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What can we expect from Pope Francis' choice of name


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 7/2013, P. 335-340
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    After 800 years, a newly elected pope has for the first time chosen the name of the Poor of Assisi. Many people associate the hope with the chosen name that this pope brings order into the Church. For this purpose, it is worthwhile to get a good look at the life of Francis of Assisi. He has definitely grappled successfully with the structures and power relations of the Church of his time.


Francis' marching orders: Restore my house! According to the biographers, Francis of Assisi got it when he was praying before the Crucifix in San Damiano. It also describes the tasks that await Pope Francis in the Vatican. The spell is broken. After 800 years, a newly elected pope has for the first time chosen the name of the Poor of Assisi. Many people associate the hope with the chosen name that this pope brings order into the Church (see HK, April 2013, 163 ff and June, 2013, 271 ff.)

"Do not forget the poor," the request of Cardinal Claudio Hummes from Brazil directed at the newly elected Jorge Mario Bergoglio who was seated beside him, it says, marks the moment in which the choice of name was decided. And in fact, in the following weeks Pope Francis' appearances and speeches prove that he has not forgotten the poor.

On St. Peter's Square he turns to disabled people. On Holy Thursday, in the chapel of the Roman youth prison "Casal del Marmo," he celebrates the Lord's Supper and is not afraid to wash the feet of prisoners - among them also two women. Liturgists, scholars in canon law, and traditionalists tear their hair; "breaking of canon law" reports "Spiegel Online" (on 29 March). The Pope backs also the victims of sexual abuse and makes the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller discharge his duties: children must be protected, the victims must get help, and the guilty must be punished.

Francis picks an argument with the Mafia and beatifies the priest Pino Puglisi, who was murdered by the Sicilian "Cosa Nostra" in 1993. Here the Pope finds sentences that make you fear for his life. After the beatification of this priest, you may hope that at long last also Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was shot dead at the altar, and many other martyrs from the period of military dictatorships will be raised to the honour of the altars. At the same time, the Pope castigates the exploitation mechanisms of the Mafia: "You are not allowed to make our brothers slaves." He calls upon the Italian bishops to be not only office-holders. He reportedly called upon Latin American religious, "Forward, go out towards new horizons!"



A few months after the election, those are indeed strong signals set by Pope Francis. He seemingly shrinks from no taboos. This raises hopes among the reformers and fears among the traditionalists. All these actions can naturally be associated with Francis of Assisi.


The Categorical Imperative according to St. Francis of Assisi

They correspond also to criteria that were developed by a group of social scientists in Berlin under the title "Franciscana minima". These have intensively dealt with the life of Francis and seek to transfer his life testimony into the political challenges of our time. "The crucial thing is not what you say but how you behave. What matters is how you live. With it the insight is closely connected that the way in which we behave towards everything that we meet - with people first, but also other living beings and things of nature - tells more about our goals than the normative starry sky above us. There is almost something like a categorical imperative in the sense of St. Francis of Assisi" (Peter Kammerer, Ekkehart Krippendorff, Wolf-Dieter Narr, Franz von Assisi - Zeitgenosse für eine andere Republik, Düsseldorf 2008, 151).

The "normative starry sky above us" was the focus of encyclicals of Pope Benedict XVI emeritus. He was a man of normative ideas and principles, a man of doctrine. Here Pope Francis puts emphasis on other things. His speeches, actions and gestures indicate a close proximity to the so-called Pact of the Catacombs, which was signed by 40 bishops during the Second Vatican Council. On November 16, 1965, those bishops gathered under the leadership of Cardinal Giacomo Lercaro and Bishop Helder Camara in the Roman Catacombs of Domitilla and stood up for the option of a "church of the poor". This postulate was first mentioned by Pope John XXIII in a radio address on 11 September 1962 (see HK, October 1962, 43 ff.)

In the Pact of the Catacombs, the bishops agreed on twelve "commitments". The first two read: "Regarding housing, food and means of transportation and everything concerning these things, we will seek to live in accordance with the common average level of our people. (cf. Mt 5:3; 6.33 -34, 8.20)." And: "We renounce forever wealth and its appearance, especially in clothing (expensive materials and brilliant colors), and insignia of precious metals (such things should, in effect, be evangelical). (cf. Mk 6:9; Matt. 10:9;. Acts 3:6)." In principle, all twelve commitments of the "Catacomb Bishops" describe exactly what the Berlin group classes as belonging to the "minima Franciscana": behavior and manners which for the bishops result from the Gospel.


The life model of Francis and Clare can not simply be copied

The proximity of Pope Francis to that statement is obvious. In his previous way of life as a bishop in Argentina, he was oriented towards those commitments. But what has the Pact of the Catacombs to do with the life of Francis of Assisi? The description of the lifestyle of the "Friars Minor" in the Regula Bullata begins with the words: "The Rule and life of the Friars Minor is this, namely, to observe the Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ (...)".

The Franciscan and chronicler Thomas of Celano (1190-1260) describes how Francis heard in the Gospel during a mass what advice Jesus gave to his disciples when he sent them out: "When he heard that Christ's disciples were supposed to possess neither gold, nor silver, nor money; were to have neither bread nor staff; were to have neither shoes nor two tunics; but were to preach the kingdom of God and penance. He rejoiced in the spirit of God, said, 'This is what I want! This is what I'm looking for! This is what I want to do from the bottom of my heart!'"

However, Francis does not content himself with the change of clothes and a biblical travel programme. The friars are not just talking about the poor, they live among the poor as the poor. This life was wrested by Francis from the then Pope as a lifestyle for his Order and the Order of Saint Clare of Assisi. However, he has not made this form of life the absolute standard for a life according to the Gospel and has thus not arrogantly distinguished himself from clergy and laity, who want to live the Gospel in a different way.

This life model of Francis and Clare can not simply be copied. Francis is aware that this life in poverty needs a free decision and has to be implemented anew time and again.



According to Bonaventure, St. Francis when looking back on his life in his dying hour is said to have humbly stated, "What I was able do, I've done, now Christ may teach you what ye shall do." Thus, he does not in spiritual "self-intoxication" make himself the program but relies on the encounter with Christ, the experience of the Holy Ghost, and the conversion of all those people who - in changing historical contexts - have in each case to take anew their decision.


The Ecclesia mundana and the Ecclesia proclaiming the Gospel

From the perspective of the Berlin Social scientists, the adoption of these biblical rules and patterns of behaviour by Francis of Assisi and the bishops of the Pact of Catacombs is anything but a naive and unrealistic exaggeration. In it they see realized what Theodor W. Adorno once described as "philosophical ideal": "To render account for what you are doing becomes superfluous when you are doing it. St. Francis of Assisi has neither preached an ideal nor a program. A separate theology or Christian religious instruction is therefore unnecessary with him, because he lives what he says. His language has, his language is life" (Kammerer and others, 154).

These statements, too, apply for much of what we currently see and hear of Pope Francis. The signals that he gives with his gestures and statements are fanning the hope that this pope has embraced the option for the poor as a guiding principle, and that he in his pontificate wants to promote a "proclaiming church," which is rooted in the Gospel, and which he already as Cardinal has programmatically addressed in the so-called pre-conclave: "When the Church is self-referential, unwittingly believed to have its own light. It is no longer the mysterium lunae and leads to the evil that is so serious: spiritual worldliness. (...) That (church) lives to give glory to one another rather than God. (...) Put simply, there are two images of Church: the evangelizing Church taking leave of itself which religiuously hears the Word of God and faithfully proclaims it or the worldly Church living in itself, of itself, for itself." (Vatican Radio Blog, March 27, 2013).

Benedict XVI, too, has already dealt with the criticism of the Church by St. Francis of Assisi: "The 'No' to the existing forms of church, i.e. what would today be called prophetic protest, could not be more radical than it was with Francis". Like the bishops of the Pact of the Catacombs, here Pope Francis sets new directions and personalizes this criticisms with regard to one's own behavior and appearances.


Evangelization without Violence

The radical orientation towards the gospel and the option for the poor are certainly the central interface where the intentions of Francis of Assisi and Pope Francis come together. If you with Pope Benedict XVI take your startingpoint from Francis of Assisi's "no" "to existing forms of church" and from his radical "prophetic protest", the question naturally arises of further stimuli from the Franciscan Spirituality for the work of reform that is waiting for the current Pope in the Roman Curia. It is believed that the retired Pope at the first encounter has given his successor the 300-page report of the Commission on the so-called "Vatileaks" affair, which dealt with the theft of documents from the personal apartments of the Pope.

Despite repeated denials from the Vatican, the reports of renowned journalists in internationally recognized newspapers about sex, money and power in the context of the Roman Curia do not come to an end. The newly elected Pope takes on a difficult legacy, especially since none of his predecessors succeeded in pushing through key reforms in the Curia. However, the problems have meanwhile become so acute that the Pope must position himself and draw the conclusions from the report of the Commission of Cardinals. Is he able to do this?

Followers of the so-called collective sociology of knowledge, as it is represented e.g. by Ludwig Fleck, doubt radically the capability of an individual to break away from collective structures and systems (Sylwia Werner and Claus Zittel in collaboration with Frank Stahnisch [ed.], Denkstile und Tatsachen. Gesammelte Schriften und Zeugnisse, Berlin 2012): "A member of a group is usually simply not able to think in a different way than his ambience. He is not able to see differently, to use other concepts and images, and to look for other contexts than the people with whom he lives."

It is therefore hardly surprising that you hear repeatedly voices from the Curia. They seem to confirm this thesis: "Popes come and go, whereas the Curia stays."



The development of the Church after the Second Vatican Council and especially the fact that the conciliar reform program has not been developed and implemented in central passages of the new church law speak for the validity of the theories of the experts in sociology of knowledge. The Council has confirmed that the bishops, as successors of the apostles, are not administrative officials of the Curia. Despite those clear doctrinal statements we are faced today, even after the judgment of renowned church historian and canonist, with a Roman centralism which in this form has not even existed before the Council.

According to what has so far become public knowledge from the Commission's report, the collective structures, behavior patterns and expectations with which the newly elected Pope is faced in the Curia - this involves not only papal clothing-stores, fleet of cars and residences - are oppressive and paralysing. Not for nothing in the media there is no end to the trials to figure out the true motives of the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI emeritus. The key question is thus: Is an individual able to opt out of collective structures and systems or to change them? Will the newly elected Pope Francis be able to get the overdue reform of the Curia under way?


Francis Opposed the Papal Call for War

For this purpose, it is worthwhile to take a good look at the life of Francis of Assisi. 800 years ago he has successfully dealt with the structures and power relations of the Church. The time in which Francis lived was marked by the Pope's claim to absolute power. Francis clearly distanced himself from Rome. He connected the mission of his brothers with the testimony by action. It had to be not only free of "squabble" and "dispute", but should respect the faith and the freedom of others.

Already in the first rule of the order of 2 April 1221, Francis dealt with the then practiced violence-oriented forms of imparting faith. For the brothers who went beyond the borders of the then Christian dominated world in order to live among Muslims and infidels, he drafted a clear alternative to the crusade theology propagated by Rome: "The brothers, however, who go may conduct themselves in two ways spiritually among them. One way is not to make disputes or contentions; but let them be "subject to every human creature for God's sake" (1 Pet 2:13), yet confessing themselves to be Christians. The other way is that when they see it is pleasing to God, they announce the Word of God, that they may believe in Almighty God,—Father, and Son, and Holy Ghost."

Francis had experienced that in 1213 in his crusade bull "Quia maior" Pope Innocent III had designated the Prophet Muhammad as the "son of perdition" and compared the Islam with the apocalyptic beast. In this crusade bull Innocent III called upon the believers to "take up the cross and follow Jesus - namely in the fight. For if a king was exiled by his enemies from his kingdom, he will after his return condemn the faithless vassals. The pope threatens everybody with the loss of salvation who do not come to the from Jerusalem displaced Lord's aid and who in this emergency refuse to serve the Redeemer" (Niklaus Kuster, Franz und Klara von Assisi. Eine Doppelbiographie, Ostfildern 2011, 83).

Not enough that the papal call for war fearlessly monopolized and misinterpreted the Scriptures by locating politically Jesus' kingdom on the earth, and by turning the discipleship of Christ, the nonviolent rabbi, into a military offensive. Through other measures he pulled out all the stops of pastoral care in order to mobilize the faithful for the struggle against the "heathen who have invaded God's earth".

All these measures and appeals bounce off Francis of Assisi. On the contrary, when the next pope Honorius III in 1218 sent the Crusaders led by the cardinal legate Pelagier Galzoni to Egypt in order to attack Sultan Melek-el-Kamil in his heartland, also Francis went in 1219 to Egypt. At the fortress city of Damietta in the Nile Delta, he crossed the fronts of the warring armies and advanced by foot to the Sultan in order to bring about peace. Even the cardinal legate was not able to dissuade him from his action for peace. The Sultan did not execute Francis and his brothers, but he hospitably took them in his camp to argue with them.

In 1220, in a letter from Damietta, the site of battles, Bishop Jacques de Vitry reported on this encounter. "Although he preached to the Saracens during several days the word of God, he achieved only little. But the Sultan, the king of Egypt, secretly asked him to pray for him to the Lord, so that he might - due to divine enlightenment - be a follower of that religion which is more pleasing to God" (Dieter Berg and Leonhard Lehmann in connection with Johannes-Baptist Freyer et al [eds], Franziskus-Quellen. Die Schriften des heiligen Franziskus, Lebensbeschreibungen, Chroniken und Zeugnisse über ihn und seinen Orden, Kevelaer 2009, Volume 2, 1536).

Francis saw the conquest of Damietta by the crusade army with the following massacre of the residents of the city by the Crusade knights, a massacre that was later repeated when the inhabitants of Jerusalem were killed after its conquest by the army of the Sultan. With his peace initiative Francis had also no success with the papal lagate.



In his book about Francis (Franz von Assisi, Freiburg 1977), Niklaas G. van Doornik refers to the fact that not until the Second Vatican Council in the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, "Nostra Aetate", the church officially distances herself from those massacres, because there it says that "Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding." (No. 3)


Reconciliation through Recognition of the Others

Van Doornik compares the tenor of this Declaration with the missiology of Francis of Assisi nearly 800 years ago in the already cited First Rule, and comes to the following conclusion. "These are simple words (...) But nobody should fail to see that these words prove the insight into missionary work from which any form of paternalism and intolerance is banned, and which is several centuries ahead of its time. You find here also nothing of the hardness with which even a Ignatius of Loyola or Francis Xavier looked down on Islam."

In the coming centuries, his brothers have unfortunately often gone far away from the spirituality of their founder in their encounter with other religions and were in the service of a paternalistic and violence-oriented mission.

Francis has not only intervened as a peacemaker in the central political conflicts of his time. The inner reconciliation [Entfeindung] was equally important for him, as this is described by Niklaus Kuster in his biography of Francis: the analysis of the mechanisms of survival which are active in every person and which very quickly make us material and religious egomaniacs who are only circling around themselves.

The story of the true joy that Francis tells Brother Leo directs our attention to conflicts within the fraternity and narratively explains what in living and working together in extreme cases the reconciliation demands from each brother: "I return from Perugia and come in the dead of night here, in winter, dirty, with frozen cowl and bleeding shins and must in dirt, cold and ice for a long time knock at the gate until a brother comes, (...) and he makes me stand outside with the words, 'Go away, you are a simpleton and uneducated. We are so numerous and so that we do not need you. '(...) I tell you, if I do not lose my patience and not become aggressive, this is true joy, true virtue and the salvation of the soul."



In these narratives and political activities, the Berlin social scientists see "a categorical imperative in the sense of St. Francis of Assisi" realized. It contributes intra- and interpersonal to reconciliation in the coexistence of people: "Take every other person seriously as a whole person, but take other creatures and things first as beings and things for themselves, then you will succeed in allowing the other person, the other thing as he or it allows you to be yourself. You will take pleasure in him, as he takes pleasure in you. Then it will be possible to counteract the basic motto of the Modern age. Not least, it causes the union of fear, the desire for security of states, capitalists and individuals: 'Fear the neighbor as yourself'" (Kammerer and others, 82).

This spirituality was also the basis for the peace prayer to which Pope John Paul II invited to Assisi. Let us hope that those prayers for peace in Assisi will be continued and promote the process of reconciliation between the various religions.

In difficult times Francis of Assisi succeeded in giving impulses to reconciliation and in bringing about peace. The glowing core of all his activities was his deep rootedness in the relationship with God. "Nobody has shown me how I have to live," Francis emphasizes in his last will and testament, and then he invokes the "Almighty Lord" who has shown him the way. If the Pope really wants to be the Vicar of Christ, then he will also succeed in implementing the necessary reforms in the Curia.



  • Dieter Berg und Leonhard Lehmann in Verbindung mit Johannes-Baptist Freyer u.a. (Hg.), Franziskus-Quellen, Die Schriften des heiligen Franziskus, Lebensbeschreibungen, Chroniken und Zeugnisse über ihn und seinen Orden. Im Auftrag der Provinziale der deutschsprachigen Franziskaner, Kapuziner und Minoriten, Kevelaer 2009
  • Jan Hoberichts, Feuerwandler. Franziskus und der Islam, Kevelaer 2011
  • Niklaus Kuster, Franz und Klara von Assisi. Eine Doppelbiographie, Ostfildern 2011
  • Niklaas G.M. van Doornik, Franz von Assisi, 2. Aufl., Freiburg 1977


    {*} The Franciscan priest and professor emeritus Dr. Udo Friedrich Schmälzle (born in 1943) was until 2008 Director of the Seminar für Pastoraltheologie und Religionspädagogik at the University of Münster. Since then he is commissioner [Rektoratsbeauftragter] for disabled students and executive director of the "Franziskanergymnasium Kreuzburg gGmbH". Research foci: religion and violence, pastoral care in schools, research on charity, analyses of social areas, theology and empiricism, fundamental pastoral care.


Link to 'Public Con-Spiration for-with-of the Poor'