For the past two days, the eyes of the world have been watching a smokestack outside of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. Many observers (including me) anticipated that we would be watching in vain for several days, that there would be significant wrangling as the cardinals struggled to elect a successor to the pope emeritus. Instead, the conclave elected Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, an Italian-born bishop from Argentina, on the fifth ballot. Bergoglio is the first pontiff from South America and the first Jesuit. Though he is known for his conservative stances on issues like abortion and gay marriage, Cardinal Bergoglio has exhibited an incredible devotion to the poor and downtrodden. Apart from his public work on behalf of the poor, Bergoglio has also eschewed much of the pomp traditionally associated with the Roman Catholic episcopacy: sources say that he insists on cooking his own meals and resides in a simple cell rather than the sumptuous episcopal apartments in Buenos Aires. Perhaps his attitude toward the powerless is best embodied in his selection of a papal name: Francis, the first in this history of the papacy. A friend of mine summarized the new pope’s election well: “He’s a humble bishop who took the name Francis. This could be interesting.”
Francis of Assisi was the son of a wealthy merchant born in the twelfth century. Though he spent the early part of his life reveling and vainly trying to attain military glory, he had an encounter with God that caused him to change the direction of his life. While he was praying in the country chapel of San Damiano, Francis saw an icon of the crucified Christ say, “Francis, Francis, go and repair My house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.” Though Francis initially took this to mean the building in which he sat, this charge to rebuild the Church eventually blossomed into a movement that transcended Francis and his hometown. Though he has become known as “the guy who talked to animals,” Francis dedicated his life to living among and caring for the poor, and called the Church to do the same. His love for animals, some of the most vulnerable creatures in this world, was symbolic of Jesus Christ’s call for us to care for “the least of these.” A monastic order was eventually founded in his name to give a voice to the downtrodden, represent the needs of the world to the Church, and call the Church’s leadership to renewal.
While we can’t be sure that Francis I chose the friar from Assisi as his namesake, I hope that the new pope intended us to recall Francis’ message of renewal. This is a challenging time for the Roman Catholic Church, but it is also a challenging time for the entire body of Christ. We are all faced with questions about the truth and relevancy of our proclamation of Christ crucified and risen. We might be tempted to shrink back, to retreat into our church buildings out of a fear of being ostracized. But I think we must remember that the Church serves an inescapably important purpose in this world. Like Francis, the Church is called to give a voice to the downtrodden, to lift up those who have been bowed down by unjust and evil powers, and call the world to renewal. During this season of Lent, I hope all of us can give thanks that the world’s most recognizable Christian leader has reminded Christians of their call to renewal.