When we heard the chosen name of the New Pope, “Francis” most of us likely thought of St. Francis of Assisi. Though on closer examination it is possible our New Pope, as a Jesuit, has St. Francis Xavier in mind. But either Saint has a lot to recommend to our thoughts as we pray for our new Pope, Francis I.
N.B. I am not a Vatican Insider and I don’t know Vatican insiders. And frankly, a lot of the “insider” stuff both alarms and bewilders me. Thus, my reflections are pure speculation and rooted only in the meditation on the lives of two saints and how they might frame our thoughts as we consider the work ahead for Pope Francis and how we must pray.
A few thoughts, in today’s post on St. Francis of Assisi. Tomorrow, St. Francis Xavier.
1. On the possibility of radical conversion and the role of affliction and humiliation – St. Francis of Assisi had lived and experienced the life of great wealth. The son of a successful cloth merchant, he enjoyed a very affluent easy life growing up and partook of the permissiveness of the times. He was a natural leader and drew to himself a crowd of young people who spent their nights in wild parties. His biographer, Thomas of Celano, said of him that him that, “He attracted to himself a whole retinue of young people addicted to evil and accustomed to vice.”
He had visions of grandeur and became a knight. Perhaps the horrors of battle and a year as a prisoner of war began a gradual conversion in him. The Fourth Crusade was called in 1205 and Francis impulsively bought new armor and sallied forth. But perhaps his own anxiety, and more surely a vision, wherein God rebuked his manner of life, led him to turn back. At home he was derided as a coward and suffered great wrath from his earthly father.
This crisis in his life led ultimately to his conversion, and a dramatic one at that. The Book of Psalms says, Before I was afflicted I strayed. But now I have kept your word, O Lord (Psalm 119:67).
We all know people whose conversion seems unlikely. But God may yet humble them and draw them to conversion. Further, we ought never underestimate the fact that affliction and humiliation may be a necessary component of conversion for many of us. At times we may feel as though God has abandoned us, or others we love. In fact he may be doing some very important work.
Our greatest enemy is pride and our best friend is humility. Humility and affliction may be gifts in strange packages. Learn to trust in God’s ways, painful though they may be, sometimes. God may be drawing us, and those we love, to deeper conversion.
Pope Francis takes the helm of a Church in need of constant purification. Further a large part of the flock in the affluent West is proud, rich, is rooted in hardened sinful habits and unbelief, and has left the practice of the faith.
Yet as St. Francis of Assisi shows, even hardened sinners can be reached. And as they are reached, others are reached too. The name of our New Pope is a reminder to all that radical conversion in the world is possible.
2. On the freedom of poverty and simplicity – Francis and his early companions embraced a life of radical poverty. So severe was this poverty that some thought them mad and rebuked their ways as beyond rational. St. Francis responded, If we had any possessions we should need weapons and laws to defend them. One hagiographer says, Possessing something was the death of love for Francis. Also, Francis reasoned, what could you do to a man who owns nothing? You can’t starve a fasting man, you can’t steal from someone who has no money, you can’t ruin someone who hates prestige. They were truly free. 
Not all of us may be able to embrace this radical poverty due to our obligations to others. But, more and more, we ought to experience a growing simplicity of life that frees us from the power of this world.
Poverty and simplicity are powerful and fruitful gifts of God. Once again, they are gifts in strange packages. But, if we can learn to embrace them, we discover greater freedom.
Though we are just getting to know him, our New Pope exhibits a humility, and is well known for his love of the poor of a life of simplicity. It is said, though a “Prince of the Church,” he rode the bus to work each morning.
One great danger of the Church is that we “have too much to lose.” Embracing greater simplicity and less in the way of worldly power seems to have been a track the Lord has had us since the proud days of the late Middle Ages, when St. Francis lived and surely since the heady days of the Renaissance Popes. Perhaps St. Francis of Assisi will help us to keep the proper balance of dignity and simplicity.
3. On the Love of God’s Church and how reform is best accomplished – During St. Francis’ lifetime the Church was in need of reform. Greed, worldliness and scandal were problems among clergy and laity as well. Heresies were abundant.
Some, noting sin in the Church, have chosen to hate the Church and leave her. But others, like Francis, hear the call of God, who never ceases to love His Church, and they, themselves, intensify their love for the Church and work for her reform. In a vision, St. Francis sensed the call from God: “Francis, Repair my Church.” Gradually he deepened his understanding of the Lord’s call and began that reform by seeing first to his very own life.
It is possible for critics of the Church to excoriate the sins of others, but not see their own. Francis began in the vineyard of his own life and then went forth gently preaching conversion by personal example to his neighbors.
The movement for reform spread. It was grassroots, it was personal. True reform begins with me. Simply denouncing the sins of others or the Church, real though these sins may be, seldom has lasting effect.
The best reform starts with personal conversion. Personal conversion spreads to others, and reform is underway. Within 10 years there were over 5,000 men in Francis’ community and the Poor Clares were also well underway. It works. If I let God set me on fire, then I can spread that fire.
Pope Francis has in St. Francis a power ally who loved the Church, worked for required reforms and led others to personal conversion and love for the Church. May our new Pope experience many blessings from St. Francis.
4. On unity with all creation and the gift of wonder and awe -St. Francis thought of nature, all God’s creation, as part of his brotherhood. In some sense, the sparrow was as much his brother as the Pope.
There is a radical tendency today, by some in the environmental movement, that sees man as the enemy of the natural world, rather than an integral part of it. We can tend to see ourselves as outsiders of the natural world, rather than partakers and members of it. But for St. Francis there was brotherhood.
And in brotherhood there are legitimate needs we supply one another. Nature supplies us and we in turn help to perfect nature. We have done this in our best moments by helping to increase the yield of our fields and bring far greater bounty to the earth by agriculture and animal husbandry. We also seek to master disease and push back the destructive boundaries of what is unruly in nature, such as infestations and the like.
It is true we have often transgressed by unnecessary pollution and the like. But in the end we are not the enemies of nature, we are companions and “brethren” to the natural world.
Pope Francis faces many challenges related to a lack of balance in modern man’s relation to the natural and physical world. Too many today have turned environmentalism and the physical sciences into a kind of religion, verging on idolatry. In St. Francis the Pope and the Church can be inspired to help our modern world recover sanity and balance in these matters. In the first video below is a meditation based on the poem and prayer of St. Francis known as the Canticle of the Sun, his meditation on the magnificence of creation.
5. On the Need to Evangelize the Muslim World – We may think that the struggle with the Muslim world is new. It is not. In his life, St Francis decided to go to Syria to convert the Muslims while the Fifth Crusade was being fought.
In the middle of a battle, Francis decided to do the simplest thing and go straight to the sultan to make peace. He and his companions were captured and Francis was taken to the Sultan, Melek-el-Kamel. Francis challenged the Muslim scholars to a test of true religion by fire; but they refused. Francis proposed to enter the fire first, under the condition that if he left the fire unharmed, the sultan would have to recognize Christ as true God. The offer was turned down but the sultan was so impressed that he allowed Francis to preach to his subjects. Though Francis did not succeed in converting the sultan, the last words of the sultan to Francis of Assisi were, Pray for me that God may deign to reveal to me that law and faith which is most pleasing to him.
This work of Francis and his attempted rapprochement with the Muslim world had far-reaching consequences, long past his own death, since after the fall of the Crusader Kingdom, it would be the Franciscans, of all Catholics, who would be allowed to stay on in the Holy Land and be recognized as “Custodians of the Holy Land” on behalf of Christianity. 
In times like these, when extremist forms of Islam have emerged, we need, more than ever to have the courage of St. Francis to engage the Islamic world and seek to bring them to Christ.
It may be difficult work and successes may be few at this stage. But God calls us to be faithful, not successful. Ultimate success is up to God. We who are Catholics have a special role in this evangelization since the Muslim world shares with us a respect for Mary, Mother of Jesus our Lord. More on that in a future post.
And thus Pope Francis who has a significant challenge in dealing well with the Muslim World and increasing radicalism there has a powerful ally, intercessor and example in St. Francis of Assisi.
Just a few thoughts on what’s in a name. Pope Francis, and St. Francis of Assisi: ally, intercessor, example and Saint. Tomorrow some thoughts on St. Francis Xavier, the great Saint of Evangelization.
This first video is set to the Music “All Creatures of Our God and King.” This hymn is based closely on the poem by St. Francis Canticum Fratris Solis (Canticle of Brother Sun) :
This second video is a very charming video of a man who has taught his dog to pray: