The connections to St. Francis are obvious and, this past weekend, the new pope explained to media professionals why he chose that name.
But while telling this story, the pope offered another layer of content for journalists who had ears to hear his deeper, more critical, message.
As the votes lined up in favor of the cardinal from Argentina, he said a friend hugged him and advised, “Don’t forget the poor.”
“And those words came to me: the poor, the poor,” said Francis, according to a Vatican Radio translation. “Then, right away, thinking of the poor, I thought of Francis of Assisi. Then I thought of all the wars. ... Francis is also the man of peace. That is how the name came into my heart: Francis of Assisi.
“For me, he is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation. These days we do not have a very good relationship with creation, do we? He is the man who gives us this spirit of peace. ... How I would like a church which is poor and for the poor!”
On one level, these remarks to the press focused on issues — economic justice, peace and the environment — that are usually framed in political language in news reports. However, Francis stressed that it is crucial for journalists to realize that pivotal religious events, such as his election, cannot be reduced to mere politics.
“Ecclesial events are certainly no more intricate than political or economic events,” said the pope. Nevertheless, they “follow a pattern which does not readily correspond to the ‘worldly’ categories which we are accustomed to use, and so it is not easy to interpret and communicate them to a wider and more varied public.
The bottom line? “The church is certainly a human and historical institution with all that that entails,” he said, “yet her nature is not essentially political but spiritual.”
Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.