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Like so many others, I was staggered when Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio chose Francis for his Papal name. It’s hard to describe, but when I heard the news, a breeze blew through my soul leaving me in a momentary state of awe-filled silence, accompanied by a strange sensation of serene happiness.
I’m not the only one. Gregory Wolfe, editor of Image Magazine, wrote, “Francis. The perfect name. Simplicity. Poverty. Reform. I am stunned and profoundly happy.”
And then, from across the ocean, English poet Malcolm Guite rhapsodised:
You woke to Christ and Christ awoke in you
And set to work through all your love and skill
To make our ruin good, to bless and heal
To wake the Christ in us and make us whole
Of course, this enthusiasm is primarily for Francis, as Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s story is yet to be written. But cause for hope may be taken from today’s inaugural homily when the Pontiff presented a clear message of his vision for the church: to work to protect God’s creation and the world’s poor.
However, one wonders at the wisdom of his name choice, which, more than anything else, will now be the metric against which his life will be measured and remembered. But I think he knows this, for already, every time he breaks into the crowds to touch and be touched, he repeatedly begs, “Pray for me.”
Evidently, Jorge knows well what Francis means.
Even as this name choice could be considered spectacularly courageous, it could equally be considered foolish. But that is part of the charm. In an elegant biography of Francis of Assisi, GK Chesterton describes the man as a “festive figure” whose life was one “riot of rash vows” which turned out right. I think a Papacy marked by a riot of rash vows that turn out right is exactly what we need right now. So I will not be joining the ranks of the cynical chic, but have decided to take him at his word and to do what he asks: I will pray for him.
Not surprisingly, these events sent me to my bookshelf to pull out the several books I’ve read on the life of Francis. Soon I found myself happily on my couch, dog in lap, re-reading Chesterton’s grand biography of the saint. An early sentence caught me offguard and propelled me back into my childhood:
“…when, long ago in those days of boyhood my fancy first caught fire with the Glory of St. Francis of Assisi.”
I was in grade two or three when, having just returned home from school, Mom and Dad whisked my sisters and I into the car, surprising us with the news that we would be making the 60 mile trek to Calgary to go and see a movie. It’s not that there wasn’t an available theatre in our little town of Drumheller, Alberta, but in those days movie-going was frowned upon by the Faithful. And so to avoid scandal, the few movies I saw as a boy were always preceded by a clandestine journey.
You might imagine how my initial excitement was dashed to learn that the movie we were about to see was called Brother Sun, Sister Moon, which told the story a 13th century saint named Francis. I would have much preferred something involving a car chase, heroic battle scene, or, more secretly, a romance involving a bosomy beauty. But alas, it was already risqué enough that we Baptists would be engaging a dubious Catholic legend.
That being said, my disappointment was soon disappointed. The cinematography, story and music (by Donovan, no less) overwhelmed me and became one of my earliest remembered spiritual experiences where I knew I was encountering something utterly beyond. And from that day on, when some kindly man or woman would ask me what I hoped to be when I grew up, I might have answered boyishly: policeman, fireman etc., because what I was too shy to say (and what would have been more truthful to say) was that I wanted to be… a saint.
As kids we learned to sing a prayer attributed to Francis:
- Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
- Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
- Where there is injury, pardon;
- Where there is doubt, faith;
- Where there is despair, hope;
- Where there is darkness, light;
- Where there is sadness, joy.
- O Divine Master,
- grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
- to be understood, as to understand;
- to be loved, as to love.
- For it is in giving that we receive.
- It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
- and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.
- Amen – So be it.
I realize now how deeply those words have seeped into my being and shaped my understanding. What a gift.
Years later, after a concert, a friend was waiting backstage to shove a book into my hands before she ran to catch a ride home: Love Poems from God. It was a book of mystical poetry edited by Daniel Ladinski, which included several obscure poems attributed to Francis. One, in particular, took my breath away. A song soon followed which I now post to commemorate this day: March 19/2013 – The Inauguration of Pope Francis.
May he (and we) be fertile ground for the seed of Christ, and a new flowering of love and grace.
EVER PRESENT NEED
Music by Steve Bell. Lyric adapted by Steve Bell from Daniel Ladinski’s translation of St. Francis’ poem “Our Need for Thee.”
Darkness is an unlit wick
A single spark would vanquish it
Truly I could burst to flame
Every time you call my name
Do I do for you the same?
God is like a honey bee
Penetrates the soul of me
Dearly draws the sweetness in
Nectar of the meek, love is
He in me and I in him
In our ever present need of thee
Grant we fathom peace
Fashion instruments of souls set free
For don’t the caged ones weep
Sometimes sober, sometimes bliss
Every union knows of this
But I have stood here in his rain
And bear the marks of fertile plains
Swelling streams and swollen grain
So will I console the fall
Of cheerless creatures great and small
What of sadness can endure
When love divine makes insecure
The crowing claims of shame’s allure
In our ever present need of thee…