I had an excellent vantage point for the presentation of Pope Francis to the world, for I was doing commentary for NBC News from a perch above St. Peter’s Square. I will confess that my initial impression was negative, not because he was a relative surprise or because he wasn't from the United States, but because, for more than a minute, he stood ramrod straight, hands at his side, and not smiling. I remember saying to his image on the TV monitor: “Do something!”
Then — praise God — the new Pope spoke, and he immediately won me over. Asking the people to bless him, bowing low to receive that blessing, promising to work for the evangelization of the city of Rome, pledging to beg the Mother of God to watch over his papacy, leading the people in the Hail Mary and Our Father, and yes, even managing to smile a little—the new Pope didn't make a false move.
But what most impressed me was his first truly significant gesture, the choice of his papal name. Francis of Assisi (and it was confirmed that the Pope was honoring the founder of the Franciscans and not his fellow Jesuit, Francis Xavier) was a friend of the poor. So close was his identification with “Lady Poverty” that he was referred to in his own time as il poverello (the little poor man). By all accounts, Cardinal Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, has a similar feel for the spiritual value of poverty, taking the subway to work rather than a limousine, eschewing the trappings of power, living in a simple apartment rather than the episcopal palace, happily flying coach class to Rome, and passionately advocating for social justice on behalf of the underprivileged.
But there is another dimension to this identification with the poor man of Assisi. When Francis was just beginning his spiritual pilgrimage, he had an extraordinary encounter with Christ. While praying in the little church of San Damiano, the young man heard a voice coming from the crucifix: “Francis, rebuild my church.” At first, he thought that the Lord was indicating that some work needed to be done on a local church structure that had fallen into disrepair. But what became clear soon enough, both to Francis and others, was that this command of the Lord had a far wider valence. Precisely through his recovery of the radical heart of the Gospel, Francis would help to revitalize a church that had been compromised by worldliness, ambition, and clerical corruption. This interpretation of the Lord’s words was most dramatically confirmed by a dream that Pope Innocent III had on the eve of meeting il poverello. The Pope dreamt that a small man, dressed in a brown habit, was holding up the Church, which was about to collapse. When he saw Francis, he recognized him as the man from his dream and resolved, on the spot, to sanction the Franciscan order.
For the past couple of decades, the Catholic Church has been living through not so much a dream as a nightmare. The first wave of the clerical sex abuse scandal broke in the early 1990s, shocking us with story after story of priests violating their vow of celibacy in the most egregious ways, and of bishops who, far too often, turned a blind eye to the outrages or covered them up. The second and even more devastating wave hit in the early 2000s, beginning in Boston and then spreading, it seemed, all across the country. There were thousands of victims, hundreds of guilty priests and negligent bishops, and over $1 billion of Church money paid out in settlements. And just when the American crisis began to calm, the same awful pattern revealed itself in Europe, most terribly in intensely Catholic Ireland. And on top of all of this, the Vatican itself seems under a cloud of scandal. Charges of corruption, financial mismanagement, careerism, and serious personal misbehavior are coming at the Roman Curia from all sides.
It seems to me impossible to deny that Jorge Mario Bergoglio was thinking of il poverello’s “church rebuilding” project when he took the name of the saint of Assisi. And the program of this new Francis remains fundamentally the same as that of his spiritual forebear, namely, to re-energize the Church through a recovery of the radical Gospel. If you want to be my follower, said the Lord, then sell everything and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. That means that the true disciple has to become detached from his career, his own projects and plans, his will, his pleasure, his need to be first — in order to become a vehicle of God’s will, God’s purpose, God’s projects, God’s pleasure.
I believe that this new Pope wants to put the winsome face of Francis of Assisi on the Church, and he wants to unleash the same reforming energy that il poverello unleashed eight centuries ago.