The election of Jorge Bergoglio as Pope a little over two weeks ago took almost everybody by surprise, even veteran Vatican watchers. No one predicted that Benedict XVI’s successor would be Argentinean, that he would be the first Jesuit Pope, or that he would take the name ‘Francis’. There is so much that is new about this new Pope. As a consequence, Pope Francis’ election has come to be seen by some as signaling a “fresh start” for a Catholic Church discredited by sexual and financial scandals.
Asked why he chose the name ‘Francis’, something no previous Pope had done, the new Pope responded that it was out of his admiration for Saint Francis of Assisi (1182-1226). The name ‘Francis of Assisi’ is a familiar one to both Catholics and non-Catholics, to any student of history, really. As a young man, Francis renounced his father’s wealth, choosing instead to live the lifestyle of Jesus and his apostles. He embraced a life of poverty, charity, and humility. Francis is reported to have once said, “We ought to be servants who are submissive to every human being for God’s sake.” The love of this 13th century monk for the poor, for animals, indeed, for all of nature, is legendary. Francis of Assisi, lover of nature: This is the image that comes to mind most frequently–to mine, if not most–upon hearing the name ‘Francis of Assisi’.
True to his 13th century namesake, Pope Francis has demonstrated humility and simplicity since assuming the papacy. (In truth, he led a humble and simple life long before in Buenos Aires where he lived in a modest flat and rode the bus to work.) The 21st century Francis has rejected the papal apartment in the Apostolic Palace for simpler accommodation in a Vatican guesthouse, the Casa Santa Marta. At his installation, he wore a plain white chasuble, replaced his throne-like seat with a simple white chair, and turned down the papal red shoes for plain black ones. He refused to wear the ermine-trimmed red cape and papal tiara worn by his predecessors. Upon taking office, Pope Francis stated unequivocally that he wants “a poor church, for the poor.”
In a further attempt to project a new image of humility onto the papacy, on Maundy Thursday Pope Francis went beyond where any previous Pope has gone. Before Pope Francis, it had been the practice for the Pope to choose twelve priests to represent the twelve apostles at the annual ritual foot-washing ceremony held in St. John Lateran Basilica. In a radical break with his predecessors, Pope Francis went to the Casa del Marmo juvenile detention center in Rome where he chose twelve prisoners–two of whom were females and one of the two females a Muslim–to have their feet washed and kissed by him. When quizzed by a mystified youth as to why the Pope was doing this, Pope Francis is said to have responded, “to help me be humble, as a bishop should be.”
Vatican watchers and onlookers in general applaud Pope Francis’ return to simplicity and humility. But Pope Francis’ 13th century namesake isn’t known just for his love of the poor and love of nature. Less well-known is Francis of Assisi’s evangelistic outreach to the Muslim world.
In 1219, Francis of Assisi went to Egypt at the time of the Fifth Crusade. Landing at Damietta at the mouth of the Nile, Francis crossed over to the Saracen enemy camp during a truce in order to meet with the Sultan of Egypt, Sheikh al-Malik al-Kamel. He spent the next three weeks in the Muslim camp, conversing with the Sultan. No one knows what was discussed. If he had hoped to convert the Sultan, that never happened. What did happen was that Francis, while he didn’t convert (at least, not that we know), he changed his mind about Islam. Francis was deeply impressed by Muslim piety, particularly the five calls to prayer. (Interestingly enough, not long after this, the thrice-daily recitation of the Angelus became a feature of medieval Europe). Francis ordered his followers not to try and make converts of Muslims. Instead, the friars were to live peaceably among Muslims.
Will Pope Francis emulate his namesake in this respect as well? I think it most likely, given that Pope Francis engaged in interfaith dialogue in Argentina. I wonder what kind of success this 21st century Francis will have with the Muslim world? Will he be “won over” like Francis of Assisi or will he confront? The persecuted Christian minorities in the Muslim world, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, are in dire need of a strong advocate. I hope Pope Francis can be that man.