Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s new name, Pope Francis, conjures up a picture of St. Francis of Assisi, the 13th century saint who repaired the crumbling facade of Catholicism through a lifelong apostleship to the poor.
He said the name came to him because St. Francis was a “man of poverty, of peace.” The new pope says he wants “a poor church for the poor.”
But the pontiff, a Jesuit, may also have been thinking of another Francis, one of Ignatius Loyola’s first confreres, St. Francis Xavier (1506-1552). Ignatius was the founder of the Society of Jesus.
Xavier was also from a Basque noble family, IgnatiasInsight.com tells us, like his mentor.
When Ignatius met Francis Xavier in Paris, Jesuit sources indicate that “… he was a proud, autocratic, ambitious man wanting to accomplish great deeds in the world.” For three years, Ignatius patiently encouraged Francis to look at his life differently. “What profits a man,” Ignatius asked Francis, “if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?”
Francis Xavier joined Peter Faber as the first of Ignatius’ companions. Francis was ordained in 1537. In a few years, King John of Portugal asked Ignatius for priests to send to the missions in India. Despite knowing he would never see his beloved companion again, Ignatius chose Francis Xavier for the mission. He left for India, arriving at the city of Goa in 1542.
For the next 10 years, the missionary Francis Xavier traveled from Goa to Cape Comorin in south India, then to the East Indies, Malacca and the Moluccas, and onward to Japan. It was Francis Xavier’s great ambition to get permission to enter China as a missionary. He died in 1552, exhausted from his labors and fasts, on a small island off the coast of China with a single companion at his side.
St. Francis Xavier’s great ambition was to bring the world to Jesus Christ. Armed only with his breviary and a book of meditations, Francis preached the Gospel to the poor and sick, spending most of his time ministering to their needs. His nights were taken up in prayer. His only attention to his personal needs was to have a pair of boots. He barely ate enough to stay alive. As the missionary Francis Xavier, SJ, moved on, he left behind flourishing churches that were the foundations for the Catholic faith in Asia.
Pope Francis has a predisposition to help the poor and the sick as Xavier did. He will have plenty of opportunity to leverage the good will evident upon his accession. Francis seems a simple, decent man from the new world thrust into an impossible job. He has cacheted incredible good will at the start of his papacy with an innate sense of nuance.
Eugene Cullen Kennedy, emeritus professor of psychology at Loyola University in Chicago, put it this way: “The choice of Cardinal Bergoglio burst the longitudinal lines of an outdated understanding of Catholicism. The church chose a man who had already cast aside the hierarchical trappings of residence and retinue. His lifestyle was not that of a monarch but of a servant, of a pastor who has been more interested in easing the world’s grief than in enjoying its grandeur. If the cardinals were looking for a leader who lives in the future by living fully in the present rather than a leader living in the past by trying to revive yesterday – a motivation that might have hovered around but did not invade the consciousness of many of them – they made a choice wiser than they knew.”
But is it possible for a 76-year-old South American prelate, out of the swirl of Vatican politics, able to win any major victories against an entrenched Curia? It doesn’t seem likely, unless the Holy Spirit and the prayers of the faithful – the Mystical body of the church – intervene with the kind of silent prayer that thousands offered as a blessing for Pope Francis in Saint Peter’s Square at the Vatican on the night he met the citizens of Rome as its bishop. Otherwise, there will be big trouble in the Eternal City.
The media remind the world of the church’s troubles. Sexual scandals, maladministration and, for some, the church’s failure to come to terms with issues such as homosexuality, women in the priesthood and others that have no apparent resolution beyond the status quo, at least for the present. Some Catholics have left the church. Others have decided to give less money in their envelopes. Others just scratch their heads.
Francis will do well to combine Xaverian and Franciscan piety along with his own “charism,” his considerable spiritual gifts, as he preaches the Gospel. On this score, Francis of Assisi is quoted as saying, “Preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words.”
This is the spirit of the major evangelization that the Catholic Church needs. It is not the first time that the church needed to be revived. David Brooks wrote recently in the New York Times that the church in North Africa was in crisis at the beginning of the fourth century. The Roman emperor Diocletian had persecuted the Christians and many bishops and priests had collaborated with the regime.
In an interesting aside, Pope Francis has been accused of not actively opposing Argentina’s Dirty War in the 1970s. The dictatorship tortured, killed or “disappeared” as many as 30,000 people while he was provincial of the Argentine Jesuits. The Vatican strongly rejected the charges. One of the Jesuit priests kidnapped, Francisco Jalics, said recently he was “reconciled with the events and, for my part, consider them finished.”
So history has similarities, but important differences. Brooks framed the context of the earlier struggle.
“Two rival reform movements arose to restore the integrity of Catholicism. Those in the first movement, the Donatists, believed the church needed to purify itself and return to its core identity. The mission of the church, in the Donatist view [rejected by Rome as a heresy], was to provide a holy alternative to an unclean world. The Donatists wanted to purge the traitors from the priesthood … You can see them in the current Roman Catholic Church,” Brooks wrote, “which feels besieged in a hostile world. You can identify the modern-day Donatists because they feel history is flowing away from them, and when they gossip it’s always about intracommunity rivalries that nobody outside their world could possibly care about.”
There are certainly rigorists within the modern church, but I do not agree with Brooks that they compare with Donatists.
Brooks favors the other reform movement that arose in the fourth century, backed by Augustine, bishop of Hippo. “The problem with the Donatists,” Augustine argued, “is that they are too static. They try to seal off an ark to ride out the storm, but they end up sealing themselves in. They cut themselves off from new circumstances and growth.”
Augustine “… wanted the church to go on offense and swallow the world. This would involve swallowing impurities as well as purities. It would mean putting to use those who are imperfect. This was the price to be paid if you wanted an active church co-existing with sinners, disciplining and rebuking them. In this scenario the church would be attractive because it was hungering and thirsting for fulfillment. Far from being a stable ark, the church would be a dynamic, ever-changing network, propelled onto the streets by its own tensions.”
There is some value to this approach, but it does not include Pope Francis countenancing the sinfulness of those priests who so fatally injured the young. He will reject them.
George Weigel, the Catholic commentator and biographer of Pope John Paul II, has enunciated a more careful view of the future of the church.
In “Evangelical Catholicism, Deep Reform in the 21st Century Church,” Weigel notes the long-lastingness of the church, the consistency and universality of the 2,000-year-old organization. “It is the same church, the same faith and, above all, the same Lord,” emphasized Weigel.
He explained that “the evangelical Catholicism of the third millennium” will live out its fidelity “in a distinctive way. … This new development within Catholicism, he said, is occurring for two reasons.”
First, he explained, the New Evangelization reflects a spiritual revival that reflects the church’s continuous “striving to a deeper relationship with her Divine Spouse.” This revival may be hard to see at present, but Catholics are longing to take part in such a revival under new leadership.
In addition, Weigel said, evangelical Catholicism is on the rise because of dramatic changes within the external environment of Western culture.
Instead of helping to carry the faith, “public culture in the West is now mainly actively hostile to the Catholic faith,” he observed, adding that Catholicism must, therefore, be evangelical in actively proclaiming the truth in order to survive.
Weigel explained that the rise of postmodern philosophy has left few, if any, “agreed-upon, reality-based reference points” on which to build public policy.
An Opus Dei priest, the Rev. C. John McCloskey, gives his explanation of why Pope Francis was chosen: “This man’s background is unique. First of all, as you know, the first Jesuit in history to be a pope. He has been a philosopher, he’s been a theologian, he’s taught high school, he’s taught chemistry. He’s beloved by his Jesuit brothers. He’s elected as the superior of all the Jesuits in Argentina. And very unusual for a Jesuit, normally, to be picked for a bishop, or much less a cardinal …”
Pope Francis seems to have charmed many with his simple ways. He doesn’t seem to be a man of authority, but looks can be deceiving. No one ascends the hierarchy of the church, loving the poor or not, without a backbone of steel.
Finally, there is another issue that one wonders about as Pope Francis begins his journey. All Jesuits take the traditional vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. But they take a fourth vow of obedience to the pope. Why? Because Ignatius thought that Jesuits should not become bishops or cardinals, as hierarchical positions might impede their mission.
Pope Francis gives us confidence that the Jesuit motto – AMDG, Ad maiorem Dei gloriam, “To the greater glory of God” – will be enhanced by his leadership.
So what’s a Jesuit cardinal to do as he becomes pope? This was something unheard of when Ignatius founded the Jesuits more than 500 years ago. But it seems easily remediable by a new pope so humble that he asks the blessing of the crowd before him before telling them to go home, pray and get a good night’s sleep.
Perhaps his own words sum up his mission best: “I would like for us all, after these days of grace, to have courage, precisely the courage, to walk in the Lord’s presence, with the cross of the Lord; to build the church upon the blood of the Lord, which was poured out on the cross; and to confess the only glory there is: Christ crucified. And in this way the church will go forward.”
Michael D. Langan graduated from Canisius College, a Jesuit institution, 54 years ago. He later served as a vice president of Canisius from 1968 to 1974.