Whether you are a Catholic or not, the new pope is inspiring.
The pope’s first defining act was to choose a name. While the voting for pope was going on, the cardinal sitting next to him said "Don't forget the poor.” The pope recounted "that word entered here," he said, pointing to his head. "I thought of wars .... and Francis (of Assisi) is the man of peace, and that is how the name entered my heart, Francis of Assisi, for me he is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects others." And so he chose the name Francis.
Francis of Assisi is also known as the patron saint of animals and of the environment. It is said that, one day, while Francis was travelling with some companions, he came upon a place in the road where birds filled the trees on either side. Francis told his companions to "wait for me while I go to preach to my sisters the birds.” According to the story, the birds surrounded and not one of them flew away. In images, St. Francis is often portrayed with a bird on his arm or hand or with birds flying around him.
The new pope, in his first sermon, preached mercy, and the need to care for the poor and the environment. These are all extraordinary messages from a new pontiff and are much needed in today’s world where the poor are overlooked and where the environment is treated as an endless source of commodities for the creation of wealth. These are also important messages if we are to create public policy that can lead to a world that can be enjoyed by future generations.
In addition to his spoken messages, Pope Francis’s unspoken humility and rejection of pomp-and-ceremony reminds me of the Dali Lama. When asked what he is, the Dali Lama tends to answer that he considers himself to be just “as a simple Buddhist monk.” The first indication that Pope Francis would reject the pomp-and-ceremony of the Vatican occurred when the Vatican’s master of ceremonies offered to the new Pope the traditional papal red cape trimmed with ermine that his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI gladly wore on ceremonial occasions.
"No thank you, Monsignore," Pope Francis is reported to have replied. "Carnival time is over!" One of Italy's shrewdest political editorial writers, Massimo Franco, commented that "the era of the Pope-King and of the Vatican court is over."
These are refreshing examples of a new kind of pontiff. It is also refreshing to listen to a new world leader guiding the billion or so Catholics to care for each other, the poor and the environment. The message of caring for people and the environment is an important one for humanity. Currently here in the U.S. we revere the dollar, greed, and accumulation. Very few of our public figures mentions the poor in a way that suggests he or she cares for them. The current austerity budgets of governments in the west reflect current leadership as they cut benefits and support for the poorest, the elderly, and those that are the neediest in our societies. There is a lot of rhetoric about the environment, but little action from those who can modify and change public policy.
Pope Francis brings a humble attitude that we have only heard in recent times form the Dalai Lama: simplicity, love, humility, and charity. Hopefully we are beginning to see a movement towards compassion and towards putting the Golden Rule into action. Only time will tell. But this new Pope offers a powerful glimpse of hope and this is something that is much needed in this world we are living in today.
The hope that this new pope engenders is not dissimilar from the hopeful campaign messages that we heard from Barack Obama when he first ran for president. Maybe the Pope’s message will resonate with President Obama and give him the courage and backbone to attempt to reflect and begin living out those values that inspired the world when he was elected. Ordinary people around this world are crying out for goodness and light to come back into this world, and we need more leaders who are willing to move in this direction.
The Church's mission "means respecting each of God's creatures and respecting the environment in which we live. It means protecting people, showing loving concern for each and every person, especially children, the elderly, those in need, who are often the last we think about," Pope Francis said in his first homily. He also pointed to our own inner defilements and the need to watch over our own inner tendencies.
“Let us not forget that hatred, envy and pride defile our lives. Being protectors, then, also means keeping watch over our emotions, over our hearts." This is a message that we’ve heard from the Dalai Lama and which seems needed in today’s world. This is enough to celebrate a new leader on the world’s stage who inspires by word and action and reminds us of some of the noblest values we share as human beings.