On March 13, 2013, the Conclave of Cardinals of the Catholic Church elected Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio, the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina as the 266th Pope, bishop of Rome, and successor to St. Peter. For the first time in history, the newly elected pontiff chose to be called Francis, a name with significant resonance for the poor and for interreligious relations.
In response to questions, Vatican spokesman Fr. Frederico Lombardi, S.J., clarified that the new pope chose this name in honor of St. Francis of Assisi. Francis was known as “Il Poverello” (the little poor one) because of his affection and concern for the poor and his simple lifestyle. These have long been hallmarks of the life of Cardinal Bergoglio, who abandoned the elaborate episcopal residence in Buenos Aires for a simpler abode and who used public transportation instead of a chauffeur. He has spoken passionately about the plight of the world’s poor as a scandal that cries to heaven.
Francis of Assisi also has a special significance for interreligious relations because he visited Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil at Damietta in Egypt during the Fifth Crusade, seeking peace in a time of conflict. It was to Francis’s hometown of Assisi that Pope John Paul II invited the leaders of the world’s religious traditions to come to pray for World Peace in October, 1986, an unprecedented gathering. Those familiar with Cardinal Bergoglio’s heritage as a member of the Society of Jesus noted that Francis was also the name of Francis Xavier, one of the first generation of Jesuits who brought the gospel to India, where he ministered to poor fisherfolk in the south and who later went to Japan and who died off the coast of China, hoping to visit that land as well.
Pope Francis has had deep experience in interreligious relations in Argentina. He co-authored a book with Rabbi Abraham Skorka, Sobre el Cielo y la Tierra (On Heaven and Earth, Buenos Aires: Sudamericana, 2011; e-book: Random House Mondadori, 2011). Regarding interreligious discussions, then-Cardinal Bergoglio wrote: “Dialogue is born from an attitude of respect for the other person, from a conviction that the other person has something good to say. It assumes that there is room in the heart for the person’s point of view, opinion, and proposal. To dialogue entails a cordial reception, not a prior condemnation. In order to dialogue it is necessary to know how to lower the defenses, open the doors of the house, and offer human warmth” (my translation).
The book is itself a model of interreligious dialogue. In the Foreword, Rabbi Skorka notes the risk that they were taking in sharing their personal exchanges with the public: “To transform the dialogue into a conversation with many, to bare our souls, accepting all the risks that this implies, but profoundly convinced that this is the only path of knowing the human, which is capable of bringing us closer to God.” At a later point in the dialogue, the rabbi comments: “If we arrive at an attitude of genuine humility, we will be able to change the reality of the world. When the prophet Micah wanted to give a definition of what it means to be religious, he said: ‘Do justice, love piety, and walk humbly with your God.’”
In response, Cardinal Bergoglio replied: “I am totally in agreement on the question of humility. It pleases me also to use the word ‘meekness,’ which does not mean weakness. A religious leader can be very strong, very firm without exercising aggression. Jesus says that the one who leads must be one who serves. For me, this idea is valid for the religious person of whatever religious confession. Service confers the real power of religious leadership” (my translation).
Pope Francis promises to be a forceful spokesperson for the poor, an eager and attentive partner in interreligious conversations, and a leader who reaches out to the entire world.