Lawrence Cunningham

Lawrence Cunningham

In the days following Pope Francis’s election, we invited three Eerdmans authors to share their perspectives on the new pope. Wesley Granberg-Michaelson’s contribution, “Reflections on the Election of the First Pope in Modern History from the Global South,” was posted here last week.

Today we share a reflection on the historical significance of Pope Francis’s name from Lawrence S. Cunningham, Emeritus John A. O’Brien Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame and author of Francis of Assisi: Performing the Gospel Life.

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The Franciscans have had a profound influence on my life. It was the Franciscan Sisters who taught me all through elementary, junior, and high school. Whenever my travels take me to Olean, New York, I try to make it to the cemetery where many of my nun-teachers are now buried to ask them to pray for me. Because of my academic interest in how persons can be viewed as “Performers” of Gospel values, some of my earliest writings were on Saint Francis, with my final word on him to be found in Saint Francis of Assisi: Performing the Gospel Life.

One deep conviction I have is that we must do all we can to combat the sentimental picture of the saint as some kind of pious medieval Doctor Doolittle who spent his days smelling flowers and talking to birds. That is a picture of the saint rooted in the romanticism of the nineteenth century. There is no doubt that Francis did urge the birds to praise God by their song and that he did tell his friars to edge their kitchen gardens with flowers as a reminder of the beauty of creation, but Francis, radically, looked not to nature but to Christ as his model and the source of all meaning. His style of life came from hearing the Gospel command to sell everything and follow Him.

Francis of Assisi

Francis of Assisi

In the rare autobiographical statement found in his writings, Francis said that when he was young he could not bear to look at lepers, but “the Lord led me to them.” Shortly after this, he adds, “I left the world.” Behind that compelling confession is, of course, the example of Jesus who cured the ten lepers and, according to the Gospel account, actually touched one of them, thus violating the levitical laws of purity. Francis would have read the bible in Latin. He would have known that the suffering servant of Isaiah was called vir leprosus – a disfigured man. Thus, to serve the leper was not only to serve the most abject of the poor but also to serve Christ.

When the current pope took the name Francis he was sending a powerful message. He said himself that he took the name because Francis was a peace maker and a lover of simplicity. Francis, in fact, did mediate vendettas in at least three cities in his active ministry, and he was an exemplary lover of leading a poor life. As a public figure, Pope Francis is charged with resisting all violence; as a leader of Christ’s church, he must by teaching and by example remind the church of Gospel simplicity. In these and other responsibilities, may he live up to the name he has chosen.

Francis of Assisi’s favorite greeting was Pax et Bonum (Peace and Goodness). We could do worse than to welcome both of these blessings into our lives.

Click to order Lawrence S. Cunningham’s Francis of Assisi: Performing the Gospel Life.