Even immediately after his election Cardinal Bergoglio still hadn’t thought what name to choose. Then, a good friend of his, Cardinal Claudio Hummes, Archbishop Emeritus of Sao Paolo whispered in his ear, “Don’t forget the poor!” It was whilst thinking about the poor that he immediately thought of St Francis, and how he would like to preside over a Church that was poor, and which worked for the poor.
However you cannot suddenly acquire all the virtues that were embodied in St Francis, even if you are elected Pope, if you have never practised them before. Yes, he already was a shining example of the virtues of simplicity, humility, poverty, and care and the compassion for the poorest of the poor, there is no doubt about it. But let there be no misunderstanding, nobody can acquire these virtues merely by desiring them. If this were so then we would already have our heaven on earth. It is impossible to generate these virtues for oneself. They are the gifts of the Holy Spirit given in deep prayer. If there is a secret to the inner spiritual life of our Holy Father then, it is to be found here, as it was found in the saints whose name he has chosen to bear. St Francis makes it clear in his Praises of the Virtues that all the virtues are gifts of God, given through dying to self in prayer.
‘In all the world there is not a man who can possess anyone of you without first dying to himself.’
As a person learns how to remain open to the action of God’s love in prayer, then God is able to pour out his love into them, through which all the virtues are transmitted. Just as all the colours of the spectrum are sheathed within a single shaft of light and become visible when it passes through a prism, so all the virtues are contained in a single shaft of God’s love and become visible when they pass through an open heart and are made visible in Christ-like human behaviour.
All this tells us something about our new Pope that hasn’t, as yet, received the emphasis that it should. He is a man of deep prayer, where, through the Holy Spirit he has received the Christ-like virtues that everyone has learnt to love in the Poverello from Assisi, whose name he has chosen to take for his own. If we too want our lives to be characterised by these same virtues then it is essential that we find time, as he does, for the prayer without which, we will never be anything other than, a caricature of the man in whose footsteps we would like to follow.
Lenten Course. First published in the Catholic Herald.