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Which Francis?

By March 15, 2013 2 Comments

It’s a challenge following Theresa Latini on this blog. Yesterday, again, she knocked one out of the park on a matter near and dear to me—or one that’s become nearer and dearer as I’ve become older and self-consciously unwiser. Namely, the virtue of listening, and of thinking of God as One who listens. So rather than spinning off from her insights as I did last time, I’ll hit on something entirely different. Professional, but maybe fun. A round of Historian Name Bingo.

It happened like this. The selection of Cardinal Jorje Mario Bergoglio as pope, and his selection of Francis I for his papal name, set some virtual tongues wagging on social media among people  who get geeked about such things. Like historians and theologians and especially historians of theology and of religion more generally. Which Francis is His New Holiness invoking? That of Assissi? Or Francis Xavier, perhaps. A Jesuit, like Bergoglio. A Jesuit whose sixteenth-century mission to Japan ran  afoul of rivalries with the order of friars bearing the Assissi man’s name, starting a series of machinations and diplomatic backstabbing that eventually fed into the suppression of Christianity in Japan altogether. So maybe Francis I, Jesuit, is making nice between the two orders and wondering what might have happened in the land of the rising sun instead. Brother Sun and Sister Moon and all that.

No, one of my colleagues retorted, the new pope is really invoking Francis Albert Sinatra, both because he made young people swoon in his day and because his Mafia connections give an idea of the offers that Francis I will make to the Curia tomorrow. Ok, Godfather III’s already been made. Not such a hot movie, or idea.

Another colleague suggests we might be getting two Francises for the price of one: Francisco Franco, dictator of Spain, buddy of the fascists, big fan of the Church. Francis I seems, as of this writing, to have had a not-uncheckered relationship with the military junta that ruled Argentina by ‘disappearing’ purported enemies of the state. You wonder: do papal candidates get vetted with one percent of the care that goes into background checks on American vice-presidential hopefuls?

Other Francises that have had political careers…. Francois I, king of France 1515-47. Calvin dedicated The Institutes to him in one edition, trying to play nice for the sake of gospel truth. Oops that. American side, we have one of the most and one of the least successful presidents bearing the name: Franklin Roosevelt and Franklin Pierce. At least Pierce could claim the greatest writer in the annals of campaign biographers: college buddy Nathaniel Hawthorne. In fact, Nathaniel died on the road with Franklin during the Civil War that both opposed. Hmmm.

Saint Francis the purported namesake of Francis I has some cities named after him. The one in California is not associated with a lifestyle of which His New Holiness approves. But then the fervently religious American folk who agree with the new pope on that issue diverge markedly from him on economics. Luckily for them that’s not a moral issue so it doesn’t come under the teachings of Jesus. Though it did seem to do so for Francis. The Assissi saint guy, I mean. Maybe we can resolve this all by invoking the real American St Franklin—cunning capitalist, yet no strait-laced puritan. Benjamin was his name.

Maybe. What’s your suggestion?

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


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