St. Francis + Pope Francis

The saint and the pope

Before he became the head of the Catholic Church, Jorge Bergoglio was a cardinal from Argentina. But the pope’s spiritual roots might very well be traced to the hills of Umbria and the hometown of the saint whose name he chose for his own. Mo Rocca walks in his steps: 

A song of praise to Brother Sun and Sister Moon, and the beauty of all God’s creation … these are the words of St. Francis of Assisi. “It’s a very important because it’s a very beautiful hymn, and because it’s the oldest text in Italian. It’s the starting point of Italian literature,” said Brother Carlo Bottero. He showed Rocca an early copy of “The Canticle of Creation,” composed almost 800 years ago, and believed to be the first poem ever written in Italian.

St. Francis, as depicted in "St. Francis in the Desert," c. 1476-78 by Bellini, and Pope Francis. The Frick Collection; Chris Jackson/Getty Images

Francis was blind and in great pain when he wrote it.  And yet, said Bottero, “He remembered all the beautiful things he saw and was still happy that people can see.”

If Italy’s patron saint and the village he hailed from are of particular interest these days, it’s because of a certain Jesuit cleric in Rome who chose his name: Pope Francis.

Rocca asked, “What does that mean for the Franciscans, that the pope chose the name Francis?”

“I think is the best Franciscan now living, Pope Francis. It’s not easy to live according to his example,” said Bottero.

“So he brings a lot of joy and a lot of pressure?”

“Yes, yes!”

The remarkable story of the saint who inspired a pope is told on the walls of the Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi, in frescoes attributed to the renaissance master Giotto. 

As Franciscan Father Martin Bresky recounted, Francis “was rich, he was spoiled, he had everything he could possibly desire. Inside, he had nothing. So one day, around the age of 25, he made a decision: ‘I’m giving everything away, including my will. I’m giving it all to the Lord.’” 

The son of a wealthy merchant, Francis heard God call him to “rebuild my church, for it is in ruins,” and dedicated his life to living just as Jesus had.

Francis was scorned, ridiculed, and spat upon.  

“People probably thought he was nuts,” said Rocca.

“Certainly, very nuts,” said Bresky. “Giving away everything he had to live a life of stark poverty? Whoa!

Brother Alessandro Brustenghi with Mo Rocca. CBS News

Throughout his life, said Brother Alessandro Brustenghi, Francis sought communion with God in a hermitage outside of Assisi. “This is a place of calm, of peace.

“Staying here and praying here inside the caves, among roots with birds and with animals, he understood that God is the creator of everybody and everything.”

Eventually Francis gained disciples, and in this humble chapel founded his own religious order, dedicated to universal brotherhood.

“Jesus taught us that if you serve the other people, you discover peace; you will discover happiness,” said Brother Brustenghi.

It is a message central to the mission of Pope Francis, says New York’s Timothy Cardinal Dolan.

He stood out for his love of the poor, the simplicity and sincerity of his life, the priority that he put upon humility, and all those are Franciscan virtues. So when he said, ‘I will be called Francis,’ I said, ‘Wow, how beautiful.’”

Cardinal Dolan remembers well the first time he met the future pope in 2013.

“I feel this tap on my back and I turn around and he said, ‘I’m Jorge Bergoglio from Buenos Aires. I think you’re Timothy Dolan from New York and I’ve wanted to meet you.’ And I thought right away, ‘I like this guy!’”

And Cardinal Dolan is not alone. Here’s how he describes the so-called “Francis effect”: “The number of people that will come up to me as I’m walking the streets of New York and say, ‘Hey, we like this guy, Francis. I haven’t been to church in a while, but I’m taking a second look, okay?’”

The 266th pope is the first from Latin America and -- it may surprise you -- the first to choose the name Francis, a choice seen by some as radical.

“It also shows that he wants to be kind of a pope outside of the box, off the throne, if you will,” said Francis X. Rocca reports on the Vatican for the Wall Street Journal (and who is Mo’s brothers). “That can be very appealing, it can be very exciting. The concern of some would be that it’s disruptive, that it’s destabilizing.”

In a December 2016 article Francis Rocca described the pope as the de facto global leader of the left.

“He’s been very, very clear he has a certain agenda in the political and economic areas,” he said. “For example, on climate change, he has grabbed that in a very, very, very aggressive way. Certainly he’s been scathing in his criticisms of the global financial system, of capitalism, really, in general. [And] the pope basically favors open borders -- not only for refugees but also for economic migrants.”

Although globally the pope is very popular, among conservative Catholics in America Francis has been more controversial. Many believe he’s blurred the lines around traditional Church teachings. 

“You bet there are some conservatives that are unhappy with Pope Francis,” said Cardinal Dolan. “There’re also some liberals that wish he would move much more radically and expeditiously in some of the reforms. So, you’re gonna get it from both sides. I think he’s aware of that.”

A portrait of St. Francis by Zuleika Rymer. CBS News

But for 17-year-old Zuleika Rymer of the Academy of Mount St. Ursula in New York’s Bronx neighborhood, Pope Francis is an inspiration.  

She painted a portrait of St. Francis for Rocca to present to the pope. Mo asked, “How do you hope the Holy Father reacts to this?”

“I hope he looks at it and just, like, admires it and maybe say, like, ‘Wow, someone actually made this,’ and just basically cherish it,” Rymer replied.

And then the big day came: the pope’s Wednesday audience in St. Peter’s Square, where Rocca had the privilege of meeting His Holiness and presenting him with Zuleika’s gift.

Mo Rocca presents a Bronx high school student’s painting of St. Francis to Pope Francis at the Vatican.  CBS News

As the pope admired her portrait of his namesake, Rocca asked why he chose the name Francis.

Se me occurio!” he laughed. “It just came to me.”

And then he left us with a request of his own: “Pray for me; I need it.”

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