COMMENTARY: Pope Francis I: What is in the name?

CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY (MindaNews/16 March) — It has been asserted that Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio, now Pope Francis I, defies the stereotype classification. He could be labeled as “doctrinally conservative” when it comes to social issues yet, according to a respected Vatican-watcher John Allen, he is neither a defender of clerical privilege nor insensitive to pastoral realities. This revealing tension between the progressive and conservative elements in his theological views challenges our tendency to pigeonhole him. Could this be a good sign that both progressive and conservative camps have their respective spaces in the papacy of Pope Francis?

It cannot be denied that there is still an ongoing global discussion as to why Cardinal Bergoglio has chosen “Francis” as his papal name. What is in this name? Many have suggested that this regnal name reveals the newly-elected pope’s lifestyle and his ecclesial vision of papacy patterned after the praxis and ideals of his namesake, “St. Francis.” But then it could still be asked: which “St. Francis” is he referring to? Is it Francis of Assisi, Francis Xavier, or Francis de Sales? Although many have proposed that it refers to St. Francis of Assisi, only Pope Francis himself could ultimately confirm that answer. In any case, it is possible that all these “Francises” may have deeply influenced his saintly characters which we badly need for an effective leader of the 1.2 billion Catholics.

It is clear that the simplicity and humility of St. Francis of Assisi can be seen in the lifestyle and ideals of Pope Francis. We learned that, even as an Archbishop of Buenos Aires (Argentina), this Jesuit cardinal freely gave up his privilege to live in the palace and opted to stay in a small apartment. We were told that he cooked his own meals and chose to ride public transportation instead of a luxurious car.

Presumably, he was speaking out of personal experience when he said that “society forgets the sick and the poor.” Hopefully, this Latin American pope would seriously overcome this amnesia by challenging us to practice the preferential option for the poor.

Many are excited to know about how Pope Francis would engage the Church in ecological issues. As we know, his predecessors have decidedly included ecology in their social teaching. For instance, Paul VI, as early as 1971, proposes to view the ecological issues from the perspective of global justice and development. Subsequently, both John Paul II and Benedict XVI also explicitly recognize the inseparability of the principles of human dignity and the integrity of creation in responding to the challenges of ecological crisis. Yet, despite this magisterial achievement, we know that Pope Francis has still so much to do to creatively continue this social and ecological teaching of the church.

Like the charism of his namesake, whom John Paul II officially declared as the “celestial patron of ecologists” in 1979, we expect that Pope Francis would also show his compassion not only for the poor but also for the whole “suffering” creation. Let us call to mind that Francis of Assisi radically embraced this inclusive compassion to the extent of being branded by his contemporaries as a new “fool” (passus) in the world. Indeed, they misunderstood him because, as his biographers have explained, this saintly fool from Assisi is “a man of another age” (homo alterius saeculi). It is significant that our newly elected pope recognizes this “little brother” (Fratello), who lived in Assisi about eight centuries ago, as exactly the kind of person we badly need for the twenty-first century generation. Hopefully, the pope’s choice of the name “Francis” may serve as a strong signal that St. Francis of Assisi is no longer “a man of another age” but the person of our present age. Let the saintly ethos of Francis of Assisi be creatively appropriated in our present age.

Let me briefly revisit four significant characters of St. Francis of Assisi to help us understand the significance of the regnal name of our newly elected pope. First, it is beyond doubt that St. Francis makes a radical option for the poorest of his time—especially lepers, whom the society of his time already considered as “living dead.” He embraced this solidarity with the poor not necessarily to overcome their material poverty but mainly to form a community worthy of human life.

Second, it must be said that St. Francis shows a liberating attitude towards non-Christians and “pagans.” Contrary to the crusaders’ approach of his time, he understands “mission” not in terms of converting the infidels or expanding Christianity but of living the Gospel of universal brotherhood/sisterhood. Pondering upon the paradoxical character of Franciscan approach, G.K. Chesterton commented that many of the poems attributed to Francis of Assisi confirm a lot of the truths of pagan polytheism but without diminishing the Christian monotheistic faith.

Third, it is significant that St. Francis treated all women as “sisters,” and not simply as objects of lustful desires. This is clearly manifested in his unique celibate love for Clare. As Leonardo Boff has described it, the love of St. Francis for Clare is an eros “purified of all easy seduction” and a love that is “free of the ties of libido.” Thus, for Francis, all men and women have an equal dignity of being truly children of God.

Finally, it is well known St. Francis considers all creatures as truly brothers and sisters of one another. This mystical experience of a universal kinship with all creatures was born out of his religious experience and intuition that everything, including the most insignificant creatures, had the same Source. This vision is poetically expressed in the famous Canticle of Brother Sun. As the last line of this poem goes:

Be praised, my Lord, for our Sister, Mother Earth,
Who nourishes and governs us,
And produces different fruits with colored flowers and herbs…

We are happy that the newly elected Holy Father has chosen the name “Francis”—the name of a great saint who selflessly loves the poor and the suffering creation. Hail Pope Francis I!

[Reynaldo D. Raluto, Ph.D. is a Roman Catholic priest of the Diocese of Malaybalay. He is currently assigned as a teacher of systematic theology at the St. John Vianney Theological Seminary, Cagayan de Oro City. His email address is]