Papa Francesco! In the damp darkness of St. Peter's Square, the crowds chanted his name when Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the archbishop of Buenos Aires, was named the new pope. Seldom has a religious leader been embraced so warmly across the Christian world, including by many evangelicals. Seldom has hope risen so high so quickly. And the hope has arisen for good reason.
Since the Reformation, many of the names chosen by popes—Pius, Clement, Leo, Urban, even Benedict—sound quaint to non-Catholic ears. But the humble Francis of Assisi is a saint for everyone. Francis challenged the church of his day—not by conforming to the standards of the world but by returning to the pattern of Jesus, the one who did not seek status but humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on the cross (Phil. 2:5–11).
Early on, in a radical act of dispossession, Francis broke decisively with his former life as a soldier and playboy. He stripped off his clothes and ran out of the bishop's palace stark naked, saying, "I will no longer be called the son of Pietro Bernardone. From now on I shall say simply, 'Our Father, who art in heaven.' "
We see already an intimation of Saint Francis in Pope Francis. There is his simple apparel: black street shoes instead of the calfskin red of his predecessors, simple white cassock minus gold-embroidered accessories. In addition, a pope who lives in a modest guest house (versus the spacious papal apartments), worships on Maundy Thursday with young prisoners, and who embraces hiv/aids patients in a hospice follows in the steps of il poverello, "the poor one," as Saint Francis was called.
Since the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision of 1973, Catholics and evangelicals in the United States have worked side by side to advocate for the sanctity of life. The pro-life community will have a strong ally in the new pope. He has referred to abortion as the "death penalty" for the unborn. In 2005, he admonished his fellow believers in Argentina to "defend the unborn against abortion even if they persecute you, calumniate you, set traps for you, take you to court, or kill you. No child should be deprived of the right to be born, the right to be fed, the right to go to school." Likewise, Francis of Assisi was known for his passion for spreading the Good News, once making a trip deep into North Africa to declare Christ to a sultan. One of the great challenges of Pope Francis will be to energize Catholic leaders for the New Evangelization—to study the Scriptures, renew the disciplines of the faith, and boldly proclaim the love of Christ. As important as interfaith dialogue may be, real evangelization requires something more: unambiguous witness for Jesus Christ as the Way, the Truth, and the Life, the one and only Savior.
The sex abuse scandals, by no means limited to the Catholic church, have besmirched Christian witness in the 21st century. Both outside and inside the church's walls, there is much that makes us wince and turn away. But reform and renewal can come only as we face squarely the evil within us and around us and seek the repentance that comes only as a gift. I believe that Pope Francis, a Jesuit, would agree with the first of Martin Luther's 95 Theses: "When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, 'Repent,' he willed for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance."
Francis succeeds two men of genius in his papal role. John Paul II was the liberator who stared down communism by the force of his courage and prayers. Benedict XVI was the eminent teacher of the Catholic Church in recent history. Francis appears now as the pastor, a shepherd who knows and loves his sheep and wants to lead them in love and humility. The new Franciscan moment is the season of the shepherd. Catholics and evangelicals are the two largest faith communities in the body of Christ. Without forgetting the deep differences that divide us, now as never before we are called to stand and work together for the cause of Christ in a broken world. We can make a start by praying with Saint Francis:
Most High, Glorious God, bring light to the darkness of my heart. Give me right faith, certain hope, and perfect charity, insight and wisdom, so I can always observe your holy and true command. Amen.
Timothy George is dean of Beeson Divinity School.
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