By Riley Manning
When Jorge Bergoglio was elected as the 266th Pope last March, few could have predicted how trendy his papacy would become.
In his 10 months as pontiff, hardly a week has gone by without report of the Pope’s many unconventional approaches to the office. He has attracted the secular spotlight, gracing the cover of the New Yorker and National Public Radio’s program “Fresh Air” in December. Time magazine named Pope Francis Person of the Year, and he was noted as one of Forbes’s most influential people of 2013.
Perhaps to understand the wide-spanning fascination with Pope Francis, his energizing effect on the Church and the world, it might benefit to examine his own inspiration, Saint Francis of Assisi.
Would a Pope by any other name be as sweet?
The gospel of the street
Francis is the first Pope in history to choose the founder of the Franciscan order as his moniker. On that basis alone, said Father Lincoln Dall, priest at St. James Catholic Church in Tupelo, offers plenty to read into.
“The Jesuits and Franciscans are kind of rivals,” he said. “So, in hindsight, it seems poignant for Pope Francis, a Jesuit, to choose the Franciscan name as an example of breaking divisions within the church.”
But Dall also said before his papacy, the Pope had cited St. Francis as an inspiration. Born to a successful silk merchant in 1181 Italy, St. Francis began his ministry in the streets, preaching repentance to beggars. Within the year, he accumulated 11 followers, with whom he trekked to Rome to officially establish his order. The first recorded person to ever receive the stigmata, the wounds of Christ’s passion, St. Francis was proclaimed a saint in 1228 by Pope Gregory IX.
However, the story of St. Francis’ conversion and conviction happened before all that. And if you ask Father Tim Murphy, priest at St. Christopher Catholic Church in Pontotoc, the genesis of Saint Francis’ faith is the most interesting part of his journey.
“St. Francis was a saint for all people,” Murphy said. “He said to give alms to poor lepers was charity, to speak to beggars, heroism, and to embrace outcasts, saintly.”
Murphy said St. Francis enjoyed the raucous life of a playboy before becoming a soldier in his early twenties. Captured and held as a prisoner of war for over a year, St. Francis returned home unstimulated by earthly pleasures. He became a recluse, wandering the countryside as a penitent, repairing dilapidated chapels with his father’s money. Soon after, he denounced his father and lived in Assisi as a beggar.
In 1209, he heard a sermon on Chapter 10 in the gospel of Matthew, which reads, “As you go, preach this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven is near.’ Heal the sick… cleanse those who have leprosy… Freely you have received, freely give. Do not take along any gold or copper in your belts; take no bag for the journey, or extra tunic, or sandals or a staff; for the worker is worth his keep.”
And with that, St. Francis took to the streets with his message, in a crude habit he stitched together himself.
“Pope Francis emulated that before becoming Pope. The man rode the subway to work for 15 years so he could be close to the people,” Murphy said. “From the beginning of his papacy, he de-emphasized vestments and the exalted parts of ceremonies. And he did so in a way that was not so much corrective as it was a change of direction.”
In addition, Pope Francis has abandoned the papal limousine in favor of a second-hand Ford Focus. He resides in the Papal Palace’s guest house, using the main facilities only to receive heads of state and address crowds from a window overlooking St. Peter’s Square.
Murphy also noted St. Francis came to the scene at a time when the church was particularly in need of direction and unity.
“The church St. Francis came to was struggling with wealth and division, the crusades, nationalism, and a hatred for the Muslim world,” Murphy said. “In fact, he met with the Muslim sultan during the Crusades under a truce everyone told him was false, not to berate him, but to have dialogue and see what they could do to stop the slaughter.”
Similarly, Pope Francis came to office on the heels of the Catholic church’s massive sex scandal. The buzz around the pontiff, Dall said, is all the more evidence he is bringing something very different to the table.
“The million dollar question is how to pastorally apply principles of love, to be compassionate without diluting your beliefs,” he said. “It’s hard for all priests and ministers, and the answer is rarely clear. But Pope Francis seems to have found that balance. You can tell through the way he resonates with young people.”
“Like Saint Francis did, Pope Francis makes the gospel real through the love of the poor and his ability to address all people,” he said. “You can only do that when you’re genuine. When you listen. Both Francises made a strong point of doing that.”
Ron Rychlak, Ole Miss law professor and advisor to the Vatican, said the downside of being a globally recognized figure is that they often become caricatures through the narratives of history and media.
“People think of St. Francis as this Disney-like character, wandering through the woods feeding deer,” Rychlak said. “On one level that’s appropriate, but he was also very devout and learned. We see Pope Francis riding his motorcycle and doing wonderful things we all love, but in his sermons, he’s talking about more than simply going along to get along. He’s talking about sins and repentance.”
Rychlak said Pope Francis’ leadership in the Vatican has proven him anything but a push-over. For instance, just Wednesday, the Pope replaced four of the five cardinals overseeing the scandal-plagued Vatican bank. Back in November, Francis took swift action to suspend Germany’s “Bishop of Bling,” for his lavish travel and personal renovation expenses.
Murphy said Francis was equally dutiful to Catholic theology. As an archbishop in Argentina, Pope Francis decried homosexuality, and in his recent World Address, described abortion as a “symptom of our throw-away culture.”
“Both were well grounded in Catholic theology, and were free of romanticising the human condition,” Murphy said. “Both had been exposed to suffering. Pope Francis is grounded in real life as a person who’s been there, not through some false sweetness.”