by Timothy Egan
The most popular figure on the planet — the only priest who’s ever been on the cover of Rolling Stone, National Geographic, The Advocate, and Time, among many other periodicals — is a 78-year-old man with only a single functioning lung. His birth name is Jorge Bergoglio; his chosen name is Pope Francis, a name he chose to honor his spiritual mentor: that half-starved ascetic, that pauper who didn’t own money, property, or even shoes — Francis of Assisi, one of Italy’s two patron saints.
Most of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics know something of Saint Francis, but he is revered by many others as well. You can go to secular Berkeley, or equally secular France, and find the stone bird bath of Francis. He’s the nature saint. The patron saint of the environment.
But he was much, much more. Choosing his name — surprisingly, the first pope named for this revered figure — says much about the lasting power and impact of the saint from Assisi. And just how did this scrawny figure, dressed in a filthy tunic, with sores and boils all over his skin, living in a hovel, become so powerful?
A few biographical notes: He was born in 1181, or 82. He was a nobleman’s son. A bit of hellraiser. A party animal. His merchant family had money. The path was set for Francis to take over the business. His life, an easy life, was set for him. Francis committed “every kind of debauchery,” an early biographer said.
Remember, this was almost 400 years before the Renaissance. The early era of the Holy Roman Empire — which was neither holy, nor Roman. Italy’s hilltop towns were always at war with each other. And Francis went to war, against the neighboring town of Perugia. At the age of 21, he was a high-spirited warrior. Ready for adventure! Pillage! Bloodshedding! The rah-rah didn’t last long. Perugia defeated Assisi. Francis was captured, thrown in a dungeon with rats and a cold floor. There he spent a year before his father came up with ransom money to spring him.
But something had happened to him in that dank, dark place. After his release, he didn’t return home. He holed up in an abandoned church and prayed. When he emerged, he was a different man. He refused his father’s pleadings. He said he wasn’t interested in wealth, or a career in the merchant business. He was interested in the lost souls, the untouchable lepers in the valleys, the poor, the passed over.
This greatly alarmed his father. At the age of 25, Francis was hauled into court by his dad, who claimed that he refused to accept his family responsibility. There, Francis is said to have torn off his nobleman’s clothes, and renounced family and wealth. He stood, nearly naked. You can see this stunning narrative in the Basilica at Assisi, the Giotto frescoes.
Thereafter, Francis devoted his life to the marginalized and the forgotten. He said the church had grown too wealthy, too complacent, too removed from Christ. The poor lived shunned lives in the malarial shadows below the sun-washed hill towns, while bishops and other clerics resided in opulent splendor.
Francis was a radical. A mystic. But he was a radical by example. As his mythic status expanded, he attracted many followers. He asked only that they sell all goods and give them to the poor. They dressed in simple tunics, usually shoeless like him. He felt, in order to get closer to God, you had to rid yourself of material distraction.
He was, in one view, the original hippie (very Oregonian), with his rejection of conventional life, his view that all living things have meaning and are connected. They called him, Il Poverello, the Little Poor Man. Fire was a brother. So was the moon. So were the stars. So, in the end, was death. Famously — though perhaps apocryphally — he charmed a wolf that was menacing the town. He preached to birds. By one definition, he was crazy. By another, he was brilliant.
He was not a priest, or even, by today’s measure, an evangelical. He was a life force, similar to Ghandi. But he was not a humorless scourge. Not a scold. Certainly not a statue. He was playful. Fun. Gregarious. He liked a joke. He would dance while preaching. Sing. Strip to his undergarments.
He felt he and brothers were inferior to all, superior to none. Humility — again, by example — gave him an aura, his power.
As his fame spread throughout Europe, he could have been like Martin Luther, and led a breakaway religion. Instead, he never directly challenged church authorities — except, of course by example.
One of the most daring things he did was go to North Africa, at great danger to himself, to meet with leading Muslims, this at a time when one of the crusades against Muslims and other infidels was going on. He walked much of the way, and it cost him.
Returning from Africa, in his late 30s, Francis got very sick. He had contracted malaria while in Egypt. Also had trachoma, a horrible eye infection. He seemed to wither away before people’s eyes, and yet, his power grew. Two years before he died, he experienced the stigmata — the wounds of Christ.
As his condition worsened, he retreated to even more austere conditions. He lived in a dirt-floored hovel, like his prison dungeon. Shivering with malaria. Vomiting. To him, it was liberating.
He died in 1226, at the age of 45.
And that should have been that. Remember: Francis had no army. His followers were poor and powerless. He had invented nothing. He had not written any great manifesto. But 800 years later, Francis is still immensely popular, perhaps more so than ever. He appeals to liberals and conservatives, believers and nonbelievers, all over the world.
Cut to 2013, and a conclave of cardinals, trying to pick a pope. From the Sistine Chapel, white smoke appears. Birds alight — a sign. An Italian immigrant from Argentina — Jorge Mario Bergoglio – who rode on the back of the bus through slums, washed feet of prisoners and AIDS victims, is named pope. He is the first Jesuit pope. The first non-European pope in 1,000 years. And the only pope who once worked as a bouncer at a club.
He takes the name of the pauper from Assisi. This new Francis, striding through St. Peter’s Square, bypasses the limousine waiting for him and climbs aboard a bus, with other clerics. He pays his own hotel bill before checking out. He decides not to live in the Apostalic Place, but reside instead in a two-bedroom guest house. He will get around in a Ford Focus, not the Papal Mercedes.
His first words are Fratelli and Sorelle, buona sera! “Brothers and sisters, good evening!” Instantly, people feel a whoosh of fresh air in Saint Peter’s Square. Then, to cardinals who selected him, he says, “May God forgive you for what you’ve done.” Humor! Another fresh air breeze. As before, he washes feet of the poor and outcast, washes the feet of women and Muslims. He dials complete strangers up by phone and offers them encouraging words, or just says hello. One man hangs up on him — three times; he can’t believe the pope is calling him. He eats in the Vatican cafeteria, wears a plastic watch.
All symbolic, yes. But like that other Francis, radical by example, following the admonition of Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel, and if necessary use words.”
And also, like the earlier Francis, the pope is playful, exuding an unusual amount of joy. He likes books, soccer, tango music, and gnocchi. He appears not to take himself seriously. He knows how to seize a moment. He goes to Naples, the heart of Mafia, and in words that could only have come from a former boxer says, “Corrupt society stinks.”
The most astonishing thing happens on return flight from South America. He’s asked about gays in the church, long a troubled spot for Catholic hierarchy. The Church had called homosexuality “an objective disorder.” Francis looks at the reporters, shrugs and says, “Who am I to judge?” No more famous words have ever been uttered by a Pope.
But there it is — the simplicity, the humility, the lightness of being. His power comes from exuding powerlessness. He changes hearts by example. The church, rather suddenly, seems to be no longer about what it’s against, but what it’s for.
Like Francis the nature saint, this Francis emphasis our duty to creation. He issues an encyclical on the environment. In a speech before a joint session of Congress — the only pope ever granted such an audience — Francis challenges climate change skeptics. Think about that: the Church that put Galileo under house arrest for promoting sound science is now challenging the science deniers in power.
Last year, he was asked about his secret to happiness. He said, Slow down. Take time off. Live and let live. Don’t proselytize. Work for peace. Work at a job that offers basic human dignity. Don’t hold on to negative feelings. Move calmly through life. Enjoy books, art, playfulness.
Regarding money, he said, “I ask you to ensure that humanity is served by wealth, and not ruled by it.”
Has he changed church doctrine? Not really. Not substantively. But by his choice of words, his emphasis, he has moved mountains. He embraced unwed mothers. He embraced divorced Catholics, welcoming them back into the church fold, many of whom said they felt unwanted. He said those who’ve had abortions can be forgiven, a similar welcoming.
In the curia in Rome, the old line clerics scowl. One is quoted as saying, “He’ll be gone soon, but we’ll still be here.” That’s what they said about Francis of Assisi.
So, not yet three years into his papacy, has he changed hearts?
I consider myself similar to a lot of American Catholics — culturally bound to the church, but not to follow its dogma, particularly sexual dictates, on things like birth control. Europe has never had fewer practicing Christians. Their great cathedrals are empty — except for tourists. The United States, according to a Pew Center survey, is trending the same way, led by millennials, who are wary of pontifical certainty. But many people are giving the church a second look, or a first. So we have this paradox: as much of the world has become less identified with organized religion, the leader of the most organized of religions is the most popular man in the world.
After observing Francis in the first year of his papacy, I wrote a column for The New York Times called “Lapsed but Listening.” Not long ago, I ran into Father Steve Sundborg, my Jesuit friend from high school, now president of Seattle University.
He said: Which is it now?
And I said: Less lapsed, more listening.
Tim Egan is a columnist for The New York Times and the author of many remarkable books, among them the Northwest classic The Good Rain and the National Book Award-winning The Worst Hard Time, about the Dust Bowl. This essay is drawn from his visit to campus in Fall 2015, when he delivered the annual Father John Zahm, C.S.C., Lecture, honoring the University’s co-founder.