The papacy of the two Francises

The papacy of the two Francises

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” This is what Juliette told Romeo. It seems, though, that popes beg to differ. In Biblical fashion, a lot of importance is placed on the meaning of the name chosen. Abram became Abraham, Simon became Peter; two examples which amply manifest that a change in name is tantamount to a change in mission.

This is a papacy with a strong mission that has to be carried forward with a sense of urgency

Sometimes the change envisioned is not fully clear from the very beginning. Did anyone guess that Joseph Ratzinger’s choice of the name Benedict as Pope would eventually come full circle? He who chose the name of a monk resigned the papacy to live the life of a monk – cloistered in contemplation.

Pope Francis is a Pope of many firsts: first Jesuit to become Pope; first non-European after hundreds of years to wear the shoes of the fisherman; the first ever Latin American Pope and first with the name of Francis. Did he do a first also by taking a name which would not give us a clear indication of his mission? One hardly expects the answer to be in the affirmative.

When he addressed the faithful last Wednesday he smilingly said that to choose a Bishop of Rome the cardinals went searching for him almost to the end of the world. The physical distance between his origin and his new diocese is bridged with a double bind: his father was an Italian and his choice of name. St Francis of Assisi is the patron saint of Italy.

But surely the choice of the name Francis was made for more important reasons.

The story of the San Damiano crucifix speaking to St Francis is more relevant. Christ asked Francis to rebuild the dilapidated church in the Assisi countryside. Francis heeded the mission given by Christ. It is very clear though that Christ was asking for more than the physical renovation of a church. The Lord referred to a universal Church which Francis helped renovate by a return to the radicalism of the Gospel.

Moreover, the choice of name by the first Jesuit ever to become a Pope was also a nod of acknowledgment to the great Jesuit evangeliser, St Francis Xavier. He led an extensive mission into Asia, mainly in the Portuguese empire of the time. He spread the gospel in India, and also ventured into Japan, Borneo and the Moluccas. China was on his radar but death had different plans.

The work of Francis Xavier ties in nicely with another aspect of the life of St Francis of Assisi. He was an evangeliser besides being a renovator. His missions among the Muslims in the days of the Crusaders are a case in point.

These two Francises perhaps indicate that the mission of Pope Francis will concentrate on the renovation of Church, particularly its structures and the evangelisation of peoples and cultures. In my commentary last Sunday I emphasised the need of a reform in Church structures and method of governance.

James Hanvey SJ, writing in the Jesuit-run Catholic periodical America, describes the crisis of governance in these words: “Increasingly, bishops and priests find themselves acting like chief executive officers, with a strange confidence in condemning and disciplining, enhancing their retro-liturgical plumage rather than living out of the sacrament they bear.”

This description is tough but is worth looking into.

I also criticised the process of over-centralisation that characterised Church governance in the past two decades. We have to move in an opposite direction: subsidiarity and collegiality.

Pope Francis can help the Church build these structures of subsidiarity and collegiality while helping the Church to steer away from its Eurocentrism. One hopes that Pope Francis will help the Church free itself from what Hanvey describes as the trap of “an ultramontane ecclesiology and a quasi-secular, monarchical exercise of power”.

Vatikleaks showed that there are stables needing cleaning in the Vatican. It is significant that one of the Pope’s first activities on Thursday was praying on the tomb of Pope Pius V, who stood firm against corruption, rebuking his predecessor, Pius IV, to his face when he wanted to make a 13-year-old member of his family a cardinal.

Last Wednesday, Pope Francis exercised his evangelising mission by communicating a profound message in simple words and strong actions. He came across as a man who really cares and feels for others. Evangelisation has to do more with the dispensing of God’s love than the communication of a verbal message.

His visit to the Domus Internationalis Paulus VI residence, where he had been staying before the conclave, to pick up his luggage and pay his bill, is another sign of evangelisation through actions not just words. Similarly is his appeal to Argentinian bishops and clergy not to attend next Tuesday’s inauguration and use the money saved to help the poor.

There is another dimension to the name Francis. The Teutonic meaning of the name Francis is: Free. The attempts at hiding the scandal of child abuse by the clergy were a sign that the Church abandoned its belief that the truth sets us free.

Hanvey described this in a crystalline manner: “We need to accept that it is not the enemies of the Church who have exposed this wound, but the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth.” Pope Francis will surely follow the actions of Benedict who really stove towards truth in freedom.

At 76 years of age, Pope Francis cannot expect to have a very long papacy. This is a papacy with a strong mission that has to be carried forward with a sense of urgency. Last Thursday, during his first homily, Pope Francis concisely but precisely described this mission thus:

“To walk always in the presence of the Lord. To build the Church on the cornerstone that is the Lord himself. To witness to Jesus Christ.”

We pray that the Lord be with him.

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