Speaking of Pope Francis: What’s in a Name?

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At the Harvard Divinity School, we’re listening in on the euphoria around the new Pope, Francis.

What’s in a name? A lot, it turns out.

What’s the real brand of the Jesuit order that shaped and marks this priest? Well, it goes deeper than I knew.

And how differently, really, does a pope from the Global South see a church outgrowing its Old European roots? Listen here.

First up here: the novelist and relentless scold of his church, my friend James Carroll on the pope’s “astonishing choice of this name.”

There’s a ringing clarity to it that took the world’s breath away. It was ingenious. It was worthy of a great poet. Look at who Francis is. He isn’t just the man of the poor. He’s also the green saint. There are festivals of St. Francis that are celebrations of Gaia, of holy earth, where people bring all the animals into the church, all the plants. It’s a magnificent tradition. It’s St. Francis. St Francis is the saint of the environmental movement. St. Francis is a secular saint. People who’ve long since given up any impulse to religious expression have St. Francis in their gardens. St. Francis belongs to the world. This man choosing this name conveyed something non-verbally, non-rationally, pre-rationally. It just rang!

James Carroll, at right in photo, at the Harvard Divinity School, with Francis Clooney and Chris Lydon, April 2013

It was Jim Carroll’s line that Pope Francis named himself for the heart of the church, and that he comes from the brain of the church. It was for the Jesuit on our panel, Francis Clooney,S.J., to unpack that “Jesuit ethos.”

So what is the Jesuit thing about? It’s the greater glory of God, the ‘magis,’ the more. Finding God in all things, the ability to imagine the borderlands, to step outside — to be the church where there is no church. To go to the farthest parts of the world, to learn the languages, to be in the different cultural settings, the be in all the difficulty places. All these things can be said… and still the essence of it — the life source for the Jesuits — is that the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola, based in his own mystical experience — is not a book of doctrine. It’s not a catechism. It’s not a book that you can sit down and read and say: I have learned. It’s a book of exercises, in which one has to put oneself into the situation of existentially confronting your own limitations, you own sickness, your own age, your own death — and then launch into walking with Christ, contemplating Christ, and then see where it comes out the other end.

Francis Clooney, at left in photo, at the Harvard Divinity School, April 2013

About a church that we all know is expanding in Africa, Latin America, and Asia: what does the new face of the Church say to Islam? And could there be another signal in that name the Pope chose? Could it be a reference to the meeting that St. Francis of Assisi arranged for himself with the Sultan of Egypt during the Fifth Crusade in the 13th Century?

I was struck that the church Frank Clooney and Jim Carroll were describing sounds so much more humble, more forgiving, maybe more human, than the church we grew up in. A lot of us, I think, will be paying closer attention. Jim Carroll underlined the virtue of humility in the church when a question came about the Pope’s history as Bishop of Buenos Aires during the “dirty war” under brutal military junta in the 1970s and 80. Did he look away from the torture of his priests, even Jesuits? How much would it matter? Jim Carroll’s answer challenged and enlightened a packed house.

Fritz Eichenberg, wood engraving, "The Prayer of Saint Francis" (1979)

Fritz Eichenberg, wood engraving, “The Prayer of Saint Francis” (1979)

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  • Brenda Helmer

    Magnificent article. Thank you

  • Interesting as always: women absent from these discussions about a Church whose policies tyrannize women especially those in poor countries.

  • dmf
  • Potter

    The prayer of St Francis above is something to keep and to share. May this pope live up to these expectations and we all will love him whether or not we belong to his church and whether or not we call ourselves Christians. These sentiments belong to what I think Joseph Campbell would call the perennial philosophy. That said I think Buddhist philosophy would point out that one needs doubt for faith, despair for hope, darkness for light, etc.

    Always thanks

  • Bill Daley

    I agree with Mr Carroll that our Pope was purposeful in choosing Francis as his Papal name. He is indeed putting the heart of the Church out front. For too long we have been turning like a weathervane; emphasizing the social/political functions of the church. The battles between the “liberals and conservatives” miss the essentials. The arguements are prideful. “In non essential things: diversity; In essential things: unity; In all things: love.” Choosing Francis, after the humble loving servant of God, he reminds us that our duty is to love God, and to love our brothers and sisters. We are not a political party and were not formed to be one. The heart of the Church is the Eucharist; the sacrament of Jesus’ love for us. If we get that right; we get it all right!

  • Luke

    Get back on the air Christopher! Your podcasts are sorely missed! Your optimism on devastating topics is critically absent.