Vail Daily column: Pope’s name a game changer

Jack Van Ens

Cardinal Bergoglio selected the name “Francis” when elected pope.

The pope adopted a new name based on scriptural precedent. Biblical characters assumed new names when their identities drastically changed. For instance, Saul hated Christians and sent them to jail. His Damascus Road turnabout changed him into a convert to Jesus. To acknowledge this reorientation, Saul became Paul, the early Christian Church’s most effective missionary.

Pope Francis uses two historic church leaders as models for ministry. Francis of Assisi’s heart went out to the poor. Those familiar with church history recognize another leader who was a member of the Society of Jesus, popularly called Jesuits, the order with which Pope Francis is affiliated. The Jesuit Francis Xavier is renowned as a missionary to Asia.

It’s no coincidence that Pope Francis stresses helping the poor and reaching out beyond the Roman Catholic Church with Jesus’ message of simplicity and humility.

The world ‘is still divided by greed looking for easy gain.’
Pope Francis

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Both reaching to the down-trodden and beyond influential Roman Catholic circles define Pope Francis.

These twin dynamics of service and outreach revived the early church at Pentecost. For 50 days after Easter, the disciples hid. Then God’s spirit turned them around. Their apostolic message was so forceful and heart-warming that Jews from throughout the then-known world reacted positively, as they “heard the apostles speaking in the Jews’ own languages” (Acts 2:6).

By word and deed, Pope Francis reflects two profound ways God’s spirit worked at Pentecost and is effective today. He reaches down to the poor and reaches out to those skeptical of Christ.

The pope declined to move into the palatial apartments in the apostolic palace.

He doesn’t wear papal red shoes. He opts to wear a simple cross. He leaves luxurious ceremonial robes in the closet.

On Easter Day, the pope rode in an open popemobile into a huge crowd. Well-wishers passed a disabled boy to him. This child tried to get a lame arm around the Holy Father. Unhurried, the pope waited for the boy to greet him.

This gentle encounter illustrates the pope’s message of simplicity and service, as did that of St. Francis of Assisi to the poor.

When the pope said in his Easter Day message that the world “is still divided by greed looking for easy gain,” the faithful heard Jesus’s voice. Christ judged wealthy people’s greed, stood up for the poor and threw money manipulators from the temple.

Last Easter, another striking encounter happened to the pope. A soccer fan waved a jersey from the pope’s favorite Argentine team, the Saints of San Lorenzo. This athletic shirt prominently displayed pope’s surname “Bergoglio.” He accepted the jersey as the crowd shouted approval. It symbolizes how the pope embraces our wide world.

Pope Francis doesn’t wait for people to show up in Rome. He plants Rome in the world. A church ingrown and preoccupied with sexual ethics and damaged by pedophilic priests isn’t a Christian community to his liking. He wants to stretch the faithful to reach those on the boundaries.

When still known as Cardinal Bergoglio, the pope spoke to La Stampa press: “We have to avoid the spiritual sickness of a self-referential church. It’s true that when you get out into the street, as happens to every man and woman, there can be accidents. However, if the church remains closed in on itself, self-referential, it gets old. … I have no doubt about preferring the former.”

He echoes Jesuit founder Ignatius Loyola, who declared that priests should live “with one foot raised,” prepared to meet the world.

Reaching down to the poor and out to the world is what President Bill Clinton stressed in his book “Between Hope and History: Meeting America’s Challenges for the 21st Century.” Take a penny, advises Clinton and learn from what’s on both sides. “Next to Lincoln’s portrait,” writes Clinton, “is a single word: Liberty. On the other side is our national motto. It says, ‘E Pluribus Unum’ —‘Out of Many, One.’ It does not say, ‘Every man for himself.’

“That humble penny,” Clinton asserts, “is an explicit declaration — one you can carry around in your pocket — that America is about both individual liberty and community obligation. These two commitments — to protect personal freedom and to seek common ground — are the coin of our realm, the measure of our worth.”

A penny for more than your thoughts? Pope Francis asks. Give liberty to the weak and widen the hurch’s good in the world.

Then, as occurred on the church’s first Pentecost birthday, Jesus’ message will glow like a shining copper penny.

The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (, which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.

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