Well, today we Filipinos woke up and found we wouldn’t be losing Cardinal Tagle to Rome: Apparently an Argentinian bishop was picked for the next Pope.

But choosing a name usually is a hint on what the Pope plans to do when in office, and it is interesting that Cardinal Bergloglino chose the name of Francis.

To those who follow the “green” religion of Gaia, it will be interpreted as the Francis holding a bird in the garden, a lover of nature, who ran around singing to the birds.

But for Catholics, the choice of the name Francis has many other implications for the direction of the church in the near future.

Pope Benedict chose that name to point to the need to purify and preserve the church. St. Benedict, living in the age when Rome was collapsing, founded monasteries which copied books to preserve them, and these monasteries soon spread into the new lands of the barbarians bringing knowledge and order into the chaos of barbarian lands (not just knowledge of religion, but schools and literacy, and new methods of farming that reclaimed damaged farmland, and more importantly, the ability to organize order out of chaos).

Francis, however, was a child of the “High Middle Ages”: when Italy was undergoing an upsurge of commercialism, trade, and growth of the middle class.

The monasteries were still needed, but too many were becoming rich due to charitable donations to help the poor which now were less needed. But the accumulation of wealth and their isolation from society, needed in the days of anarchy, now meant they no longer were relevant to the world.

Enter Francis, a merchant’s son who knew the ideas and language of the newly prosperous cities and the spiritual needs of the urban poor left behind by an insular church.

So Francis went out into the world and preached in the streets, talking to the businessmen using their own language. But more importantly, he made religion meaningful for the poor. One example: The first “Nativity scene” was constructed by Francis to show the poor the reality of Christ coming into the normal world of their families, not into the wealthy churches and monasteries of the day.

In today’s world we have a similar problem: As peasants leave their villages, where Catholic customs were grafted onto local culture, they found the communal Catholicism no longer fitted their urban lifestyle, so souls were lost in the urban slums of South America and the Philippines.

Some turned to Marxism, others to a more pagan version of their original faith. Alas, too many Catholic clergy who studied Marxism in the universities, turned to “liberation theology”, which replaced heaven with the idea of a socialist state imposed by force if necessary.

Ironically, the Lord intervened at this point, and sent in the Protestants to remind people of Jesus as Lord. The middle class, eager to find a more rule oriented religion, embraced the evangelicals, and the slums soon filled with Pentecostal churches praising the Lord, and reading the Bible as a guide to moral rules.

The Catholics also had similar groups sprouting up, so the Charismatic Catholics and the stricter rule oriented lay associations (in the Philippines, this would be Couples for Christ) filled the void in a similar fashion.

So a pope who takes the name of Francis is pointing to a revival of personal religion at the grass roots: not a good sign for those ambitious to save the world by making the church and it’s institutions obedient to the New World Order’s ideas.

Yet “spirituality” alas, can deteriorate into narcissistic self esteem.

That is where a church comes into the picture. Although ideally, a person is saved by grace through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, rather than simply following rules and an institution, it is not enough.

Too many false gurus are telling us to evolve to a higher power and run the world, when what is needed is someone to change a diaper (or, like Francis, kiss a leper and change his dressings).

That is why, for Catholics, it also means running institutions because there are some things a person cannot do, but for a lot of things you also need institutions like schools, hospitals, parish youth groups, parish charitable outreaches, etc…

But another interesting part of the Pope’s background is that he is a Jesuit (whose spiritual approach is an intellectual affirmation of God) and has links to some of the newer lay groups such as Communion and Liberation, which emphasizes small community groups to pray and outreach to their neighbors (the catholic equivalent to a house church). So don’t expect a turn to fuzzy spirituality, but a pope who urges us to find Jesus, and then be filled with Jesus’ zeal for helping others.

The name Francis also may point to the way the Vatican will approach the Muslim world.

During the times of the Crusades, Francis actually traveled to Cairo to preach love of God to the local ruler, and even tried to convert the local ruler. He expected to be killed for this, but the local ruler, probably a Sufi Muslim which also sees a personal love of God as the real basis for religion, recognized Francis as a holy man and left him go free.

The poet Rumi wrote that Lovers of God have no religion but God himself; that might be a bit too simplistic, but the idea we need to love and obey the Lord makes cooperation between the world’s two great religions possible, at a time when too many multinational groups are pushing agendas that would destroy the very definition of family life, which both religions* see as the basis for a just society.

So one waits to see if the spark of Francis, which still inspires people today, will help guide the new Pope in these troubled times.


Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines.

Part of this essay was posted on her personal blog, Finest Kind Clinic and Fishmarket.

Short addendum: Yes, I know: Confucius also saw the family as the basis for a just society, and Hinduism stresses to serve your family is to serve god. And of course the Gita emphasized a personal relationship with a god as the basis for religion hundreds of years before Jesus did.

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