What’s in a name? I can tell you from experience that Francis (my own middle name) is one that’s tough to live up to. I took a lot of heat for it as a kid, because in rural South Georgia there weren’t many schoolmates with Catholic Uncle Franks. But there were several brawny boys who thought Francis fit my slightly feminine persona perfectly—and taunted me with lilting recitations of the name.
Thus I was bemused to hear that upon his election as Pope, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, has chosen to be known hereafter as Francis. I welcome him to the club!
St. Francis, of course, was a non-violent reformer who gave up inherited riches to live and work with and advocate for the poor. He modeled the Christ-like wisdom that sharing the sandaled or barefooted journey of marginalized individuals had greater moral weight than sermons about what it might be like to “walk in their shoes.”
Advocates for reproductive justice sometimes urge policymakers not to restrict medical options of women facing unwanted pregnancies because those officials are “not in their shoes.” Those of us who seek to journey with women and families in such times know that authentic ministry requires empathy born of deep humility, since even the good example of St. Francis cannot be repeated in that circumstance. We cannot trade our own experience for that of a pregnant woman facing difficult decisions about her family, her health, and her life and whether and when to have children.
As a Cardinal, the new Pope made pronouncements about abortion that bespoke a lack of pastoral empathy. Abortion, he said, is “never an answer.”
He called adoption of parentless children by LGBT people a form of child abuse. How must that have sounded to the little ones so wanting a loving home?
I am praying for the new Pope. And I am hoping that there is something in a name. As the Pontiff kneels in prayer each day, I hope God will speak back to him by name and that hearing his new name in divine tones, the leader of the Roman Catholic church will be transformed. I learned early in life that Francis is a name that takes a great deal to live—to love—up to. But people and institutions can change in the light, and with the leading of God’s love.