By Ron Grossman
Those who knew him as the archbishop of Buenos Aires will not be surprised that Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio chose his pontifical name in honor of St. Francis of Assisi.
Pope Francis will be moving to the Vatican from a small apartment where he chose to live over the Argentine capital’s grand episcopal residence. When named a cardinal, he persuaded hundreds of well wishers not to accompany him to Rome, but to instead donate to the poor what they would have spent for plane tickets.
St. Francis of Assisi was just about the best friend poor people ever had — a fact pious Christians as well resolute nonbelievers can both agree upon. Though never a priest, St. Francis is one of the most adored of religious figures. Born into a 12th century Italian merchant family, he kicked up his heels as a young man, as the children of affluence often do.
But at some point he started avoiding his fast-living friends, who jokingly asked if it was because he was going to marry someone. “Yes,” he is said to have replied, “a fairer bride than any of you have seen.” Dubbing the object of his affections “Lady Poverty,” Francis joined Italy’s homeless, leading a life of prayer and sustaining himself by begging for alms.
Soon others joined him in a populist version of Christianity. “And we were simple and subject to all,” he recalled in a farewell message to his followers. In 1223, Francis set up the first Nativity scene. Patron saint of animals, he once told his followers to give him a minute to preach to a flock of birds.
Eventually, his movement was recognized by the papacy as a new kind of monastic order, popularly called the Franciscans - not tied to a monastery, but free to serve the faith where ever there was need. The Jesuit Order, to which Pope Francis belongs, was formed later on a similar model.
Francis’ wanderings took him to Egypt, where he preached to the Sultan, who was so impressed with his sincerity he allowed Francis to return to the Crusaders he had accompanied in to the country.
Though he lived eight centuries ago, he speaks to concerns of Pope Francis’ age. His “Canticle of the Sun” is an anthem to environmentalism, of which he is also considered a patron saint:
“Praised be my Lord for our sister, mother earth,
Which sustains us and keeps us
And bring forth diverse fruits with grass and