and scandals.

When he first began to preach, St Francis greeted the citizens of Assisi with the words “Buon giorno, buona gente!” (“Good morrow, good people!”) Pope Francis greeted Rome and the world for the first time last night with “Buona sera!” (“Good evening!”) Despite all the stories of factions and groups, intrigues and cabals among the cardinals, it seems the Holy Spirit was also there in the Sistine Chapel. Good-day, Holy Father!

  • Thomas Poovathinkal SSP

    “…..a nation he longed to convert.”

    IF WE CHRISTIANS can avoid the use the word “CONVERT”, it will be a great blessing.

    Using this word we have become our own enemies; it very so much in multi religious contexts. It makes us fall easily into the trap of the enemies and they keep us occupied with themselves and their demands. And they take us to task and we are found pacifying and explaining. And we keep on wasting our time and energy defending and justifying.

    Instead use expressions like, “proclaiming the Gospel”, “Proclaiming Salvation”, “Evangelising”, “doing missionary work”?, “announcing the Good News of Salvation”, “Proclaiming the Kingdom of God”, “Spreading the Word of God”, “Speaking the Word of God”, “Proclaiming the Son of God”. Some of these expressions are better than others of course. Or use any expression the Spirit of God prompts and for which we are ready to PAY FOR with ANYTHING.

    COWARDS need to do only comfortable and secure work with in four walls.

    Thomas Poovathinkal SSP

  • Thomas Poovathinkal SSP


    We have been occupied with it for centuries! Just a human technique for passing time?

    Thomas Poovathinkal SSP

  • NatOns

    In Christ, TP? No, it is the call to worthy of him .. that is, take up our cross and follow: made anew each day! Alas, too many do indeed make such interior reformation merely a human act of external change-for-changes sake; rather it is as orthodox Catholicism used to affirm: to do penance.

    And to repent in this renewing manner is a divine word at work even in human frailty – penitence, as contrition for harm done, confession of wrongdoing, reparation for the wrong, and commitment to amended life = in doing right.

  • James Moriarty

    I’ve often wondered — were you baptised Francis (unusual for a girl) or did you simply choose the name later?

  • Brendan

    Francis is a boy’s name; when given to girls it is spelt Frances.

  • Julian Lord

    Francis Phillips is not a boy.

  • Michael H. Collins

    The cause of peace and justice and, indirectly, the campaign to overcome gun violence, took a stride forward on March 13, 2013, with the election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires as Pope. Although I am not a Catholic but an Episcopalian (Anglican), I welcome the election of this man of surpassing holiness, towering intellect, great strength of character and deep compassion as leader of the largest Christian denomination.
    Jorge Bergoglio is a humble, down-home sort of guy who cooks his own dinner and rides the bus. Some of that will have to change now he is Pope, but the principled inner core of the man shines out and his integrity will never let him forget where he came from.
    Most likely, we shall never meet this wonderful man and come to know him personally. Yet if we study the tradition he is from, that of St Francis of Assissi and St Francis Xavier, founder of the Jesuits, of which Cardinal Bergoglio was a Provincial, we shall come to understand something of him. And if we follow the example he will set as best we can in our own circumstances, we shall come to know him in our hearts. And also we shall come to know the One whom he represents.
    Albert Schweitzer, in famous words about Jesus, put it like this:
    ‘‘He comes to us as One unknown, as One without a name…and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfil for our time… And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an
    ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.’

    The new Pope has taken the name Francis to show that he will follow in the steps of two saints called Francis. St Francis of Assissi, one of the most spiritual men who ever lived was an Italian who renewed the Church through a life of simplicity, service, preaching, penance and prayer.

    Francis Bernardone (1181-1226) was born at Assissi, Italy. The party-loving son of a rich cloth merchant, Francis enlisted to go on the Fourth Crusade but never got farther than one day’s ride from his home town. In a dream God told him to abandon his quest for knightly glory and return home. This he did, only to be humiliated, laughed at, called a coward by the village and raged at by his father for the money wasted on his armor. Undaunted, Francis reimbursed his father, adopted a life of utter poverty and became a friar. He then begged for stones and rebuilt the church of St Damiano with his own hands. Francis practiced true equality by showing honor, respect, and love to every person whether they were beggar or Pope.

    His love extended to all of God’s creation. Francis felt that nature, all God’s creations, were his brothers. The sparrow was as much his brother as the Pope. He wrote the beautiful Canticle of the Sun that expresses his brotherhood with creation in praising God. That is why he is the patron saint of ecology.

    But Francis was more than a mystic and poet. He was a man of action. His simplicity of life extended to ideas and deeds. If there was a simple way, no matter how impossible it seemed, Francis would take it. In that way, although he was never a priest, he got permission from the Pope to found the Franciscan Order, which survives to this day.

    The name Francis which the new Pope has taken, perhaps to emphasize the Order’s creed of humility and evangelism, is also a reference to St Francis Xavier, a co-founder of the Jesuits in the 16th century. St Francis Xavier (1506-1552) was born in the family castle of Xavier, near Pamplona in the Basque region of Spanish Navarre on April 7. Sent to the University of Paris in 1525, he secured his licentiate in 1528, met Ignatius Loyola and became one of the seven who in 1534, at Montmartre, founded the Society of Jesus. In 1536 Francis Xavier left Paris to join Ignatius in Venice and was ordained there in 1537.

    From Rome in 1540, when the pope formally recognized the Society of Jesus, Francis was ordered to the Far East as one of the first Jesuit missionaries. After a year’s voyage, six months of which were spent at Mozambique, where he preached and gave aid to the sick, Francis arrived in Goa, India in 1542. There he began preaching to the natives and attempted to reform his fellow Europeans, living among the natives and adopting their customs. During the next decade Francis converted tens of thousands to Christianity. He visited the Paravas at the tip of India in 1542, Malacca (1545), the Moluccas near New Guinea and Morotai near the Philippines (1546-47), and Japan (1549- 51).

    In 1551, India and the East were set up as a separate province of the Society of Jesus and Ignatius Loyola made Francis its first Provincial. In 1552 Francis set out for China, landed on the island of Sancian within sight of his goal, but died before he reached the mainland.

    Working against great difficulties, language problems (contrary to legend, he had no proficiency in foreign tongues), inadequate funds, and lack of cooperation, often actual resistance, from European officials, Francis Xavier left the mark of his missionary zeal and energy on areas which have clung to Christianity for centuries. He was canonized in 1622 and proclaimed patron of all foreign missions by Pope St Pius X.

    Pope Francis has been called from ‘the ends of the earth’, as he put it, to deal with the Catholic Church’s serious problems, such as the child abuse committed by priests. What those priests have done is wrong, terribly wrong, and they should be punished. Those clerics who covered it up when they could have acted, and those officials who kept silent when they could have spoken, should be dismissed if they will not resign. The testing of vocations must be tightened to prevent more abusers becoming priests. Meanwhile their victims must be helped, and their abusers too, if they are able to accept help and learn to grow into mature human relationships.

    Pope Francis will not compromise the church’s values, teachings or disciplines, whatever pressures he may meet from capitalists, communists, secularists and their friends in the media. Christian values are not subject to the test of time which passes, the secret subterfuges of political convenience, or the prattling of focus groups. Christians believe that our behaviour is subject to the eternal judgment of God, which we shall all one day face. Meanwhile the church provides through prayer, sacraments and disciplines such as confession a way of healing and forgiveness when we fall short of our ideals as we all so sadly do from time to time.

    Pope Francis was a surprize election, unpredicted by the media. Like his Master, he has come among us almost unawares. Indeed in earthly terms, the wandering prophet Jesus of Nazareth was a failure. He died mocked and disgraced and would likely have been forgotten but for one man, Paul of Tarsus, a Jew, who really understood Jesus from outside Judaism and re-presented Jesus’s teachings in ways that the Mediterranean world of the time could understand and accept.

    But on one man’s soul it hath broken,
    A light that doth not depart
    And his look, or a word he hath spoken
    Wrought flame in another man’s heart.
    And therefore today is thrilling
    With a past day’s late fulfilling
    And the multitudes are enlisted
    In the faith that their fathers resisted.
    Today, Jesus has a new leading representative who, together with other Christian leaders, will set his face towards Jerusalem, that means enter the arena of spiritual and moral conflict in which we must engage as the price of being truly human.
    Today, as the world faces such dreadful problems of poverty, inequality, drug abuse, and private and state violence, let us resolve ourselves to set our face towards Jerusalem in whatever sphere we are called to, remembering that in the end the love of God can never be defeated and that, within His Providence (the power of good to prevail) humanity will cross new frontiers and write better pages in the human story.
    With that word today still ringing in our ears (Hebrews 3:12), let us resolve once again to follow the way of the cross as the saints Francis both did and Pope Francis does. And as we pray for God’s blessing on Jorge Bergoglio, Pope Francis, and all who serve and support him, let us recall words associated with several American Presidents:
    ‘’Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!
    E’en though it be a cross that raiseth me;
    Still all my song shall be, nearer, my God, to Thee.’’

    Michael H. Collins