In 2008 our family rented an apartment in Rome overlooking St Peter’s Basilica. We strolled through St Peter’s Square, the open plaza where a standing-room-only crowd of more than one hundred thousand gathered last week to welcome the new Pope. We visited the Sistine Chapel and stood beneath Michelangelo’s images of the Last Judgment, where cardinals have gathered to choose the next Pope since 1846. The still fresh memories from that visit made the events seem close and personal.
Cardinal Bergoglio is the first Pope to choose the name Francis, in honor of St. Francis of Assisi. It is an interesting and perhaps significant choice. The man we know from history as St. Francis lived at the turn of thirteenth century. He grew up as a spoiled youth in a wealthy and influential Italian family. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, “No one loved pleasure more than Francis; he had a ready wit, sang merrily, delighted in fine clothes and showy display … the very king of frolic.” By the time he was twenty, Francis became a mercenary, was captured in battle and spent more than a year in prison with a protracted illness. That experience seems to have started his spiritual journey that would set him apart. But his turning to Christ was neither sudden nor easy.
Once released he decided on a military career of conquest and glory, but a series of dreams began to redirect his journey. Through a series of missteps and, what appears to be a confusing period of solitude, prayer and clumsy efforts to serve God, Francis eventually came to a clear vision of God’s will for his life. He found the focus for his life on February 24, 1208 when he heard a recounting of Jesus’ instructions to go into every village, two by two, carrying no money, neither bag nor shoes, greeting everyone on the way with blessings of peace. To heal the sick and proclaim the Kingdom of God. (Matthew 10:7-11). From that moment forward Francis committed himself to a literal application of these instructions from Jesus, devoting himself to the poor and a joyful proclamation of the Kingdom. Francis is credited with being the first to celebrate Christmas with carols and many Christians still sing his hymn, “All Creatures of our God and King.”
The new Pope is the first to choose the name Francis. The name emphasizes the transforming power of Jesus Christ, who can change a profligate mercenary into a joyful servant of the poor.
Bergoglio’s selection as the new Pope is almost universally applauded. Luis Palau, the world famous South American evangelist from Argentina, greeted the news with enthusiasm. He said, "I've met him several times, gone to his place, we've talked, we've prayed together you know. He builds bridges to other Christian groups, like evangelical Christians ... He's a friend. He's a real friend."