At first glance, there are several intuitive and striking similarities between Pope Francis and the saint who inspired his new name. The news coverage of the newly elected pope has focused a lot of attention on these points, including his simple lifestyle and pastoral care of H.I.V./AIDS patients—images that evoke St. Francis’ embrace of the infirm and marginalized of his own day.
Few commentators, however, have delved into some of the more significant and challenging implications of the pope’s choice of the name Francis, motivated by the example of the poverello, the “little poor man,” of Assisi. There are at least three important aspects of the life of St. Francis that are often lost amid romantic depictions of the saint standing in birdbaths or taming wolves. And these underappreciated dimensions of the saint’s legacy could make all the difference in the church of the 21st century.
A Renouncer of Power
Paying attention to St. Francis’ love of poverty is not unwarranted. Indeed, the medieval man from Assisi sought to “follow in the footprints of Christ” in the most authentic way possible. For him this meant that one should, like the poor Christ who proclaimed he had “nowhere to lay his head” in this world (Lk 9:58), dispossess oneself of those material things that inhibit living the Gospel to the fullest.
This did not mean, however, that St. Francis advocated abject poverty. Like Gustavo Gutiérrez, O.P., who in his classic book A Theology of Liberation makes a distinction between abject and evangelical poverty, St. Francis embraced the Gospel virtue as a means to an end, not an end in itself. The means was what St. Francis calledsine proprio, or “living without anything of one’s own,” the vow Franciscans still profess today. The end was unencumbered relationship with God, with others and with the rest of creation.
On the one hand, St. Francis eschewed the traditional religious cloisters of the monastic religious and the separated lifestyle of the secular clergy of his day. His desire was to remove all barriers between himself and others. On the other hand, St. Francis’ refusal to participate in the emerging market economy and activity of the rising merchant class of medieval Italy reflected his prescient fear of the monetary valuation of goods, labor and even people themselves. He recognized early on what we continue to witness in our own age: women and men treated according to their wealth or social class and status. For this reason he forbade his fellow friars from “receiving coins or money in any form,” insisting they renounce that way of relating to others.
The French medieval historian Jacques Dalarun makes the point, in his book Francis of Assisi and Power, that, “with Francis, there is less of a merely visible break with the world; at the heart of his life there is instead more intransigence toward any compromise with the world and its powers.” Poverty was the most overt sign of St. Francis’ renunciation of power and of all those dehumanizing facets of his time that stood in the way of an unmitigated embrace of others.
A Reformer Who Loved the Church
Some have attempted to paint a picture of St. Francis as a radical reformer and something of a rebel. Others, like Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, have sought to present the poverello as an unwaveringly loyal son of the church. Both views are correct, but neither is complete. St. Francis was a man whose primary loyalty was to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But he also recognized the importance of remaining a loyal member of the church, a point he reiterated frequently in his writings and actions. In his Rule, or way of life, St. Francis explains that “the Rule and Life of the Lesser Brother is this: to observe the Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ by living in obedience, without anything of one’s own, and in chastity.” He then “promises obedience and reverence to our Lord Pope Honorius and his successors canonically elected and to the Roman Church.”
From the very foundation of St. Francis’ community, ecclesiastical approval was sought at the local level (first from the Bishop of Assisi) and at the universal level (from Pope Innocent III in 1209). In the 13th century there were many penitential reform movements, a number of which were eventually denounced as heretical. St. Francis always and explicitly expressed his commitment to the church and never wished to step outside of communion with it.
This did not prevent the saint, however, from performing what might anachronistically be called acts of “ecclesiastical disobedience,” akin to civil protests against unjust laws. The best-known example is St. Francis’ peace mission to Sultan Malik al-Kamil during the Fifth Crusade. Against Pope Innocent III’s instruction for the universal church’s support of the effort and, as some legends suggest, against the explicit instructions of the ecclesiastical representatives on the crusaders’ front line, St. Francis made history by engaging with the Muslim leader in what is remembered as a peaceful and fruitful dialogue.