The worldwide outpouring of joy-filled tears over the election of Pope Francis should be a sign to all that the pope is much more than the CEO of the world's largest organization. He is our spiritual father, the Holy Father. We did not know this man, yet from the first moment he received the warmest embrace of the Catholic faithful. We yearn for his fatherhood.
Also, since that first moment, he has come to us with wonderful, simple gestures, gestures that speak of the equality of all people and the equality of the people of God. To bow to the people and then ask us to pray for him so that he could in turn bless us spoke volumes. His first act was to recognize the power and authority that comes with Baptism. The pope is the vicar of Christ; more basically, he is a human being, a beggar before the Almighty.
St. Francis of Assisi is perhaps the greatest image of Jesus who has walked on this earth. He is a man who embraced Lady Poverty, who called the sun his brother and Mother Earth his sister. Called by Jesus to rebuild his Church, he at first took that literally and physically reconstructed the church at San Damiano.
God had greater plans. It was the soul of the Church that needed renewal. St. Francis was indeed empowered to rebuild the Church and his Franciscan sons and daughters continue that rebuilding today.
It is often forgotten that Francis was a layperson, never a priest. While the clergy are essential to the life of the Church, their office is one of service – of strengthening, not controlling, their brothers and sisters in faith. St. Francis witnessed to the fact that true communion rests on equality. Hierarchy exists not for domination, but for service to the servants of God.
It was also Francis, during the era of the Crusades, who crossed lines to meet with the sultan. Again, he provides a model today for interreligious dialogue in a time when Christian-Muslim tensions in some places are intense.
St. Francis' poverty embodied simplicity of life, a crying need in today's Western world where Christians as well as others are sometimes overly focused on the quest for wealth and power, and where the dignity of the human person is threatened on many fronts. Pope Francis is already witnessing to the power of simplicity.
St. Francis is also the patron saint of the environment – the natural world that is increasingly threatened by our ravenous thirst to exploit all natural resources today and disregard the needs of future generations.
Pope Francis will be our spiritual father; he has authority in the spiritual household. But we can already see that his authority will be exercised, not over the people, but in communion with them. His election, like the life of his patron, has been a lightning bolt from heaven – a thunderous event that gives us great hope.