Francis of Assisi made identification with the destitute and the so-called unclean his trademark. Since his death in 1226, Francis has remained one of the most revered, studied, and written-about saints.
In January, the New Yorker devoted an excellent article to two new biographies of the patron saint of Italy and of ecology. The devoutly secular magazine contends that the "two books show that the Church is still trembling from the impact of this great reformer." The pope has not thrust Francis into the modern limelight, for he has never left.
The new pope is also the first Jesuit pontiff. I've worked with Jesuits. They are very bright, do really well on their SATs, believe fanatically in educating the young, are formidable debaters, and take on the toughest assignments just because they are the toughest assignments.
Pope Francis has taken on the toughest assignment there is. He has decided to begin by claiming a steadfast identification with the poor, the sick, and the dispossessed. They say he was offered the ermine-lined mozzetta, or cape, before stepping onto the balcony of the Sistine Chapel to greet his flock, and he chose simpler garb.
When I saw him ascend to that balcony, haltingly and not comfortably, I took a breath. Then he smiled. If Jesus had lived into his 70s, I sensed, his smile would have felt like that. For the first time in my life, I saw the look that must have shone from that 30-year-old Jewish preacher when he looked out on the downtrodden detritus of the Roman Empire and said, "Blessed are you poor; you possess the kingdom of God."
Buenos Aires, Pope Francis' home city, is a teeming metropolis of 13 million souls, many of whom fit St. Francis' definition of the blessed poor, and yet the city maintains a quality of life that is among the highest in South America.
Oh, Cardinal Bergoglio had words with a government eager to capitalize on Argentina's hopefully hip image. He is not pro-gay-marriage and believes abortion is an evil act. He chose his fights carefully and has been criticized for some of those choices. Those issues will get a lot of press, even though they are the most predictable and inevitable positions of this or any pope.
His election of the name Francis does not signal doctrinal discontinuity, but it does augur discontinuity. Pope Francis will not go unshod (I don't think), but he has a definite aversion to the trappings of wealth and power. Humility may become his calling card. This uncompromising identification with the poor may become his legacy.
Even in prayer the man evinced a humble spirit. Up on that balcony, our new pope's first words to the world asked us to pray for his predecessor, and you might have noticed the Catholics in the crowd joining comfortably in a recitation of the "Our Father," "Hail Mary," and "Glory Be."
Then, something unexpected. He said he would bless us, but only after we blessed him first. Did you hear the silence as he bowed low to receive my blessing? I'm glad he called for silence, for I truly didn't have the words. I am sure he understood.
And now there will be governance. We Americans think in terms of democracy, oligarchy, monarchy, and so forth, but Jesus had a far less sophisticated viewpoint on how to run things.
We have no Gospel record of any votes during Jesus' term of office. OK, he did receive one vote just after John the Baptist dunked him in the Jordan. The ballot, like a dove, slipped through a slot in the sky and read: "This is my son, the beloved. Listen to him."
Listen to him. Francis, the wealthy scion of Assisi, listened and went barefoot across the land ministering to lepers. Francis, when he was archbishop of sprawling Buenos Aires, moved out of the palace of previous prelates and went abroad to literally wash the feet of AIDS sufferers in hospice.
Imagine if he really does govern by the command, "Listen to him." Imagine actually listening to the Sermon on the Mount, believing that the kingdom belongs to the crushed in spirit.
Our deeply troubled Church needs the two faces of Jesus. The smile of invitation to welcome and embrace the outcast. The cry of alarm to warn and arouse the comfortable. And, of course, one other incongruity. Along with the smile is the laugh. St. Francis was funny and fun and preached cheerfulness as passionately as he did poverty.
"The guy was crazy." When his fellow cardinals hoisted a toast to their new elected pope, the man now called Francis looked back at them with that smile and said, "My brothers, God will punish you for this."
This pope, he knows.
Orlando R. Barone is a freelance writer in Doylestown. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.