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Archive for March 18th, 2013

Saints Peter and Paul Window

Saints Peter and Paul Window

What’s in a Name?

In my post for March 11th I presented a short list of the traits I wanted to see in the next pope.  I was fully aware that the inventory was riddled with contradictions, but that’s the way it is when it comes to dealing with high-profile jobs.  No one need tell me how unrealistic it is to work twenty-four hours a day while still leaving plenty of time for prayer, recreation, exercise and sleep.  No one expects that kind of near-perfection;  but I wanted the guy to at least give it his best college try.

Other qualities were equally challenging, but I underscored the list with the most unrealistic hope of all.  The new pope must have “the material detachment of Saint Francis of Assisi.”  Of course I never expected anyone to take that idea seriously.  What sort of nonsense is that, after all?

6, side aisleWell, you could have knocked me over with a feather when Pope Francis cautiously stepped out onto the balcony at Saint Peter’s.  What kind of a name is Pope Francis?  Who in the world would saddle himself with a moniker so famous, and with a name that is in many ways the antithesis of everything that is expected in a pope?

When someone emerges into the public spotlight and announces that he will now be called Francis, a lot is going on.  Of course there is the matter of the name itself; but even more fundamental is the business of taking a new name.  Why would anyone want to do that?  In this case, hadn’t “Jorge Mario” served him well enough for seventy-six years?

9, Rose WindowThe custom of taking a name, or a new name, is a curious one; but it’s as old as human history itself.  For lots of reasons people have adopted new names at key moments in their lives.  The most common instance is at baptism, when Baby X becomes Jane or Nickolas.  As we well know, parents will invest a great deal of energy into the selection of that name — except when they don’t.  Less often than before, people will adopt the surname of their spouse at marriage — meant to signal a very important personal transition.  Many candidates for religious life still take a new name, for all sorts of practical and impractical reasons.  And monarchs have been doing this for centuries.  One need only recall that the English David became Edward VIII when he assumed the throne.  Whether he intended to emulate Saint Edward the Confessor or King Edward VII (The Philanderer), is open for discussion, and perhaps best left for Wallace Simpson to answer.  In any case, “King David” was definitely off the table.  It carried way too much baggage for comfort.  It simply would not work, especially if he ever ran into some woman named Bathsheba.

If a new name is intended to mark a clean break in one’s life, the choice of the name itself signals something very important.  Names convey all sorts of information and connotations, and I’ve always felt profoundly sorry for kids who are stuck with names derived from soap opera stars.  Or from the celebrity of the moment who has since gone off to prison.  In the case of the latter, there is just too much to live down.

13On the other hand, Francis carries significance that is equally burdensome.  Everyone knows the story of Saint Francis, and the fact that everyone knows it makes it really tough for someone who takes that name.  Francis renounced any and all claim to worldly possessions as he stripped himself in front of his father and the bishop.  His reasons were deeply profound:  he refused to let worldly wealth determine his character.  In one fell swoop he renounced the old adage that “clothes make the man”, and he left it all behind.  He would be authentically himself, and in the process he professed his kinship with all his brothers and sisters, rich and poor.  It was a life-changing experience for him.

14, Dean's stallPope Francis is in the process of his own life-changing experience, and it cannot be easy for him.  For years he has taken the bus or the tram to work.  He’s lived in a modest apartment rather than in the episcopal palace in Buenos Aires.  He’s done much of his own cooking; he’s kissed the feet of AIDS patients; and he’s paid attention to the needs of the poor.  I’m going to guess that never for a minute did he consider that he was some sort of saint or paragon of virtue.  Rather, this life-style was one that was not inappropriate for a bishop.  For whatever else he may have done well or poorly, he  had not bought into the consumerist mentality.  He was not what he owned.  The name “Francis” will be a daily reminder of where he has come from — lest he forget amid all the pomp.

Pope Francis has already begun to build a legacy, and it will be interesting to see where this goes.  On a practical level his name will hark back to a long tradition of care for the poor and sick in society.  This was one of the few commands Jesus gave when he reminded his disciples that what they do for the least they do for him.  Other themes in ministry get strong support, particularly in an environment like the Roman Curia.  If “Francis” the name does not remind the curialists of this, it will at least remind the Pope of the yardstick by which he has chosen to measure himself.

Tomb of Abbot Thomas de la Mare (1349-1396)

Tomb of Abbot Thomas de la Mare (1349-1396)

Beyond that, only time will tell what might be the impact of a pope named Francis.  Still, there will be some side effects that one should expect.  First of all, this could have a significant impact on traditional Catholic humor, and the once ubiquitous Jesuit jokes will quickly disappear.  It has suddenly become politically incorrect to tell them.  As for the people working in the curia, the prospect of a Jesuit in the chair of Peter is no joke, and it is definitely no laughing matter.   And we will also see the demise of that old punch line “Is the Pope Catholic?”  It will likely give way to a whole new line of humor that ends with the question “Is the Pope Jesuit?”

As for me, I am immensely delighted that I foresaw the signifiance of Saint Francis for the new pope.  In retrospect, what could have been a throw-away comment has become more than a lucky guess.  It’s gotten me wondering, and perhaps it’s time for a career adjustment.  Perhaps I should now focus on the lottery or become a stock speculator.  Or maybe I should just stick to being a monk.  There are worse jobs; and besides, I’ve already changed my name once, when I entered the monastery.  Once should be more than enough.

31, doorNotes

+On March 11th I flew to Miami, where I made several visits on behalf of Saint John’s University.  While Floridians shivered and complained of the cold, I scoffed.  It was still snowing in Minnesota, and I thought the temperatures were perfectly fine in Florida.

+I have illustrated today’s post with additional pictures that I took during my recent visit to Saint Alban’s Abbey, north of London.  There are so many interesting nooks and crannies, in addition to the meditative religious art that survives there.  And it is wonderful that it is a living spiritual shrine, even today.

22, Marian Chapel+As I mentioned in an earlier post, this year the Order of Malta, of which I am a member, celebrates the 900th anniversary of its recognition by Pope Paschal II in 1113.  As part of the celebration, I delivered a talk at events in Los Angeles and in San Francisco, and I have included those comments in the section marked “Presentations.”  In addition, there has been a tremendous amount of press coverage of the celebration that took place at Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome.  Among the most interesting items was this report produced by the network Al Jazeera.

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