The name Francis likely reveals what will be the main themes of this papacy. I’ve heard confirmations that the Holy Father chose the name Francis in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, as opposed to St. Francis Xavier or St. Francis de Sales. However, all three of these great saints have important things in common: all three of them were great evangelizers, and all three pursued a mission of building, or re-building, the Church in very difficult times.
The image of St. Francis of Assisi has often been softened in modern times into some kind of medieval hippie. But the truth is that he–like my father, St. Dominic–lived in a time when the Church was on crusade abroad, while falling to heresy and internal weakness and corruption at home. It is said that Christ Himself charged St. Francis to re-build His Church, which was falling into ruin, while Pope Innocent III had a dream in which he saw Francis physically holding up the Basilica of St. John Lateran. St. Francis also ventured into the camp of the Sultan of Egypt near Damietta with the intent of either converting him or dying in the attempt. He kissed a leper and bore the wounds of crucifixion in his own body. He had a boldness and toughness that he often doesn’t get credit for today.
St. Francis Xavier, one of the first Jesuits who studied with St. Ignatius of Loyola, was a fervent and fearless missionary to distant lands such as India and Japan–lands in which Christianity was pretty much unknown. He is said to have converted more people to the faith than anybody since St. Paul. He died just within reach of mainland China, which had been his ultimate goal.
St. Francis de Sales had close ties and working relationships with both the Jesuits and the Franciscans. As the bishop of Geneva, he strove to re-convert and re-evangelize those around him who had left the Church for Calvinism. His gentleness and intellect won many of them back. He also served as a spiritual director to many, many Catholics from all walks of life to strengthen, reassure, and instruct them. We are blessed that many of his letters and writings have survived; they are just as relevant as ever. (In fact, I give St. Francis de Sales credit for helping me to come back to the Church.)
We are again living in very difficult times. Traditionally Catholic and Christian nations are falling to radical secularism and so-called liberalism which is anything but liberal-minded. The Church is imploding due to internal weakness, divisions, corruption, and scandal. Generations of Catholics have been poorly formed and catechized and have all too easily drifted into the secular world or into other Christian communities or other religions. Meanwhile, new generations of Catholics in places like Africa and Asia, as well as very ancient communities in the Middle East, are striving amid enormous adversities, often striving for their very lives and yet nonetheless thirsting for the Gospel and the Church, and longing for the love, support, guidance, and reassurance of their brethren and the Holy Father.
In short, traditionally Catholic and Christian lands are in dire need of re-evangelization and re-conversion, the Church is in need of re-building and re-forming from within, and Catholic communities both old and new in other parts of the world are in need of building up and support. These processes have been begun by previous popes. They have laid the framework and the kindling. I believe our current pope, true to his namesake(s), is going to light it all on fire!
For myself, I can say that Pope Francis has already inspired me to greater humility, greater prayer and spirituality, and above all, greater simplicity and poverty of spirit. All the good intentions I had for this Lent, all the disciplines, all the penances, have just been kicked up to the next level. And believe it or not, this Jesuit with the name and heart of the great Saint Francises, has inspired me to live out more fully my Dominican spirituality. Of course, Dominicans always have, and always will, play an important part in any form of evangelization and building up of the Church. Dominicans, like Franciscans, are a mendicant order. I think we may get back to those roots under the influence of Pope Francis. And when the Dominicans get back to their roots–not only the spirit of poverty, but the very important roots of prayer, study, and preaching–great things are bound to happen!
As my sister St. Catherine of Siena said, “When you are what you should be, you will set the world on fire!” I think Pope Francis is going to help all Catholics everywhere to be what we should be–disciples of Christ! May it be so–amen.