Last Sunday I was invited to contribute to the Radio Four Sunday Programme. You can hear my contribution here, at about 13 minutes in. In a discussion about the Church’s loss of moral authority, I opined that the loss of prestige that the clerical caste faced was not necessarily a disaster if it served to make us more humble and accessible, and that we needed to be more like Francis of Assisi, and less like some Renaissance popes.
Cut to Wednesday, when, a beer in hand, I watched white smoke on the television in a London bar. I was expecting a long conclave. This was not the plan, not my plan, anyway. And then it came – a Pope called Francis.
Why Francis? He clearly wants us to understand something in this revolutionary choice of name, so this is what I understand.
St Francis was a great Church reformer. He was the one who answered the call from God: “Francis, rebuild my Church”. The pope of the day recognised in Francis the humble friar who, in his dream, had stopped the Lateran Basilica, the Pope’s own cathedral, falling down. Pope Francis clearly sees that the Church needs reform, moral reform.
St Francis was a layman for most of his life, and accepted ordination as a deacon only because the hierarchy of the time insisted. He was more of less rejected by the order that sprang from his movement. He represents the charismatic part of the Church rather than its institutional form. Expect Pope Francis to be an anti-clerical Pope. This may well mean someone who takes a new broom to the corridors of power in the Vatican.
St Francis was called to evangelise the world, and Pope Francis mentioned evangelising Rome in his opening words. Expect an evangelical Pope, one committed to evangelising his own diocese. St Francis longed to evangelise the Islamic world too. He went to see the Sultan of Egypt, in order to convert him. He was received in a friendly manner, though there was no conversion. But the message may well be that Pope Francis seeks an opening of understanding to other faiths, and indeed to those of no faith. St Francis is the patron of ecologists, an inspiration to many Greens, and indeed long revered by sections of the Italian Left, an inspiration to many Reds too.
St Francis is the patron saint of Italy – il più santo degli italiani, il più italiano dei santi, as Pius XII once said: the most saintly of Italians, the most Italian of saints. Pope Francis is not Italian, but he is the son of Italian parents and he speaks the language perfectly. For the Italians this is almost as good as the Papacy returning home to Italy, where many of them think it belongs.
As I pointed out in another forum Pope Francis is the third Pope to come from the industrial working class. His father was a railwayman. Pius X’s father was a post office worker, and John Paul I’s was a bricklayer. Saint Francis came from a prosperous town dwelling merchant family, but he turned his back on all that to become a poor man. One can expect our new Holy Father to be a man of poverty. He certainly comes from a country where many are poor, and he will have huge sympathy with the poor.
With all this in mind, I think it is fair to say that interesting times lie ahead!