March 14, 2013
By Al Kresta
You know you are in the presence of greatness when your only reservation about someone is his age. We have a new pope and, the worst thing that observant Catholics can say about him, is that he is a bit older than they had hoped. Pope Francis is the ninth oldest Pope elected in the last half of our history.
He has the aura of reform and novelty about him. He is the first Jesuit, first non-European, first Latin American and the first Francis.
What’s in a name? Quite a bit when it comes to papal names. Cardinal George and Cardinal Dolan in interviews have both said that Pope Francis was thinking of Francis of Assisi, the most popular saint around the world and one who heard Christ command “Rebuild my Church.” Francis is often called a second Christ because of his humility, sanctity, and influence. Francis is known for hugging the leper which calls to mind Cardinal Bergoglio’s washing and kissing the feet of dying AIDS patients at a hospice in Argentina. In an age in which so many people are concerned about the environment, it’s a plus to have a Pope named after the saint who wrote the Canticle of Brother Sun, Sister Moon and preached to the beasts. Catholics are facing persecution at the hands of Muslim dominated countries around the world and Francis of Assisi is remembered for his courage and humility in presenting the gospel to the reigning Muslim sultan. So instructive is this incident that Fordham University, a Jesuit institution, just sponsored an entire conference dedicated to the Saint’s encounter with the Sultan. Francis of Assisi is renowned for his humility and simplicity which is a hallmark of Pope Francis’ spirituality. Already he has refused to get into the papal limousine choosing instead to ride in the shuttle bus with the other Cardinals. He turned down the elevated chair in which a new Pope meets the Cardinals who elected him. And he selected a simple rather than an ornate cross as his own.
While we await Cardinal Bergoglio’s public statement on Francis of Assisi, we can’t help but think of another Francis who is close to him. As the former Jesuit authority in his region of South America, Francis Xavier, cofounder of the Jesuits would have been a possible choice. St. Francis Xavier is renowned for his world missionary efforts and brought the gospel to India, Japan, Borneo and had hoped to evangelize China. He refused to let the conflict among European Christians during the reformation keep him from carrying out the world missionary enterprise of the Church.
As with Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI, Pope Francis gives every appearance of being a spiritual thoroughbred. He will teach and exhibit a reform of the heart. Because he operates in that humility, he will have the courage and confidence to reform the house of the Vatican which has been embarrassed by a number of scandals and irregularities. As a professor of theology and rector of a seminary, he is intellectually vibrant and has opposed the problems of South America’s liberation theology movement. He has stood against the government of Argentina in opposing gay so-called marriage. He is known as a pro-life champion who has a reputation for social justice. He is a Catholic theologian who has written a book with a Jewish rabbi.
When I think of this new pontificate I am already thinking in terms of a series of Rs: Reform, Re-evangelize, Reconcile and Restore. Reform the heart in order to reform the house. Re-evangelize the Christian world while launching a renaissance of our world missionary enterprise. Reconcile Catholics who have allowed themselves to be divided by a false split between social justice and pro-life allegiances and at the same time work on the restoration of all Christians into one body. To accomplish these ends requires a new St. Francis. Pray that he will be given the grace to show us one.
Al Kresta is President and CEO of Ave Maria Communications.
His afternoon radio program is heard on over 200 stations as well as Sirius satellite radio.