Francis: Poverty, rebuilding, animals & Interfaith Hero

THE STORY of St. Francis and the Sultan of Egypt is retold in the book Interfaith Heroes. Click the book cover to learn more about that book.By THOMAS J. REESE, SJ

In picking the name Francis, the new pope sent his first message to the world, but what is that message? Four possibilities come to mind, and perhaps they are all true.

FIRST—A LIFE OF POVERTY: St Francis of Assisi was known for his life of poverty. Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was also known and respected for refusing to live in the archbishop’s palace in Buenos Aires. Rather, he lived in a simple apartment where he cooked his own meals. He also put aside the chauffeur driven limousine and rode the bus to work. Will Pope Francis try to bring a simpler life style to the papal court? Is this a man who will be comfortable in silks and furs?

Here is a quote from him that should worry the papal court:

The cardinalate is a service is, it is not an award to be bragged about. Vanity, showing off, is an attitude that reduces spirituality to a worldly thing, which is the worst sin that could be committed in the Church…. An example I often use to illustrate the reality of vanity, is this: look at the peacock; it’s beautiful if you look at it from the front. But if you look at it from behind, you discover the truth… Whoever gives in to such self-absorbed vanity has huge misery hiding inside them.

SECOND—‘REBUILD MY CHURCH’: Early in his career, St. Francis heard a message from God: “Rebuild my church.” At first he thought God meant the building in the forest near where he was living. Only later did he realize that it was the institutional church, which was in disrepair, that he was to rebuild. With all the problems facing the church—sexual abuse crisis, declining membership in Europe and the Americas, and a Vatican Curia in need of reform—this name may point toward an ecclesial agenda.

THIRD—LOVE OF ANIMALS: Francis was also famous for his love of animals and nature. With the environmental catastrophe of climate change facing the world, his choice of name could point to an aggressive and prophetic stance on environmental issues. This is certainly one of the greatest challenges of the 21st Century, and it would be great to have the pope be a real leader on environmental issues.

FOURTH—INTERFAITH HERO: Francis was known for his peaceful and positive attitude toward Islam. He was no crusader when his time was marked by war between Christendom and Islam. Rather he walked through the battlefield unarmed to meet with the Sultan, who was so impressed that he listened to him and sent him back unharmed. At a time when peaceful relations between Muslims and Christians are again necessary for the good of the world, he could be sending a message not only to Christians, but also to Muslims.

There is another Francis that the new pope is connected to because of his Jesuit roots: St. Francis Xavier. This Francis was known for his missionary zeal. There is much talk in the church about evangelization because of the church’s losses in Europe and the Americas. Xavier was a man who did it. And he died on an island off the coast of China, which today is seen as a field ripe for the harvest.


This column is used by permission from Father Thomas Reese, the author of several essential books about the structure and influence of the Roman Catholic Church. His most important book, right now, is Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church,published by Harvard University Press. For decades, Father Reese has been one of the leading American experts on the Catholic church, quoted in newspaper, magazines and TV news stories. Father Reese also has organized an extensive index to Papal Transition stories, hosted by America magazine online.

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