From the Alumni Board: papal simplicity beckons us all

By Jeffrey Oak ’85 M.Div., ’96 Ph.D.
Alumni Association Board President

I recently returned from a trip to Rome, where I heard John Allen, the prominent Vatican commentator for CNN and National Public Radio, offer the tongue-in-cheek comment that under Pope Francis, “simple is the new chic.”

PhotoSome have attributed the comment to a longtime cardinal who was asked after the papal conclave why he was wearing everyday clerical clothes rather than his usual, ornate finery. “Simple is the new chic.” While there are many inferences that could be drawn from this statement, it underscores a renewed emphasis on Franciscan spirituality, a simple, humble yearning to connect with ordinary folk, especially those who are poor and on the margins.

The election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as pope was big news on many fronts. Not only was he the first non-European pope in a millennium, but he was also the first Latin American as well as the first Jesuit.

However, in a March blog post, John Allen pointed out that the most historic dimension of this election was Bergoglio’s choice of the name Francis, the first pope in history to do so.  

On my trip to Rome I spent a lot of time with a Franciscan brother, Tom, with whom I felt a special connection: his dissertation in theological ethics (from another university) was directed by James Gustafson, a graduate of YDS and former professor here, who taught the person—Margaret Farley—who taught me.

Walking with Brother Tom in the small and gentle village of Assisi with its steep hills, two hours north of Rome, I asked him why he thought no previous pope had ever taken the name ‘Francis.’ I am no student of papal history, I said, but this surprises me, especially given the enormous popular appeal of the person whose generosity was legendary, who in the 11th century was inspired by “Sister Moon and the Stars…Brothers Wind and Air…Mother Earth,” and who prayed “make me an instrument of your peace.”

Tom’s response to my question was as simple as it was jarring: “too high a bar.” The name ‘Francis’ sets a standard that is too high, too demanding, it invites a comparison too lofty. Whatever Bergolio’s rationale for breaking with two centuries of tradition through his choice of a papal name, we are confronted with the 11th century Francis’ high and uncompromising commitment to those who are poor and on the margins.

At this time of tectonic shifting in the theological landscape, perhaps there is something for the entire church—conservative and progressive; peace-and-justice advocates and liturgical traditionalists; Latin American, Asian, African and European; Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox and independent—to learn anew from Francis of Assisi. To live simply, to look outward instead of only inward, to embrace and serve those whom the world has forgotten.

“Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.”

 A high standard indeed. And one that beckons us, still. 


Date Posted: Friday, June 14, 2013 - 3:12pm