On March 13, 2013, Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected to the papacy.
The media highlighted right away the newness that the 266th pope ushers in for the Catholic Church, even simply by virtue of who he is: the first Jesuit pope, the first pope from the Americas, and the first pope from the Southern Hemisphere.
But Bergoglio, himself, was also immediately intentional in ushering in the new: he is the first pope to take on the name “Francis.”
Since the name that a pope takes on has presumably strong symbolic significance, it is worth reflecting briefly on what that name might hold for us.
Reflecting on Pope Francis’ inaugural address on March 19, nearly a week after his election, what the name “Francis” primarily means to him is fairly obvious: It represents a vow of care for human beings and for the environment, inspired by an attachment to Christ.
The central theme of his inaugural homily was “protection,” a role he derives from the person of Joseph, whose primary role was the protection of Mary and Jesus, and whose name-day it was on March 19.
He solemnly affirmed: “Let us protect Christ in our lives, so that we can protect others, so that we can protect creation!”
The new pope also spelled out clearly what he sees as the constituting feelings associated with the responsibility to “protect,” namely “goodness” and “tenderness,” steeped in the kind of hope that the apostle Paul speaks about in Romans 4:18, a “hoping against hope.”
“Only those who serve with love,” declared Pope Francis, “are able to protect!”
It is true that believing that we, as human beings, could still have a role in safeguarding creation and the human race does require the gift of being able to hope against hope.
But this is where Saint Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) no doubt weighs in as an inspiring figure for his namesake, Pope Francis of Argentina.
Popular stories picture Saint Francis preaching to hundreds of birds that stood still, listening until he gave them permission to leave, or talking a wolf into giving up its fancy for human flesh and becoming a pet for the inhabitants of a town that wanted to kill it.
Such are the stories that earned him the position of patron saint of animals and ecology.
But Saint Francis had also been the son of a rich Italian merchant who, after enjoying the easy life for a time, gave up such earthly benefits following a dramatic conversion to Christ, and went on to establish a community vowed to poverty that would evolve into the monastic order of the Franciscans.
Media reports about Pope Francis shunning the pomp of his new papal position and manifesting a striking level of humility are all indicators of the new pope’s deep commitment to the poor, also in alignment with his homonymous patron saint.
At his first appearance as pope on the balcony of Saint Peter’s Basilica, he was wearing his iron cross over a white cassock, rather than the expected golden cross over a red cassock.
And before blessing the crowds, he asked them to bless and pray for him first.
He then ignored the expectation that he should ride in the papal limousine, riding instead with the other cardinals in the dedicated minibus.
True to himself, Pope Francis has so far opted not to reside in the Apostolic Palace, the official papal residence for more than 100 years. He lives, instead, in a humbler suite of the Vatican guesthouse.
There is, however, one significant dimension of Saint Francis preserved for us by history that could not be found in Pope Francis’ inaugural address; namely the saint’s radical peaceful initiative toward the Sultan al-Kamil of Egypt around the year 1219.
These were the troubled times of the Fifth Crusade, when the conflict between “Christian” Europe and the Muslim Middle East was at a peak.
But while both religious and political leaders of Europe were speaking the language of war, Francis of Assisi had the courage to cross enemy lines in order to proclaim his faith to the sultan.
The fact that no mention of Islam or Muslims was made during the new pope’s inaugural homily may have been wise and intentional, considering the disastrous outcome of his predecessor’s treatment of the topic in his now infamous Regensburg Lecture in 2006.
And if Pope Francis failed to broach the subject on his first official day as pope, he did deliver a brief but graceful message the next day, March 20, in his special address to non-Catholic Christian leaders and leaders from other religious communities, with the following words:
“I greet and thank cordially all of you, dear friends belonging to other religious traditions; firstly the Muslims, who worship the one living and merciful God, and call upon Him in prayer. I really appreciate your presence, and in it I see a tangible sign of the wish to grow in reciprocal trust and in cooperation for the common good of humanity.”
As archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio had reportedly developed solid friendships with the local Muslim leadership. And certainly in the words cited above, there is solid and respectful common ground that is affirmed.
We want to be steadfast in our prayers for Pope Francis, as he courageously walks in the footprints of his no-doubt carefully selected patron, Saint Francis, who heard and responded to the urgent call of Christ:
â— To give up worldly riches in response to God’s heart for the poor
â— To protect the environment in response to God’s command that we care for creation
â— To initiate courageous initiatives of Christ-like love and witness toward those that many would have us view as our enemies, in response to God’s invitation for us to be his true children
For as Jesus said, “blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9).
Martin Accad is director of the Institute of Middle East Studies at Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut, Lebanon. A version of this column first appeared on the IMES blog and is used with permission.