Our new pope

Leave it to a Jesuit to be smart enough to become a Franciscan. 

The electrifying announcement that Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio had been elected pope gave way to the even greater shock that he had chosen the name Francis. In 800 years, no one had dared to choose the name of Italy’s greatest saint and co-patron. 

The boldness of this move — Pope Francis himself said it was an inspiration he had received after his friend Cardinal Claudio Hummes had told him in the conclave as the votes tilted his way to “not forget the poor” — was the first clue that this would be a man very different from the one he was following. While Pope Benedict was a brilliant theologian, Francis is a pastor, someone described as a “street priest” at heart. 

If Pope Benedict was the head, Pope Francis is the heart and the hands of the Petrine ministry. In this way he seems most effectively to invoke St. Francis of Assisi, the merchant’s son who eschewed a life of comfort for a barefoot ministry of preaching and works. Instructed by Christ to “rebuild my Church,” he set about bringing the Good News to a wounded and discouraged faithful, attracting followers to a message of Christlike humility and service. 

Pope Francis
Pope Francis greets the crowd before celebrating his inaugural Mass in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican March 19. CNS photo/Paul Haring

The initial reception of Pope Francis by the Church and the world has been heartening, even if our understanding of him and his vision is still superficial. His natural touch with people, kissing babies or greeting his parishioners after Sunday Mass, telling stories like any pastor to make a point about sin and forgiveness — these suggest a man who will attract a natural affection on the part of his flock. 

But if his simplicity, his invocations of God’s mercy and forgiveness, and his acts of humility tempt us to overlook his steel, that would be a mistake. This man who has not been afraid to challenge the elites of his own country will likely not be intimidated on the larger stage of the papacy. More probable, he will thrive in this aspect. Francis used his homily at his installation Mass to talk about the “vocation of being a ‘protector,’” and explicitly invoked St. Francis in calling on all of us to protect creation as well as people. And he directed his appeal directly to “those who have positions of responsibility.”  

For Pope Francis, those who are judged most harshly are the “‘Herods’ who plot death, wreak havoc, and mar the countenance of men and women.” But he also criticizes the Pharisees, and this criticism strikes closer to home. In his first Sunday homily, he preached on the Gospel of the adulteress who is saved by Jesus and said: “If we are like the Pharisee before the altar, [who said], ‘Thank you, Lord, for not making me like all the other men, and especially not like that fellow at the door, like that publican,’ well, then we do not know the heart of the Lord, and we shall not ever have the joy of feeling this mercy.” 

For Pope Francis, the Church must join her savior on the Cross, must humble herself to most effectively serve, must become in this sense a “poor Church who serves the poor.” I do not think that Pope Francis will have much patience for the Pharisees of our Church today who have polarized and divided, condemned without mercy and judged without humility.  

A little more than a year ago he told an Italian journalist, “We need to avoid the spiritual sickness of a Church that is wrapped up in its own world: when a Church becomes like this, it grows sick … It is true that going out onto the street implies the risk of accidents happening. ... But if the Church stays wrapped up in itself, it will age. And if I had to choose between a wounded Church that goes out onto the streets and a sick withdrawn Church, I would definitely choose the first one.”


Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.