Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
—Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi
Francis. Francisco. Frank. Oh my. What have we here? Someone different. Do we dare get our hopes up?
For a long time, I thought I couldn’t respect any pope unless the Curia was actively planning his demise. Then Cardinal Bergoglio of Argentina, the new elected pontiff, announced he was taking the name Francis, and my heart momentarily leapt.
But I waited to see which Francis.
With all due respect to devotees of St. Francis Xavier and St. Francis de Sales, my expectations would have remained solidly earthbound if either had been his primary inspiration — or if he were merely a mish-mosh of all former Francises.
But Francis of Assisi is another matter altogether. Sure enough, in his first audience with the media, the new pope confirmed that Assisi was first and foremost in his mind.
There’s a reason no pope before him has dared to take the name. It raises the bar considerably. Calling yourself Francis is much more than an honorific. It is a commitment. Francis is to Catholic sainthood as Lincoln is to the U.S. presidency — the standard.
The Gospel preaches a radical message, and Francis of Assisi, more than any other saint in the Catholic pantheon, lived it. He famously said, “Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.”
So Pope Francis has some serious shoes to fill — presuming Francis of Assisi even wore shoes, which I doubt.
According to National Catholic Reporter’s Joshua McElwee, Bergoglio was sitting next to Cardinal Hummes, archbishop emeritus of Sao Paolo, Brazil, when he learned he had been elected pope. Hummes told him, “Don’t forget the poor.”
“Then right away,” the new pope told the media, “thinking of the poor, I thought of Francis of Assisi. …
“For me he is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation. These days we don’t have a very good relationship with creation, do we?”
He described Francis of Assisi as “the poor man who wanted a poor Church.” Then he said the words I only dreamed I would ever hear a pope say: “How I would love a Church that is poor and for the poor.” That probably doesn’t mean he’s going to sell off the Vatican treasures and redistribute the wealth. What it means is … well, we’ll see what it means.
The new pope also had some remarkable things to say to the media. Journalism, he said, “demands a particular concern for what is true, good and beautiful. This is something we have in common since the Church exists to communicate precisely this. It should be apparent that all of us are called not to communicate ourselves but this existential triad made up of truth, beauty and goodness.”
Oddly enough, that made me think of a Republican — Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.
At President Obama’s recent inauguration, Alexander enjoyed the thankless task of co-chairing the ceremonies, perhaps the last vestige of bipartisanship left in Washington. The ceremony called for Alexander and his counterpart, Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, to say a few words to the assembled multitude. I expected perfunctory boilerplate from Alexander, but he surprised me.
He started his remarks by saying, “The novelist Alex Haley lived by six words: Find the good and praise it.”
Good words for Francis I to govern a Church by. The last pope to live by those six words was John XXIII, the last pope who didn’t govern by condemnation and fear and control, the last pope who had a sense of humor and humility and didn’t take himself too seriously, the last pope who was a genuine “man of the people.”
“Find the good and praise it” perfectly captures the tone of the Second Vatican Council, which John XXIII called and, contrary to what its detractors and dismissives seem to believe, will eventually save this Church.
By coming out of the gate humbly, Francis I has already raised the bar of expectations high. Can he sustain this? Can he return a corrupt Church hierarchy to holiness? You can bet the unholy connivers in the Curia (the incompetent Vatican bureaucracy) are already sharpening their knives.
Can the new pope reform this moral cesspool? The pious like to ask, “What would Jesus do?” Jesus would chase the moneychangers out of the temple — or in this case, out of the Vatican offices.
The journey is just beginning. Francis is clearly not very enlightened about same-sex marriage, and he certainly cannot afford to mindlessly uphold the Church’s traditional teaching on contraception, which the vast majority of Catholics long ago rejected.
But if he is the real deal, he will grow and develop and evolve as a leader. Like Lincoln. Like his namesake from Assisi. He’ll have the humility to learn from experience and from listening to others.
Do we dare to hope again?
So far, so good.