Pope Francis follows in footsteps of his namesake Print
Thursday, Mar. 21, 2013 -- 12:00 AM

St. Francis of Assisi is known for his love of the poor and all of God’s creatures. We often see pictures of St. Francis with the wolf he purportedly tamed and with other animals and birds gathered around him.

I have visited the town of Assisi in Italy twice. On my first trip, I was amazed to see a flock of birds sitting on the statue of St. Francis in the garden outside the basilica there. Our guide said that the birds constantly flock to that statue, almost as if they know it depicts St. Francis.

Smoke stack watch

Like many Catholics, I was on the “smoke stack” watch last week, waiting for the white smoke to appear signalling the election of a new pope. A video of the smoke stack via Salt & Light Television was on my computer’s desktop.

I saw some movement on the smoke stack and noticed feathers moving. It was a bird perched on the smoke stack. It looked like a seagull, and sure enough, that’s what people started chatting about on the Internet. There were even tweets on Twitter about the bird.

After the white smoke appeared, some commentators said the seagull represented the Holy Spirit. However, when our new Holy Father appeared and said he took the name Francis, I thought about those birds clustering around the statue in Assisi. Was it a coincidence, or could it have been a sign?

The meaning of his name

Perhaps we will never know, but we do know that Pope Francis took this name — the first pope to do so — for a reason. A Catholic News Service story reported that Pope Francis said that “as things got dangerous” in the conclave voting, he was sitting next to his “great friend,” Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes “who comforted me.”

When the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina went over the 77 votes needed to become pope, the new pope said that Cardinal Hummes “hugged me, kissed me, and said, ‘Don’t forget the poor.’”

Pope Francis told journalists on March 16 that he took to heart the words of his friend and chose to be called after St. Francis of Assisi, “the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation,” the same created world “with which we don’t have such a good relationship.”

“How I would like a Church that is poor and that is for the poor,” he told the more than 5,000 media representatives who came from around the world for the conclave and his election.

Practices what he preaches

We have learned already that Pope Francis practices what he preaches.

As a priest, bishop, and cardinal in Argentina, he has shown a concrete concern for the poor and lived a simple life himself in the model of St. Francis of Assisi, who spurned the wealth of his family. As Cardinal Bergoglio, our new pope lived in a simple apartment and cooked his own meals. He took the bus, mingling with other people.

On his way to work, he was reported to greet a man who begged for coins every day and always give him a few pesos, reported a Catholic News Service article. Such stories of his kindness are commonplace in Buenos Aires.

He was known simply as “Father Jorge,” and he adopted the attitude that the Church belongs in the street. He built chapels and missions in poor areas and sent seminarians to serve them.

His humility was evident when he came out on the balcony facing St. Peter’s Square. We saw his gentle smile and warm words of greeting. Before he gave his blessing, he asked the people in the square to pray for him. He then bowed his head and there was complete silence among the throng of people.

Bringing Christ to others

In this Year of  Faith, Pope Francis told the cardinals at his first Mass with them, “We will strive to faithfully respond to the continuing mission: Bring Jesus Christ to humanity, and lead people to an encounter with Jesus Christ, the way, the truth, and the life.”

Let us pray for Pope Francis, that he will continue to serve as a genuine witness to the love of God and the power of his presence in the world today. Whether that seagull represented the Holy Spirit or the spirit of St. Francis, we can be confident that God is with Pope Francis as he leads the Church in the footsteps of his namesake, encouraging us to care for the poor and all of God’s creation as we bring Christ’s message to our society.