The Francis from Assisi and the Francis in Rome

Pope Francis arrives to visit the hermitage and cell of Saint Francis in Assisi, Italy, Oct. 4, 2013. Saint Francis spent time in prayer at the hermitage in the countryside outside Assisi.
CNS photo/Paul Haring

This June I’ll be teaching a course on the “Theology of Pope Francis” in Rome. (Information is available at if you are interested in participating as a non-degree seeking student). While there will obviously be Jesuit angles to the course, including site visits to the rooms where Saint Ignatius of Loyola lived and the tombs of other important members of the Society of Jesus like Bellarmine and Arrupe, I will be guiding my students to read Pope Francis’s thought, gestures and leadership style through other lenses as well. No human being is a mere caricature, and so all of our integral self-narratives include multiple, and sometimes competing, identities, resonances and belongings. The pope is no exception.

Undoubtedly, one influential way to discuss the significance of this remarkable papacy is to read Pope Francis through his namesake patronal saint.

When the election of Pope Francis was announced five years ago, I was not in Rome, and so I was watching on a laptop which unfortunately had a spotty internet connection. As the live feed skipped and I tried to piece together the Latin “Habemus Papam” announcement, I initially heard only the Latin “Georgiam” referring to his baptismal name of Jorge, and thought for a moment Cardinal Francis George of Chicago had been elected. When I picked up my jaw from the floor and eventually realized that I had been mistaken and that instead the Argentine Jesuit had been chosen and selected the name Francis, I waited for the commentators to correct themselves and add the “Xavier,” that I was convinced they had forgotten.

Surely, I thought, the first Jesuit pope in history who was apparently taking a moniker unused in the Petrine Office’s 2,000-year history would be honoring one of the great heroes of his order. My expectations of seeing future documents signed PP. FXI were eventually dashed.

While I doubt there was a slight intended to the later Basque Francis, it became clear in subsequent interviews that the pope wanted to intentionally and fundamentally connect his papacy with that of Francis of Assisi, il poverello, “the little poor one,” right from the outset.

Best known for his love of animals and nature and his revelry in serving as a “clownish” troubadour for God, that Francis has continued to find his way into the words and priorities of our Francis. (You can interpret that possessive adjective in terms of the contemporary age if you wish to be egalitarian, though it has a deeper meaning for us in Jesuit higher ed!).

Pope Francis’ hallmark condemnation of the global throwaway culture and its relationship with integral ecology takes its name from Saint Francis of Assisi’s praise for the glory of God’s creation, Laudato Si’. The pope’s tireless advocacy for the dignity of every human person, especially the most vulnerable, echoes the unofficial patron of Italy’s betrothal to Lady Poverty and affectionate respect for Sister Death. Both Francises feel called by God to “rebuild the church” in a way that transcends brick and mortar. Even the pope’s commitment to accompaniment and dialogue in interreligious contexts can be seen as prefigured in the medieval saint’s respectful visits to the Egyptian Muslim sultan, Malik al-Kamil.

As families gather around the globe to appreciate crèche scenes of every imaginable size and type this Advent season, and we see Pope Francis carry the bambino Gesu to the crib at Midnight Mass, pause to remember that it was Saint Francis in the 1200s who originally sought to make the narrative come alive by re-enacting it visually for the illiterate and impressionable children in his village.

The Franciscans and Jesuits have not always seen eye to eye on everything, whether theologically or pastorally — to say nothing of the Dominicans, who had rivalries with them both. But in the life and ministry and very personhood of Pope Francis, many of their unique charisms and spiritual gifts overlap and coalesce. When Cardinal Hummes embraced Pope Francis in the conclave upon that moment that changed church history forever, it is recounted that he whispered to the then-former Archbishop of Buenos Aires: “Do not forget the poor.” In consciously rooting his papacy not only in Peter and Ignatius, but also in Francesco, he has, I would suggest, made his colleague proud.


Originally from Collingswood, Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.