Francis of Assisi is among the most beloved saints of the Church. Renowned for his poverty and humility, Francis was a man filled with zeal for Jesus Christ and his Church. He was devoted to the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist, and saw in the cross of Christ the true glory of the Church. In taking the name Francis, the new pope has signaled to the world something of his intentions for his papacy. Here are three aspects of St. Francis’ life that we might expect to see reflected in the papacy of Pope Francis.
Like St. Francis, Pope Francis will be a Reformer.
“Francis, Francis, rebuild my House, for as you can see she is falling, into ruin.” That was the summons St. Francis received from God and that’s exactly what he did: He began repairing a tiny chapel near Assisi, one stone at a time. That unreserved willingness to do exactly what God was asking of him defined his life and helped make him the saint he would become. His simple obedience eventually bore fruit in the renewal of the whole Church and precipitated a religious and cultural transformation that continues to bear fruit eight centuries later.
Many people will be looking to Pope Francis to reform the Church. This is a reasonable expectation, but it might not happen in the way some of us think. Pope Francis’ motto – miserando atque eligendo, “lowly, and yet chosen” — is a reminder that humility is not the same as passivity. Reform on the model of St. Francis means reform undertaken with humility and love. But if the new pope follows the example of his namesake, his reforms will also be uncompromising when it comes to the mission of the Church, which is evangelization for the salvation of souls. Whatever impedes that mission is dispensable. Which brings us to our second point:
Like his namesake, Pope Francis will be an Evangelist.
Personal holiness is the single greatest asset to the evangelical mission of the Church. St. Francis of Assisi reformed the Church by first reforming himself — by conforming himself to Jesus, who always did the will of his Father. Wherever the saint went, people encountered Jesus in Francis’ love and humility. The humility and simplicity of Pope Francis, about which we have all heard and which is manifest in his great love for the poor, are likewise works of evangelization. Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea recently remarked that evangelization is not a theoretical undertaking, but a matter of witness to the love of God in friendship with Jesus Christ. Christianity is about a person, Jesus Christ, who is much more than an idea.
It is often easy for Christians — especially Catholics — to over-intellectualize the faith. It is necessary to be reminded now and again of the personal reality toward which the whole of the Catholic intellectual tradition points, namely, Jesus Christ. It takes nothing away from the humility and holiness of Popes Benedict XVI and John Paul II, nor detracts anything from the intelligence and learning of Pope Francis, to suggest that the powerful witness provided by the latter’s manifest closeness to the poor will powerfully complement — not contradict! — the pontificates of the two intellectual giants who preceded him. The third point has to do with this complementarity.
Pope Francis will also be a Unifier.
Far, far too often, the Church’s teachings (doctrine) and the Church’s work with the poor (social justice) are seen to be in tension, or even opposition. They are not. The usual political categories — conservative-liberal, traditional-progressive, right-left — are particularly ill-suited to describing the realities of Christian discipleship, which necessarily encompasses both the truth of the Church’s teachings (including moral teachings) and the lived witness of Christian charity (especially in her concern for the least among us).
St. Francis of Assisi was uncompromising in his love for the poor. He was equally uncompromising in his fidelity to the Church in all her teachings. Expect the same from Pope Francis.
In his very first homily as pope, Francis drove this point home. “If we do not confess Jesus Christ, nothing will avail. We will become a compassionate NGO, but not the Church, the Bride of Christ.” (The Italian word he used for “compassionate” was pietosa, which can also be translated as “pitiful” or “pathetic.”) The Church believes that the Truth she bears is greater than any material good, indeed, greater than life itself, for it carries within it the promise of eternal life. If the Church fails to present the fullness of this Truth — her greatest treasure — then her charity is necessarily lacking; she is withholding her greatest gift. If the horizon of human needs is reduced to material well-being, then true human development is impossible.
By the same token, faith without works is dead. Orthodoxy (right-teaching) is essential, but it is not sufficient. Or perhaps a better way to put it: orthodoxy, by definition, always teaches a profound concern for the poor and extolls a life of charity. Truth must move us to action. Pope Francis, a man unmistakably committed to social justice and doctrinal orthodoxy, puts paid to the notion that one or the other is optional. Given that divisions within the Church often fall along these lines (something especially evident here in the United States), one hopes that Pope Francis’s pontificate, in profound continuity with his predecessors, will help to heal those divisions.
Stephen P. White is a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and coordinator of the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society. The views expressed here are his own.