19 March 2013
In a previous post, I have admitted to being a lapsed Catholic, to having fallen off the straight-and-narrow when I was a young man. But this does not stop me from taking an interest in moments of high Catholic drama such as papal elections. These are held against one of the world’s most beautiful backdrops (St. Peter’s square in Rome)
They have quaint customs like black and white smoke to announce the results of ballots (“is it white? is it black?”)
There are all these old, principally white, men wandering around in bright red and purple cassocks, surrounded by toy soldiers dressed in renaissance garb
There are the Latin pronouncements (“habemus papam” et cetera).
So when Benedict XVI made his surprise announcement about retiring, sending the world media into fibrillation (“first pope to retire in 600 years!”), I settled down to enjoy the show. My wife – also a lapsed Catholic although less militant about it than I – joined me on the sofa as we surfed around the international TV stations, dropping in on their twitterings about various aspects of popes, the papacy and papal elections.
I left for a business trip just as the cardinals were processing into the Sistine chapel, sure that they would still be at it when I got back two days later. I mean, there was that election back in the Middle Ages during which the cardinals had been balloting for ages without coming to an agreement; they were finally locked into the chapel by irritated guards and told they would get only bread and water until they had agreed on a candidate. So you can judge my surprise, and disappointment, when my wife announced to me as I walked in the door that the new pope had already been chosen. I had missed the smoke! The blessing from the window! The announcement of the papal name! My wife made sympathetic noises and then dropped a bomb. He had chosen the name Francis!
I suppose it can be considered a crime of lèse majesté for me to compare myself to the pope, but I have to tell you that many years ago, in the one time in my life that I got to choose a name for myself, I too had chosen the name Francis.
Before turning away irrevocably from the faith, I had been through all the rituals required of a good Catholic child. I had done my First Confession, my First Communion, and – critically for this story – my Confirmation. I was 14 when I went through this last ritual, so getting towards an age when I more or less knew what I was doing. On the great day itself, which took place at school, my parents came; they had arranged to be in the country for the event. Our local bishop presided. He sat enthroned before the altar of the school’s church as each one of us (we were a group of some 20 boys) came up before him to be confirmed. My father came up to the altar with me as my sponsor, and stood solemnly behind me as I knelt before the bishop and his hovering acolytes and announced to him the confirmation name I had chosen: Francis. The bishop read through the ritual words, anointed me, and then it was time to leave the place to the next boy.
Francis doesn’t appear on any official document of mine, but I am particularly proud of it since it is the only name I have ever gotten to choose. My parents chose all the others before I was even born: one to commemorate various fusty old ancestors, one to commemorate my godfather, and one to commemorate a fusty old saint that my mother particularly venerated. But Francis, that was my choice.
Like the pope, I chose Francis in memory of St. Francis of Assisi. I chose him because, as my children might have said some ten years ago, I thought he was a pretty cool dude. I mean, here was a guy who had had everything – money, intelligence, friends, wit, all the women he could want, doting parents who let him do whatever he wished – and he turned away from it all, to live a life of complete poverty and simplicity, among the poorest of the poor and the outcasts of society. Without really trying to, he gathered around him hundreds and eventually thousands of followers and started a huge movement in Europe striving for a simpler life. In many ways he reminds me of the Buddha.
And he wrote a wonderful poem, one of the earliest in the Italian language, or rather in the Umbrian dialect spoken in his native Assisi: the canticle of the sun. Here are a few lines from the original:
Laudato sie, mi Signore cum tucte le Tue creature,
spetialmente messor lo frate Sole,
lo qual è iorno, et allumini noi per lui.
Et ellu è bellu e radiante cum grande splendore:
de Te, Altissimo, porta significatione.
Laudato si, mi Signore, per sora Luna e le stelle:
in celu l’ài formate clarite et pretiose et belle.
Let me continue with a translation:
Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and you give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendour!
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.
Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars;
in the heavens you have made them bright, precious and beautiful.
Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,
and clouds and storms, and all the weather,
through which you give your creatures sustenance.
Be praised, My Lord, through Sister Water;
she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.
Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom you brighten the night.
He is beautiful and cheerful, and powerful and strong.
Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth,
who feeds us and rules us,
and produces various fruits with coloured flowers and herbs.
It goes on a bit more, but I’ll stop there because these are some of the loveliest lines I know about the environment.
It is said that Francis preached to the birds and talked to the wolves. I take this all with a pinch of salt. But he did love nature passionately, which is really why I chose his name for my confirmation.
I hope the new pope is worthy of the name he chose.
St. Peter’s Square: http://readytour.ru/images/italy/excurs/6-800.jpg
White smoke: http://l.yimg.com/bt/api/res/1.2/zaEY7ikCWZpTeGB8NMi3pw–/YXBwaWQ9eW5ld3M7Zmk9aW5zZXQ7aD00MjA7cT04NTt3PTYzMA–/http://media.zenfs.com/en_us/News/gettyimages.com/conclave-cardinals-elected-pope-lead-20130313-112050-018.jpg
Cardinals and Swiss Guards: http://www.capuanaweb.insulareport.it/media/k2/items/cache/c230427c303c0684b5582388f5d0dfd7_XL.jpg
Habemus papam: http://timeglobalspin.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/cm_vatican_pope_03_13_13_178.jpg?w=753
St. Francis: http://www.thomryng.com/amateurmonk/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Francis.jpg