|Pope Francis I - CNA photo|
What's in a name?
In the 12th and 13th centuries, there were a great many new things in the Church: new wealth, new merchantile middle class, new forms of social organization and interaction (communes, Italian city-states, international banking), new technologies (mills, clocks, farming), a wave of urbanization, the whole phenomenon of the Crusades, and also new forms of poverty. The Church, in the midst of one of its most vital and flourishing periods, certainly developed responses to these new social realities. One of the most effective and enduring was the university. Others included the monastic reforms of the 12th century (Cluny, Bec, Citeaux), and (very "Vatican II"-ish) much greater lay participation in the sacraments and the divine office.
Most of these responses, reasonably enough, were an extension of the existing institutional church structures - parishes, monasteries, cathedral schools, systems of patronage, etc. These things worked, and they were brought to bear on the new challenges facing the Church because they could still work well in new ways. They were largely successful in this, and the Church continued to flourish.
But one of the radical, unexpected responses of the 13th century was Saint Francis, with his radical devotion to poverty and the poor, his insistence that the Gospel was itself the fundamental rule of Faith, and his refusal to let social and institutional norms and prerogatives limit the ministry of the Church. In particular, Saint Francis made the love of poverty apostolic again, in an age when it had largely been taken over by heretical, anti-clerical and anti-sacramental dualists. "Rebuild my Church" was a command with a much greater spiritual than institutional meaning, as St. Francis learned and then taught.
The parallels to the present day are suggestive, albeit inexact. As in his day, the Church today faces many new things, especially of economic significance (globalization), which have already caused huge dislocations in traditional social mores all around the world, including the appearance of new forms of poverty.
I think that, in choosing the name Francis, our new Holy Father is (at least in part) indicating his great desire to put all the resources of the Church to bear on these challenges - especially the spiritual ones, and the unexpected ones that flow directly from the Gospel itself, not just what is canalized in the institutions of the Church (potent and necessary though these can be). This is a continuation of the clear teachings of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who stressed repeatedly the importance of strong spiritual foundations, and how to build them up in the life of the Church. The explosion of Catholicism in the southern hemisphere, especially among the young, which we also see here to a lesser degree, is a demonstration of what happens when we get the foundations right.
Here in the Midwest, we have to continue to rebuild the foundations - good liturgy, Adoration, the Rosary, a culture of marriage and pro-life vision, priestly and religious vocations. For us, radical witness to the Gospel is not poverty and the rejection of wealth, as in the 13th century, but evangelical hospitality and charity, a rejection of the selfish egotism and statist indifference that destroys marriages, parish life, and the lives of the unborn and the elderly.
We have to reclaim caring for the spiritually lost as apostolic practice by Christians. May God bless and guide our new Holy Father, Pope Francis I, and make fruitful all his ministry for Christ! Viva il Papa!