Of the many virtues associated with St. Francis of Assisi, humility was the first to occur to me as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio stood before the multitude for the first time as Pope Francis. Popes are expected to be larger-than-life figures, but the new pope had chosen the name of a man who always diminished himself. That’s one reason that, nearly eight hundred years after his death, the saint still looms so large as a model of the Christian faith.
Perhaps the reason no pope had decided sooner to take the name of the great saint from Assisi is that he humbly avoided all church honors and instructed his friars to do the same. It’s one of the points Francis emphasized in his dying days in a document called his Testament. “I strictly forbid the friars, wherever they may be, to petition the Roman Curia, either personally or through an intermediary,” he wrote, insisting that his order not become entangled in the messy politics of the church. In the same document, St. Francis also described the turning point in his life, which came when he worked up the courage to embrace and kiss a leper, completing his conversion from spoiled rich kid to herald of penance and peace. “What had seemed bitter to me was turned into sweetness of body and soul,” he wrote.