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!