VATICAN CITY – The focus of Pope Francis’ papacy began to emerge Saturday as he offered some intimate insights into the conclave that elected him pontiff, describing how he was immediately inspired to name himself after St. Francis of Assisi because he wants to see a church that is “for the poor.”
His comments provided further evidence that this first Latin American papacy would be one that looks beyond the confines of the church itself to the most disadvantaged, named for a 13th century friar who renounced a wealthy, dissolute lifestyle to embrace a life of poverty and simplicity and go out in the countryside to preach a message of joy and peace.
“Let me tell you a story,” Pope Francis began in a break from his prepared text during an audience for a few thousand journalists and Vatican communications officials in the Vatican’s auditorium.
Francis then described how during the conclave he was comforted by his friend, Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, as the votes were going his way and it seemed “a bit dangerous” that he would reach the two-thirds necessary to be elected.
When the threshold was reached, applause erupted in the frescoed Sistine Chapel.
“He [Hummes] hugged me. He kissed me. He said, ‘Don’t forget about the poor!’ ” Francis recalled.
“And those words came to me: The poor. The poor. Then right away, thinking of the poor, I thought of Francis of Assisi. Then I thought of all the wars as the votes were being counted, until the end. Francis is also the man of peace. That is how the name came into my heart: Francis of Assisi.”
The pope said some have wondered whether his name was a reference to other Franciscan figures, including St. Frances de Sales or even the co-founder of the pope’s own Jesuit order, Francis Xavier. But he said the inspiration was Francis of Assisi.
Sitting in the vast Vatican auditorium, Francis continued: “For me, he is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation. These days we don’t have a very good relationship with creation, do we?” he said. “He is the man who gives us this spirit of peace, the poor man.”
“Oh how I would like a church which is poor and for the poor!” Francis said, sighing.
He then joked that some other cardinals suggested other names: Hadrian VI, after a great church reformer – a reference to the need for the pope to clean up the Vatican’s messy bureaucracy. Someone else suggested Clement XV, to get even with Clement XIV, who suppressed the Jesuit order in 1773.
The pope’s admiration for Francis’ simplicity is evident in his own lifestyle: the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio would take the bus to work, lived in a Spartan apartment where he would turn the heat off on weekends and cook his own meals.
In one of his first acts as pope, Francis phoned the Vatican ambassador in Buenos Aires and told him to put out the word that he didn’t want ordinary Argentines flocking to Rome for his installation Mass, urging them to use the money instead for charity.
Bergoglio never favored liberation theology, the Latin American-inspired view that Jesus’ teachings imbue followers with a duty to fight for social and economic justice, because of its alliances with armed leftist guerrilla movements in the 1970s.
But as a priest and later archbishop, he saw to it that every slum in Buenos Aires had a chapel and fostered many outreach programs, supporting former prostitutes and drug addicts and washing the feet of rehab patients. When the economy collapsed in 2001, and Argentines lost faith in their politicians, he denounced capitalist excesses and corruption from the pulpit.
His addresses and homilies often circle back to the need for the church to rivet its attention on issues of economic failings, including the growing divides between the comfortable and needy, and the pressures of Western-style capitalism.
His election to the papacy has raised questions about how he will translate that message on a global scale, given the global economic crisis and vast inequalities among the rich and poor — and at home, given allegations of corruption in the Holy See’s governance and continued problems of the Vatican’s own bank, the Institute for Religious Works.
Under Benedict XVI, the Vatican had sought to put its finances in order and opened itself up to external evaluation by the Council of Europe’s Moneyval committee, which helps countries comply with international anti-money laundering norms. While the Vatican bank passed the first test last year, Moneyval gave the bank several poor or failing grades.
Amid the calls for reform of the Vatican bureaucracy that have erupted in recent months, there has been a steadily increasing suggestion in the Italian media that the Vatican could easily do away with its bank, since it can carry out most of its financial activities through commercial banks and thus rid itself of a stain on its reputation.
While there’s no indication the Institute for Religious Works will close any time soon, one of Francis’ most eagerly watched first appointments will be that of his secretary of state, who traditionally presides over the commission of cardinals that oversees the bank.
For now, Francis on Saturday temporarily named all Vatican officials in their current positions, saying he would decide whether to confirm them or name someone else after a period of “reflection, prayer and dialogue,” the Vatican said.
The Vatican also released details of the pope’s week ahead, saying he would meet with Argentine President Cristina Fernandez on the eve of his Tuesday installation Mass and then visit Benedict XVI at the papal retreat at Castel Gandolfo on Saturday.
The Fernandez meeting will be sensitive talks, given the years of open tensions over the then-archbishop’s strong opposition to initiatives that led Argentina to become the first Latin American country to legalize gay marriage. He also opposed Fernandez’s initiatives to promote free contraception and artificial insemination.
During his audience with journalists Saturday, Francis poured on the charm, thanking them for their work covering the election – “and you have worked, eh?” he said chuckling. He urged them to view the church not as a political entity but as a “dramatically spiritual” human institution and learn its true nature “with its virtues and its sins.”
“The church exists to communicate this: truth, goodness and beauty personified. We are all called not to communicate ourselves, but this essential trio.”
In recognition that not all journalists in the room were Christian or even believers, he offered a blessing without the traditional Catholic formula or gesture, saying he would bless each one in silence “respecting your conscience, but knowing that each one of you is a child of God.”