ANALYSIS: Pope Frank: What’s in a Name? Probably the Future of the Church.
SELF-PAT-ON-THE-BACK UPDATE: From Pope Frank’s activity the past twenty-four hours, his revelation about his inspiration for the name, it’s clear I hit the nail on the head with this article written shortly after the announcement of his election. If I were Nikki Finke from Deadline.com I’d blare “TOLDJA!” Read on:
At the risk of annoying my regular readers, but as a way of explaining to the new, I was raised in Rome in the 70s, which means I had the strange experience of three popes in one year, 1978: the likely super-gay Paul VI died on August 6; John Paul I succeeded him twenty days later, then may or may not have been assassinated thirty-three days later (those were dodgy times in Italy, and more so than usual in the Vatican); then John Paul II stepped into the “shoes of the fisherman” on October 16 at the sprite young age of fifty-eight, almost twenty years younger than the current Pope.
The biggest bummer as a teen was that we had to endure no TV and all sorts of other memorial blackouts for the rare occasion of a pope dying twice in a year. And the funerals and coronations jammed up Rome four times worse than it usually is, which is to say four times a ritualized clusterfuck.
Those who read me regularly also know that I’m an orthodox atheist, but that doesn’t stop me from commenting on the importance of the selection of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who has taken the regnal name of Francis, or as I called him on Facebook immediately after hearing the announcement in Latin—I’m just asserting my early claim to the nickname; my Latin actually sucks considering where I was raised—“Pope Frank.”
Calling him Pope Frank is actually not as disrespectful as it might sound, and quite apropos, from what little we’ve seen of him so far. He’s got the down-to-earth thing pretty down pat. And like Sinatra is already declaring that he’s going to do things his way.
As many multi-cultis like me have noted in comments and posts that flooded the Internet immediately after the announcement, “Bergoglio” isn’t an Hispanic name. It’s as Italian as you can get. Then there’s his flawless accent, utterly uninflected by Spanish, and the requisite gesticulations that are integral to speaking the language in a populist way.
In other words, within the fist fifteen seconds of his impromptu speech, it’s obvious he is really an Italian pope, albeit with the New World background, which he also immediately emphasizes in what he says.
Is the fact his election satisfies two factions of the church, the traditional Italian and the New World, a happy accident? Doubtful. A wise choice? Indeed.
If John Paul I was assassinated, it was probably at the behest of the Vatican Curia, the local ultra-conservative Roman group of cardinals, who were afraid he might make peace with the dreaded communists behind the Iron Curtain rather than overthrow them, which his Polish successor did, ostensibly hand in hand with Ronald Reagan, using Polish union leader Lech Walesa as a spokesman and catalyst.
As icing on an already appetizing cake for Catholics, Pope Frank is a Jesuit, a sect of the Church that is if not intellectual — that word is cancelled out by what all religions believe in and promote — then scholarly and philosophical. In other words, a Jesuit won’t bore you with platitudes and dogma over many cocktails at a diplomatic function in Rome. He’ll be challenging, and probably have a razor-sharp sense of humor.
That part to me is obvious just from that first speech. Pope Frank is immediately charming and humble. His anti-gay marriage stance is beside the point; it pays to remember that the Vatican is a political entity like any other, one that still wields enormous influence in the world, albeit diminishing. Our own African-American President, who should always have been sensitive to slavery corporeal or cultural, has only recently come around to endorsing us as equals among people. We must allow a highly conservative, ancient institution time to adjust. Yeah, so they kept science back for a thousand years. I doubt it will take those queens in cassocks that long to give their true brethren their blessing.
Speculation is also flooding in about why he chose the name Francis. A regnal name means a pope is taking his inspiration from a predecessor, but in this case it isn’t another pope, it’s one of two saints, or perhaps both: St. Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscan Order, or St. Francis Xavier, founder of the Jesuits.
They’re both lofty inspirations, albeit inspired by humble men.
I wasn’t just a foreign child in Rome, a scion of imperial America the Liberator, I was also a Protestant, which was both exotic in a rebel sort of way as well as appalling to the locals. That I was an Anglican type of Protestant with the same liturgy as the Catholics, but a far more sensible approach to the management of its clergy—i.e., no weirdo gay celibacy, no genuflecting and crossing, no confessionals, no worshipping Mary, etc.—, was irrelevant to Italians. They knew far less about my religious culture than I did about theirs. The church I attended was an informal embassy between the Holy See and the Church of England, which means I was both acutely aware of our isolation as well as our similarities.
Seeped as I was as an Other in another culture, I had my pick and choose of the Catholic saints; Protestants tend to acknowledge only Christ’s immediate disciples, as well as the exorable St. Paul, or the improbable St. George or St. Christopher, as being saints, and not ones we pray to the way Catholics do. St. Francis of Assisi has always been my favorite of the Catholic saints, which might be the reason I’m so skewed towards calling this new pope early as my favorite in my lifetime, along with the communistic John Paul I. (I believe there is good reason to be wary of the “santo subito” John Paul II, along with his cohort Mother Teresa; mercenaries to their own causes, as far as I’m concerned.)
It’s not just St. Francis of Assisi’s life and work, it’s art that draws the artist I am to him. The fact he inspired Giotto to paint the frescos that were taught to me as the turning point between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance was almost enough. That he was a rebel and a reformer also spoke directly to the heretic I was by birth, according to the Roman Catholicism amidst which I lived, and just my nature in general.
What sealed off my vote for most Inspiring Catholic Saint was my favorite film by that Ed Zwick of Italian cinema, Franco Zeffirelli, the little-seen Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1972). I shake my head in embarrassment at my pre-pubescent self for being so moved by this scene close to forty years later that I could accurately hum (okay, sing, sheesh) pop star Donovan’s tune before I revisited it, forget that I still remembered exactly what to enter in the Youtube search engine to have it come up at the top of the list. Regardless of my misplaced sentimentality, watch it because the final shots are relevant to the point of this article:
St. Francis’ “no” at the beginning of the clip is a denial of what the world around him has become, an epiphany about what he believed it should be. He rebuilds against all odds, against society, heedless of mockery and scorn, and, most importantly for me and for what I have chosen to do with my life in terms of leaving the confines of my socio-cultural background, he repudiates the haute bourgeois reality he was born into. An inspiration for any seeker, regardless of faith or lack thereof.
Pope Frank’s election isn’t just a confluence between the Roman Curia and the New World (finally!). By choosing this name, he has thrown his lot in with not one, but two men who saw themselves as both honorable and truly spiritual, even if we know those virtues now, in this era of the Dominion of Science, to be riddled with ridiculous ritual and fallacious doctrine.
I don’t know as much about St. Francis Xavier, but I have been to his reliquary in Goa, not for pilgrimage purposes; I was on assignment for a photo project. He was the über-missionary, not much of a reformer, or a rebuilder, or someone who was directly influenced by the life of Christ, as St. Francis of Assisi was.
Somehow, just from those few minutes seeing him on the balcony, I doubt Pope Frank sees himself as a missionary. If he were going to name himself after a Jesuit, he should have chosen the Order’s founder, St. Ignatius Loyola. But it might be one of those esoteric Jesuit connections I just don’t get. Is there any missionary work left to do in this super-connected world? I think the symbolism inherent in St. Francis of Assisi of going back to basics and rebuilding is a sounder, more Jesuit logic.
So, for the time being, until Pope Frank goes on Oprah to explain himself—and my feeling is he is likely to do more man-of-the-people stuff like that than he is predecessors— I’m going to stick with St. Francis of Assisi as the regnal-name inspiration because that is far more interesting in terms of what he intends to do with the crippled institution he inherits and how he sees himself.
Side note: he probably would not have survived even thirty-three days had he chosen that name during the height of the Cold War—St. Francis was just as much of a communist as Christ himself.
Whichever the muse, Pope Frank has already made a bold move just with the selection of his name. It’s not going to be business as usual; it can’t be. The ex-Pope’s resignation is more than enough affirmation of that.
Like it or not—and I assuredly don’t in either case—the Catholic Church reigns over a mighty worldwide cultural empire similar to Hollywood’s. He might be seventy-six, but Pope Frank looks ten years younger. He’s in good nick, again already far more likable just from those first twenty seconds of his speech than The Retiree.
It’ll be interesting sport to watch what the heir to St. Francis engages in. I’ll bet he does it his way.