In the name of Francis: A chance and a challenge

What a medieval saint could teach a modern pope.

St Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscan order, lived a simple life devoted to serving the poor [Getty Images]

October 4 is not World Animal Day, the day to be nice to our cats and dogs, by coincidence. It is the feast day of Saint Francis of Assisi, known for his love of nature, animals and the poor, and who recently gained a resurgence of fame because a former cardinal from Argentina, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, became the first pope in history to choose his name.

Interest in Saint Francis is not new: This saint, the so-called “little poor man of Assisi”, has fascinated people over the centuries, crossing cultural and religious divides. This is reflected in the way Pope Francis is perceived.

Since he was elected in March, Pope Francis has quickly gained popularity in the international media and many journalists – Catholics and non-Catholics alike – even speculate about a “revolution”, proclaiming an “epochal turning-point” in the history and geopolitical influence of the Roman Catholic Church.

The positive reactions the pope receives, and the chance for the Church to change can be analysed through the different perceptions of Francis of Assisi; perceptions that not only have their roots in the official teachings of the Church, but also in secular cultural history. Since it is safe to say that the image of Francis as we know it has not been shaped only by Catholic, but also by non-Catholic authors, filmmakers and thinkers. And, if nomen est omen, like the ancient Romans said, when a name is a destiny, what could this mean for the pope and the future of the Catholic Church?

[Pope Francis] has been called the first low-cost pope, and, like Francis of Assisi, he emphasises his interest in the lives and problems of people more than in the doctrine of the Church.

Powerful symbol

Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) renounced a comfortable life in order to live with and help the poor, and was very popular in Italy. He became a folk hero and after he died many stories and legends about his life were written and painted – the famous frescos of Giotto in the Basilica of Assisi are a prime example.

But the “little poor man of Assisi” only got worldwide attention, especially amongst artists and intellectuals, in 1893, when Paul Sabatier published his Life of Saint Francis. In his book Sabatier argued that the Catholic Church had manipulated the figure of Francis, hiding his hesitancy about founding an official order with strict rules. According to Sabatier, Francis finally accepted the foundation of his order but wanted to live independently from any institutions, in poverty and within the community of his followers.

From this point on, Francis became a powerful symbol and influenced many artists and thinkers. German author Hermann Hesse portrayed him as one of his rebellious, nonconformist heroes like Steppenwolf or Siddhartha. The hippies of the sixties appreciated the saint because of his alternative vision of an anti-consumerist society. Naturalists idolised him not only because of his famous “sermons” to birds and wolves, but above all for his love of nature, a central point of his doctrine. And many artists liked his simplicity and his originality: Francis was a poet and called himself “God’s jester”.

Even before the 1960s, famous film directors such as Roberto Rossellini and Pier Paolo Pasolini, as well as many confirmed atheist artists, enthusiastically and innovatively portrayed him as an authentic radical – not necessarily a saint – who searched for a new way of life.

It seems that the new pope is taking not only the name, but also adopting many philosophies of St Francis. Because of these beliefs, the pope decided not to live in the papal apartments, but in the Vatican guesthouse. He has been called the first low-cost pope, and, like Francis of Assisi, he emphasises his interest in the lives and problems of people more than in the doctrine of the Church – as he argued in an interview with the Italian Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica.

Taking on the curia

During his trip to the World Catholic Youth Festival in Brazil, the pope appealed to “those in possession of greater resources” to change the misery in the favelas he visited. Much like Francis of Assisi, who took care of the poor, the ill and other people living on the margins of society, the new pope visited Lampedusa, a tiny island to which many refugees flee across the Mediterranean Sea – dubbed “the southern door to Europe” – and offered them the hospitality of Church monasteries.


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Francis dreamed of a poor church… Eight hundred years have passed since then and times have changed, but the ideal of a missionary, poor Church is still more than valid.”]

Only time will tell if concrete acts will follow these good intentions, but a new direction is noticeable in his efforts to simplify the bureaucratic and doctrinal rigidity of the Church. The pope selected a group of eight cardinals to discuss changes in the structures of the Vatican. In an interview with the Italian newspaper La Repubblica he affirmed that the curia – the administrative apparatus of the Church – “has one defect: It is Vatican-centric”.

Those are strong words from a man who is not just part of, but on top of the institution he is aiming to transform and, at the same time, one who has to work within its framework.

It is interesting to stress that this kind of subtle balance between loyalty and independence from the institution of the Church (a balance which has also been seen by some as an eternal contradiction) is already inscribed in the pope’s new name, because Francis of Assisi also never hid his desire to remain inside the Catholic Church, while at the same time searching for a new way of life in poverty. Indeed for St Francis, only radical poverty could form an alternative to the rich and powerful Church of his time.

As the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben argued in his book Homo sacer, Francis gained freedom by choosing to own nothing. But for Agamben, as for Sabatier, this “revolutionary” project failed, since the Franciscan Order was quickly absorbed into the Church structure and forgot to live in absolute poverty.

A different kind of pope

The reform efforts of Pope Francis are not centred around absolute poverty or a radical way of life but around something that, borrowing from philosopher Gianni Vattimo, I would call “weakening”, since the pope promised: “This is the beginning of a Church with an organisation that is not just top-down but also horizontal.”

If this really means a decentralised, more participative Church, it could open the way to a kind of weakened Church – an institution which could be (at least partially) liberated from its strong structures in order to find itself closer to the people. I would not call this a revolution like many journalists have suggested, but a reform – with a subtle, or weak possibility of change.

A choice for a weakened Church is one that follows a little closer in the footsteps of the medieval Saint Francis of Assisi. As the Pope argued: “Francis wanted a mendicant order and an itinerant one… And he dreamed of a poor Church that would take care of others, receive material aid and use it to support others, with no concern for itself. Eight hundred years have passed since then and times have changed, but the ideal of a missionary, poor Church is still more than valid.”

So with a weakened, poor Church, Pope Francis could recover at least a part of the fresh subversive connotations that made “the little poor man of Assisi” so compelling for generations of people, Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

Silvia Mazzini is a lecturer at the Humboldt University and a guest fellow at the Institute for Cultural Inquiry in Berlin.