Francis…What’s to a Name?

The Roman Catholic Church has elected Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires to be its 266th Vicar of Christ. At the announcement of his election, social networking sites around the world flared to life. There are expressions of immense joy that the Church has elected for the first time in centuries a Pope from the Global South. At the same time however, others have expressed blinding-hot rage that this particular citizen of the Global South is one that will not budge on particular matters that reform-fetishisers regard as indispensable to the continued survival of Catholicism.
Speculations are plentiful concerning the implications of elevating to the Papacy the much-rumoured runner up to the 2005 Conclave that elected Joseph Ratzinger. Speculations also abound as to the significance of his chosen pontifical name, Francis. Whilst the change of name follows the tradition of the Apostle Simon son of John to Peter, the name itself is also often indicative of the biography of the Pontiff specifically, as well as indicative of his desires in terms of the future direction of the Church more generally.
Many suspect that this otherwise Jesuit pope has taken the name of the famous founder of the Franciscan Order, on the basis of Bergoglio’s very visible life of simplicity as Archbishop of Buenos Aires. Another factor would be his equally vocal and much-publicised proactive committment – some call preoccupation – to the poor of Buenos Aires, as well as denunciations of the inaction of the wealthy and powerful. While such speculations are well-founded, these analyses miss other reasons concerning the suitability of the Pontifical name to the biography of the Pontiff-elect.
For starters, the emphasis on the well worn stereotype of Francis-of-Assisi-as-Poor-Guy misses the point that Saint was also an ardent missionary who was unafraid to stare down powers and principalities in order to spread the Gospel. In 1219, during the 5th Crusade, Francis hoped to bring peace by bringing about the conversion of Malik al-Kamil, the Sultan of Egypt and nephew of Saladin. To do so, Francis moved across the battle lines and entered al-Kamil’s camp in order to meet him face to face and spread the Gospel in the midst of the Sultan’s hosts. In Bergoglio, one sees someone whose biography includes visible clashes with powers and principalities over not just an exclusively select set of issues that Catholics – whether they be devotees of liberation theology or neoconservativism – regard as indispensable to the living out of the Gospel. Bergoglio appears to have a history of very public engagement on a whole spectrum of issues that could be considered proper to Catholic concern. Indeed, Bergoglio has a track record of being able to get into public stoushes with political leaders over the redefinition of marriage to legitimise same-sex couples, about as easily as locking horns with business leaders on the crushing poverty hitting the slums of Buenos Aires.
The hopeful note that could be gleaned from the choice of Franciscan nomenclature is that the Saint, apart from embracing what he called “Lady Poverty”, was also associated with a period of profound transformation. Within the Church, Francis and his followers brought about a spirit of renewal that remains the stuff of legend to this day. But as St. Bonaventure (discussed in a previous post) noted, the person of St. Francis acted as the gateway to the transformation of the whole cosmos. Whether such profound transformations can be effected by this latest successor to the See of Peter remains to be seen, but the indicators from his previous biography remain encouraging.
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