Look at St. Francis to understand Pope Francis

FATHER RAYMOND J. DE SOUZA

Those who are eager to understand who Pope Francis is, and what he might do, would be wise to look at the saint whose name he took, Francis of Assisi.

The new Pope might well be on his way to becoming misunderstood in the same way that Saint Francis is today.

There are few saints more popular than Francis of Assisi — in Italy, where he is the national patron, and also throughout the world.  But the St. Francis of popular imagination is not real.

This is of a man who spoke kindly to animals and lived simply, meandering through meadows as if on a perpetual picnic, accompanied by butterflies and singing birds by day, campfire songs by night.

He is a figure of reconciliation and peace, as in the words of the famous "peace prayer" traditionally attributed to him: "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.  Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon."

There is truth in all this.  St. Francis saw God's glory in the natural world, and he was a figure of dialogue and reconciliation.  His famous voyage to meet the Muslim sultan led to a Christian presence in the biblical lands, something the Roman Catholic Church has entrusted to the Franciscans for centuries.  Not for nothing did both John Paul II and Benedict XVI hold interfaith meetings in Assisi to pray for peace.

At the same time though, Francis was zealous to live the gospel fully and to reform the Church.  His famous vision of the crucifix, which spoke to him, commanding him to "repair my Church, which is falling into ruin," was not about restoring the frescoes.

Francis was demanding, first of himself and then of others, engaging in severe penances.  He was formidable in the face of opposition.  He knew to rebuild the Church meant confronting those who attack her from without and, far more important, those who despoil her with filth from within.

Pope Francis knows all this.  As a priest and bishop in Argentina he lived through difficult decades when life was not a picnic, and where the Church needed defending against violent attacks from without, and against those who betrayed the gospel of Jesus Christ from within.

He knows reform means not changing Christian doctrine to make it easier to live, but showing forth the beauty of the Christian life so the consequent demands might be more eagerly embraced.


As a Jesuit superior, his efforts to lead as St. Francis did, with gentleness and firmness, were rejected, so much so he was exiled by his order to teach high school in a remote part of the country.  Pope John Paul rescued him and made him archbishop of Buenos Aires.

Recent days have focused on Pope Francis' simplicity of life and his gentleness.

He took the bus with the cardinals instead of the papal car.  He walked "home" from meeting the cardinals Friday.  He paid his hotel bill.  His eschewed some of the formal papal vestments.  He smiles and is quick with a warm embrace.

As a Jesuit superior, his efforts to lead as St. Francis did, with gentleness and firmness, were rejected, so much so he was exiled by his order to teach high school in a remote part of the country.  Pope John Paul rescued him and made him archbishop of Buenos Aires.

All that is true enough.  But like St. Francis, he is demanding because the Christian life is demanding.  He spoke twice in two days about the danger of the devil, and the need to be on guard, lest we be led away from God.  The devil of which Pope Francis speaks, as St. Francis did, is real, and the remedy is the same — faith in Jesus Christ.

"Let us never give in to pessimism, to that bitterness that the devil offers us every day," Pope Francis said Friday.

"Do not give in to pessimism and discouragement.  We have the firm certainty that the Holy Spirit gives the Church, with His mighty breath, the courage to persevere and also to seek new methods of evangelization, to bring the Gospel to the ends of the earth.

"The Christian truth is attractive and persuasive because it responds to the deep needs of human existence, convincingly announcing that Christ is the only Saviour of the whole person and of all persons.  This announcement is as valid today as it was at the beginning of Christianity when there was a great missionary expansion of the Gospel."

That is Christianity without trimming at the edges, proclaiming the necessity of Jesus Christ while seeking to attract others who do not share the faith, by making the truth beautiful rather than by coercion.  But it takes courage and perseverance, which is to say that is demanding.

Pope Francis did indeed walk home through the Vatican gardens Friday.  He was not planning a picnic.  He was preaching the faith.

 

 



ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Father Raymond J. de Souza, "Look at St. Francis to understand Pope Francis." National Post, (Canada) March 16, 2013.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.

THE AUTHOR

Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Convivium and a Cardus senior fellow, in addition to writing for the National Post and The Catholic Register. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

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