One of the central tenets of a well-grounded theology of ministry according to the Franciscan theological tradition is the particular relationship one has to his ministerial office. As I tried to elucidate in a cogent and scholarly grounded way in my little book, Franciscan Priesthood: The Possibility of Franciscan Presbyters According to the Rule and Tradition (Koinonia, 2012) that one among many of the unique Franciscan contributions to a theology of ordained ministry is the formation of one’s identity as a minister in the church that strives to prioritize relationship, renounce divisive power structures, and to see one’s baptismal vocation as a member of the Body of Christ first and foremost. The very possibility of ordained Franciscans is occasioned by St. Francis’s Rule (Regula bullata), which, unlike other religious communities, does not provide for explicit provisions for members ordained to Holy Orders, but instead mandates that the friars are to work. Their work, whether it is of the sacramental-ministerial variety or some other form of pastoral or practical labor, is to take second place to the “spirit of prayer and devotion” of the community. Francis of Assisi never intended his community to be a clerical order, one especially designed to exercise a form of singular pastoral or sacramental ministry. And this is something that might help us to appreciate, in a broader way, Pope Francis’s decision to choose the name “Francis,” his extremely relational behavior since his election, and what could be in store in the future.
In his recent address to the world media, Pope Francis explained how he came to decide on the name Francis, noting that a friend of his — as the numbers were becoming clear in the voting — told him to “remember the poor!” The Pope explained:
“Don’t forget the poor!” And those words came to me: the poor, the poor. Then, right away, thinking of the poor, I thought of Francis of Assisi. Then I thought of all the wars, as the votes were still being counted, till the end. Francis is also the man of peace. That is how the name came into my heart: Francis of Assisi. For me, he is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation; these days we do not have a very good relationship with creation, do we? He is the man who gives us this spirit of peace, the poor man … How I would like a Church which is poor and for the poor!
Francis of Assisi was indeed a man who let nothing get in the way of his relationship with others, following as he did the example of Jesus Christ, who welcomed all to him. A man of evangelical poverty, Francis of Assisi detested abject poverty, but praised the spirit of sine proprio (to live “without anything of one’s own”) so that material things would not get in the way of relationship.
Francis of Assisi was, as the Pope notes well, a man of peace, reconciliation, and forgiveness. And he was, without a doubt, a model of one whose relationship to the whole of creation — which he recognized as related to him as part of the family of God’s good creation — again reflects the familial quality of God’s intended relationship for all people and all creation.
What isn’t so overt and has certainly not been addressed by the hundreds of articles, reflections, op-ed pieces, etc., is the depth of the Franciscan tradition that informs and could shape this Pope’s self-identity and future action. Even as a Jesuit, Pope Francis has already exhibited classic and easily recognizable signs of kindredness with the Saint from Assisi, something many commentators have already spoken about at length: his humility, renunciation of rich entitlements, his work on behalf of the poor, and so on.
Although he is undoubtedly shaped by his Ignatian spiritual formation, his ministerial presence and pastoral decisions from the beginning of his pontificate have reflected the insights and guidance of the Franciscan approach to ministry and priesthood. Even as a Cardinal in Argentina, he preferred to be referred to as “Father” instead of Archbishop, Cardinal, or “Your Excellency.” His office as the local bishop, the pastor of the particular church in Argentina, appears to have taken a second place in his own self-identity as a member of the baptized Body of Christ, which should lead him at all times to be with his sisters and brothers. We might understand better his decision to forgo private transportation for public transportation in light of this.
The way he relates to his brother cardinals and even a group of high-school students on his car ride to a Roman church to pray the day after his election both reflect this desire to be with his sisters and brothers in a refreshing way.
It will be interesting to see how his understanding of ordained ministry, exercise of pastoral leadership, and continued seeking to be in relationship with others plays out in the weeks, months, and years to come. It is an exciting and hopeful time indeed.
There is much more to say about the tradition and its relationship to Pope Francis, the Jesuit with a Franciscan heart! Stay tuned for a fuller treatment and additional commentary to come!