By Paolo von Schirach
April 13, 2013
WASHINGTON – There is always symbolism in the name chosen by a new Roman Catholic Pope. The new Pope chose Francesco, Francis, in honor of St. Francis of Assisi. In so doing, Pope Francis would like to convey that the Church will go back to its origins of simplicity, with special focus on helping the poor. St. Francis was indeed the man who gave up a life of material comfort to pursue his own vision of a pure Christian Faith.
And here is indeed the issue. This name choice by the new Pope, not backed by anything else in terms of demonstrable spiritual renewal within the Church, is essentially a formality, a gesture. The notion that he Church has to redouble its efforts on behalf of the poor is a “policy change” that may have all sorts of motivations, including of course the attempt to shore up the position of a less and less relevant Catholic Church in some developing countries where it still enjoys some measure of respect.
No spiritual renewal
But this Pope adopting the name Francis will not automatically translate into unleashing a spiritual renewal within a tired and demoralized Catholic Church severely weakened by its own scandals. St. Francis of Assisi was an extraordinary man who genuinely embraced the message of the Gospel and tried to make it once again, more than a thousand year after Christ, real and meaningful for the common people of Medieval Italy. He was a lay person moved by intense Faith. He preached with simplicity; but more than anything else with intense Joy. He talked, he sang, he preached. He tried to bring disoriented people back to God in a simple way. His vow of poverty was about simplicity in a corrupt world that had long forgotten that Jesus and his early followers were common people who converted others only on the basis of their ability to appeal to their feelings.
A tired Catholic Church
Pope Francis is only formally a messenger of spiritual renewal. He is mostly another elderly leader of an institution in decline who is trying to reclaim at least some lost territory. St. Francis of Assisi was moved by an intense Faith that made him into a spiritual revolutionary. Pope Francis is the leading functionary of an old institution that looks more and more like a corporation resorting to new gimmicks in order to regain market share. And that is a big difference.