After much pomp and circumstance, the former archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio is elected Pope Francis.
It’s been widely reported that Bergoglio chose the name Francis to honor St. Francis of Assisi. This puzzles me. First, he’s not a Franciscan; he’s a Jesuit. And second, I’ve always thought of the Jesuits as intellectual and elitist.
Like Francis of Assisi, Bergoglio is reported to embrace the poor, the homeless, the diseased, the disenfranchised. But unlike Francis of Assisi, who never became comfortable with the power and politics of the Roman Catholic Church, Bergoglio is now the capo di capi of this wealthy and (despite its many current challenges) influential institution.
Pope Francis’s history is yet to be written but Francis of Assisi’s has been documented over the centuries, devolving into a popular image of a medieval flower child who talked with the animals. The reality of Francis’s existence is far more difficult and complicated. For a stark visual depiction of the brutish era of the saint, watch Roberto Rossellini’s 1950 film The Flowers of St. Francis.
Thinking about Francis, I turned back to The New Yorker article, “Rich Man, Poor Man: The Radical Visions of St. Francis,” I read this past January. Joan Acocella penned a lengthy and fascinating review of two new books about Francis of Assisi that “show that the Church is still trembling from the impact of this great reformer.”
The first is Francis of Assisi: The Life and Afterlife of a Medieval Saint (Yale), by André Vauchez, a professor emeritus of medieval studies at the University of Paris. The book appeared in France in 2009 and has now been published in English, in a translation by Michael F. Cusato.
The other volume, Francis of Assisi: A New Biography (Cornell), is by Augustine Thompson, a Dominican priest and professor of history at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.
The article is a fascinating read in itself. Now that we’re bound to have renewed interest in the original Francis, it will be illuminating to turn to these books. The truly radical way in which Francis lived—possessing nothing, loving everything—didn’t even survive among his followers during his lifetime. After his death, it took only a New York minute for the Church to erect the magnificent Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi in the Umbrian town of Assisi. (Francis, after embarking on his holy path, slept on the ground every night of his life.) The home page of the Basicila website already has a photo of Pope Francis with the caption “preghiamo per il Papa, Francis I,” (pray for the Pope, Francis I).
I, too, wish Pope Francis well in transcending wealth, power, and corruption. The first Francis was undone by it. It seems he was, indeed, too good for this world.