Note: Sorry for the lack of posts the past few days. I’m catching up after being quite sick.
The cardinals appeared on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica on Wednesday, and announced that they had chosen Jorge Bergoglio to be the next Pope of the Roman Catholic Church. And then they announced his newly-chosen name: Francis.
The symbolism was not lost on those of us who are modern-day fans of a twelfth century saint. St. Francis of Assisi valued humility, simplicity, compassion, and care for the poor. The religious order he founded, the Franciscans, has continued his work for centuries, and Francis has come to be an example of what it means to live a Gospel life.
When I was 17, and exploring Christianity for the first time, I read the Prayer of St. Francis during a worship service. (There is some debate over whether or not Francis actually wrote it, but it’s clear it was written by one of his followers and embodies his spirit.) It’s sheer simplicity and beauty of ideals profoundly moved me, and shook my world. I knew then, for sure, that I wanted to be a Christian. It begins, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,” and continues with a litany of choosing love for other over love of comfort. It’s a prayer about humility, in the best sense of the word.
So far, Pope Francis seems to be seriously trying to emulate his namesake. He chose the bus instead of the Papal limousine. He insisted on paying his own hotel bill. He asked for the blessing of the people before blessing them. It’s a very public statement, repudiating what many feel have been the excesses of the Vatican in recent years. And it’s a humility that is refreshing in religious leaders of all faith traditions.
When I talk about humility, I’m sometimes met with a strong backlash in progressive church circles. “Humility” is sometimes confused with “humiliation”, or a desire to make one’s self lesser. I’ve been chided, “Why shouldn’t we be great? God has created us in God’s own image!”
And, that’s true. But that also points to the fact that as a culture we don’t understand what humility really means. Humility isn’t about denying that we are good (or perhaps even great) or wearing sackcloth and ashes. It isn’t about self-flagellation and low self-esteem. Rather, humility is about refusing to deny who others are, and refusing to see them as any less created in the image of God than you.
It’s not about making ourselves “less”. It’s about making everyone “more”.
There is a story about St. Francis that reminds me of this. In a time and place of great poverty, he was once invited to an extravagant meal with other clergy. As plates were filled at the banquet, he quietly put some crumbs on his own plate and began to eat them. Eventually his dinner companions observed this, and stopped eating. How could they, the ones entrusted to serving God’s people, really claim to be following Christ when other children of God were outside starving?
My guess is St. Francis wasn’t trying to humiliate the other clergy (though they may indeed have been embarrassed.) My guess is that for him personally his understanding of Christian faith meant he could not have done any differently. We know that he was not a killjoy, or a man who disregarded the beauty of creation. In fact, he seemed to delight in it more than others. But we also know he was a man who couldn’t stomach ostentation in the face of pain.
There’s something valuable about that distinction. Many twelve step communities teach about the importance of becoming “right sized”. That means not thinking too highly of yourself, but it also means not thinking too little of yourself as well. It means coming to see yourself as you are: a beloved, worthy, child of God. And it means coming to see others the same way. And then acting accordingly.
So far, Pope Francis has been a good reminder of what it means to right-sized. I’m eager to keep watching him. Though I’m not a Catholic, I’m always genuinely inspired by followers of Christ who try to live lives of true humility, and true right-sizedness. I hope, for both the sake of his church and the church universal, that he lives into the name he has chosen for himself. And I hope all of us who follow the same Christ as Francis did might find something life-giving there too.