Saturday, March 16, 2013

Pope Francis: What's in a Name? 3 Priorities for the Church

In this touching video, Pope Francis explains to journalists the reasons he chose the name "Francis" for his papacy.  It is clear to me this was a Spirit-led moment in which he responded to what he felt were several of the most-pressing needs in our modern world.  Expressing his longing that the Church become poor and for the poor, he described the charism of Francis:  "the man of peace, the man of the poor, the man who loves and guards creation."

What happened in those few minutes he describes as the final conclave votes were counted was that the Pope's heart was moved by the suggestion of a friend to choose a name that represents exactly what the world needs most right now: peace, solidarity with the poor, and care for the environment.

This is not some retro-hippie flower-child leftist vision, but, in the end, is the agenda of Catholic social teaching. It represents not only the spirituality of Saint Francis, but the very teachings of God himself.

The vision of the reign of God from Old Testament times forward has included peace. Isaiah prophesies: "They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore." (Isaiah 2:4)  Jesus reinforced this when he came not as a mighty warrior to defeat the Romans, but instead called for peace, not a sword - and reminded us in the Beatitudes that "the peacemakers" are blessed. Pope Francis mentions that his thought-process included thinking about war (as something very present in the world, no doubt.)  For more on Catholic social teaching about peace and non-violence, see this excellent summary from the Archdiocese of Chicago or the Catechism of the Catholic Church 2302-2317 on "Safeguarding Peace"

 From the Old Testament on, Scripture calls for attention to the poor, with numerous references in the Law as to how they are to be treated (Exodus 22-23, Leviticus and Deuteronomy) and Jesus preferred to associate himself with them rather than with men of wealth. Catholic social teaching has always emphasized standing with the poor. (See the USCCB document on solidarity with the poor  and the Catechism of the Catholic Church 2443-2449 on "Love for the Poor" for more background.) This becomes even more important in a consumer society where some are left out, as our new Pope has already demonstrated by his own actions and frequent mention of the poor.

And, of course, in the beginning, God created the earth and said it was "good", then gave humankind the earth as a gift - with responsibilities attached. The "land" is frequently referred to in scripture as our "inheritance" - a gift we hold in stewardship for future generations. The Catechism of the Catholic Church connects this imperative to the very theology of creation:
Each creature possesses its own particular goodness and perfection. For each one of the works of the "six days" it is said: "And God saw that it was good." By the very nature of creation, material being is endowed with its own stability, truth and excellence, its own order and laws. Each of the various creatures, willed in its own being, reflects in its own way a ray of God's infinite wisdom and goodness. Man must therefore respect the particular goodness of every creature, to avoid any disordered use of things which would be in contempt of the Creator and would bring disastrous consequences for human beings and their environment. (339)
and even more pointedly, this:
The seventh commandment enjoins respect for the integrity of creation. Animals, like plants and inanimate beings, are by nature destined for the common good of past, present, and future humanity. (2415)
Pope Francis will not be the first to preach the message of peace and respect for creation.  Pope John Paul II's 1990 World Day of Peace statement, "Peace with God the Creator, Peace with All of Creation" noted that the ecological crisis is a moral crisis.

These then, are the apparent priorities of the man who has just stepped into the papal office at the call of the Holy Spirit to serve the Church in this time.  He has discerned the world and heard its pain. He dedicates himself with a father's love to help people of faith work together to do what they can to transform that pain into promise. Long may he serve!


  1. It's interesting because I would have thought he'd been thinking of this for a while. This Franciscan style of being a Pope seems to come naturally to him and is characteristic of his time as Archbishop too. It seemed like the name is a natural choice for him and something he'd always contemplated. Not something that came to him at the words of a cardinal in the moments just after his election. At any rate, he wears the name well and seems to do it justice. I think he's going to bring a richness to the papacy that is different and new. I'm looking forward to really seeing his agenda and plans.

  2. Me too, Marc. I think the Holy Spirit had a hand in all of this. The new Holy Father's style certainly feels like a breath of fresh air in many ways. Certainly it looks from his previous life and his writings that he had a predilection for the Franciscan style, within the Jesuit framework, but if we are to believe him here, the name was an inspiration of the heart. Those who find this disconcerting are not willing to admit that the Holy Spirit is not a comfortably tame dove, but the God of the burning bush and pillar of fire.