‘Don’t forget the poor’

Hans Rollmann
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“Habemus Papam Franciscum,” announces the Vatican website. “We have a Pope, Francis.”

The name instantly delighted, but also surprised, the faithful and many observers covering this significant story.

“Which Francis?” they asked, for at least three saints come to mind: Saint Francis Xavier, the Pope’s fellow Jesuit and missionary to India and Japan; Saint Francis De Sales, bishop of Geneva and spiritual writer; or the most memorable of the three, Saint Francis of Assisi, a medieval Christian reformer and founder of the Franciscans.


Why Francis?

In his first audience with representatives of the communications media, the newly elected Pope explained how he had come to choose this name.

“During the election,” the Pope recalled, “I was seated next to the archbishop emeritus of São Paolo, and prefect emeritus of the Congregation for the Clergy, Cardinal Claudio Hummes — a good friend, a good friend. When things were looking dangerous, he encouraged me. And when the votes reached two-thirds, there was the usual applause, because the Pope had been elected.”

At this point, according to Francis I, the friend “gave me a hug and a kiss, and said, ‘Don’t forget the poor.’ And those words came to me: the poor, the poor.”

Upon hearing these words, “right away, thinking of the poor, I thought of Francis of Assisi,” the Pope said. Likewise, “I thought of all the wars, as the votes were still being counted, till the end. Francis is also the man of peace. That is how the name came into my heart: Francis of Assisi.”

For Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the former archbishop of Buenos Aires, Saint Francis “is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation.

“(These) days we do not have a very good relationship with creation, do we?” the new Pope asked. Francis “is the man who gives us this spirit of peace, the poor man,” he explained. “How I would like a Church which is poor and for the poor.”

The Poverello of Assisi

Francis, a Roman Catholic saint whom even many Protestants consider an inspiration, devoted much of his ministry to the poor and disadvantaged, with whom he came to share, by choice, a life of poverty.

In the outgoing 12th century, Francesco di Pietro di Bernardone was born into a prosperous merchant family. The young man experienced a gradual disillusionment with his life of wealth, breaking with his own family in a demonstrative act of renouncing all belongings in front of the local bishop.

He subsequently sought to live a life of apostolic simplicity, humility and poverty, which the gospel narrative had inspired in him. This life of renunciation and poverty had considerable appeal among his contemporaries, and many joined him.

It is difficult to separate fact from legend in the life of St. Francis, but in his audience the new Pope articulated well the ideals that he sees in the Poverello of Assisi: “the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation.”

St. Francis renounced not only wealth, but also sought to live an authentic Christian life through self-denial and the rejection of worldly power and influence, co-existing in peace and harmony not only with his fellow human beings but with all of nature. His famous Canticle to Brother Sun sees value in animate and inanimate creation.

“He called all that was created brothers and sisters,” writes Hans Kueng, a Roman Catholic theologian and critic of his church, “since he saw in them, as in humans, ensouled beings, filled with divine life,” not merely objects for exploitation.

It is Kueng, however, who also shows in his book on the history of Christianity how difficult it is not to become domesticated and co-opted by the institutional church. The renewal movement of apostolic and evangelical simplicity started by Brother Francis was quickly tamed by the powerbrokers in the institutional church of his day.

Starting with when he and his 11 companions became clerics, the process of changing the original evangelical rule is a lesson in religious compromise. Later, the different views among the more radical and liberal factions of the movement would clash irreconcilably, with the more radical fringes among the Franciscans eventually being persecuted and exterminated.

Franciscans strongly influenced the 18th- and 19th-century history of Roman Catholicism in Newfoundland, since the first five bishops of St. John’s (O’Donel, Lambert, Scallan, Fleming, Mullock) and the first two bishops of Harbour Grace (Dalton, Carfagnini) were Franciscan Recollects.

Likewise, Roman Catholics in 17th- and early 18th-century French Placentia were served by Quebec and Breton Franciscan Recollect priests and brothers.

In the case of the Irish Franciscan Recollects, temptations of a life of compromise with the British administration and the 19th-century involvement in power politics were an ever-present tension with the values and commitments originally espoused by St. Francis.


A formidable challenge

In his modest lifestyle and his service as archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis I has demonstrated many of the values and ideals that St. Francis espoused.

Instead of residing in an episcopal palace, he took an apartment, and instead of travelling by official limousine, the bishop used public transportation. The new Pope recommended to his confreres in South America not to come to his inauguration, but to use the money instead for charitable causes.

It will be useful to see how the new leader of more than one billion Roman Catholics worldwide will meet the formidable ethical, doctrinal, pastoral and administrative challenges facing the Church. Many expectations, with considerable goodwill, greet Francis I from within and without the Catholic Church at the beginning of his pontificate.


Hans J. Rollmann is a professor of religious studies at Memorial University of

Newfoundland. He can be reached by email at hrollman@mun.ca.

Organizations: Catholic Church

Geographic location: Saint Francis Xavier, Vatican, India Japan Geneva Buenos Aires Newfoundland Quebec South America

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