By Cathleen Falsani:
St Francis comes to us as a man of rigorous compassion and relentless mercy to the marginalized. He comes to us as an example of poverty and expression of humility. If you have not read his Little Flowers, do so; if you’d like a shorter excerpt, I recommend Jon Sweeney’s Francis of Assisi: The Essential Writings. Will Pope Francis set a new way of reform for the Catholic Church?
Ian Morgan Cron, an Episcopal priest and author of the 2006 novel “Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim’s Tale,” was at a university lecturing about St. Francis and his relevance to contemporary life, when a student shared the news that a pope had been elected and named himself Francis.
“I was stunned,” Cron said. “I thought, ‘Man, this guy understands instant messaging!’ In selecting the name Francis he was announcing to the world that he personally intends to restore the credibility of a church in crisis, like the Little Poor One did.”
Listening to Cron describe the crises of the Roman church in the Middle Ages, I am struck by the similarities to the church today.
“When St. Francis arrived on the scene, the Catholic Church was hemorrhaging credibility,” Cron said. “Among the wider population it was viewed as hypocritical, out of touch, corrupt, and untrustworthy. Sexual scandals among clergy were so commonplace that street minstrels wrote and sang songs ridiculing offenders. Misuse of church funds was the rule not the exception. Clerics lived shamelessly opulent lives, when the majority of people lived in poverty.
“In short, the church’s reputation was at a dangerous, all-time low. Christendom was on the verge of collapse,” Cron said. “Historians credit St. Francis with rescuing the church from utter ruin. This is why he is called ‘the first Reformer’.”
Will Pope Francis be that reformer? Will he be, as one Franciscan friar told me earlier this week, “the reincarnation, as it were, of St. Francis”?
Many folks, Catholic or not, are hopeful. The new pontiff’s first public impression as a man of and for the people – particularly the poor and those on the margins – seems to bode well.
But Cron said time will tell how much Papa Francesco is like his venerable namesake.
“St. Francis would eschew all the pomp and privilege of the papacy, which the current pope has yet to do, but since he has only been pope for 15 minutes I’ll cut him a little slack.
“But I’m watching… as are a few billion other people.”