THE BLOG
03/18/2013 02:54 pm ET Updated May 18, 2013

Which Francis?

As a Catholic, my initial reaction to the surprising fifth-ballot election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina as the 266th Pope -- the first American, the first Jesuit (Disclosure: I experienced the excellence of Jesuit educations at Regis High School and Fordham College in New York), and the first Francis -- was near ecstasy. He actually was my preference in 2005, when he reportedly finished second to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in that year's Conclave. His genuine humility, refreshing frugality, and strong devotion to the poor are exactly what the Church needs as it seeks to refocus itself on the true meaning of Christianity.

Cardinal Bergoglio's choice of the moniker Francis was especially welcome. Although he did not specifically say so, the assumption is that he chose this name in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, who was renowned for his austere life, his love of nature and his fierce dedication to the poor.

Is it possible, however, that another Francis was the model that our new pope had in mind? John McLaughlin, himself a former Jesuit, has suggested on The McLaughlin Group, that either St. Francis Xavier, one of the first followers of St. Ignatius of Loyola (who founded the Jesuit order in 1540), or St. Francis Borgia, may have also inspired the newly elected pontiff's choice of a name.

If the current prevalent assumption is correct, St. Francis of Assisi surely provides a hopeful model. As the founder of the order of Franciscans, he took the Gospel at its word and lived an exemplary life of poverty. In 1206, he began a hermit-like life, caring for lepers and rebuilding churches in Assisi, Italy, his birthplace. He established his order of friars with rules that were quite different from older orders of priests, which many viewed as decadent. He proclaimed a special devotion to the human Jesus and his simple preaching, which included dancing when words were inadequate to express his joy in Christ and communicating with birds as creatures of God's love, touched hearts. He went out of his way to embrace Muslims, to whom he dared also to preach during the Crusades. In short, he was a risk-taking radical in the classic sense of that word, i.e., going to the root. Imagine the leader of today's Catholic Church acting with this as his role model.

If, on the other hand, St. Francis Xavier or Borgia proves to have been the new pope's exemplar, then his papacy may turn out to have quite a different focus. St. Francis Xavier was the first Jesuit missionary. He excelled at converting and organizing, particularly in India and Japan, and is the Patron Saint of all Catholic missions. St. Francis Borgia had been a married duke before joining the Jesuits as a widower. A papal dispensation enabled him to retain his wealth for some time after taking his vow of poverty, but he soon renounced such trappings and even turned down a papal appointment as Cardinal. He distinguished himself as a founder of colleges and as an extraordinarily competent administrator of the rapidly growing Jesuit order. Both men exemplified zeal in their missionary and educational endeavors. Might Pope Francis see in them the promise of a new era of Catholic expansion and tighter governance, perhaps even reconsidering the Church's opposition to married priests in recognition of Borgia's journey to the Jesuits?

So will the new pope be more Jesuitical than Franciscan? An old tale may illustrate the fundamental difference between the two great Catholic strains. A Jesuit and a Franciscan were walking along an old road, debating the greatness of their orders. Suddenly, an apparition of the Holy Family appeared in front of them, with Jesus in a manger and Mary and Joseph praying over him. The Franciscan fell on his face, overcome with awe at the sight of God born in such poverty. The Jesuit walked up to Joseph, put his arm around his shoulder, and said, "So, have you thought about where to send him to school?"

A third, and admittedly far-fetched, possibility of the pope's model is the only other Francis I the world has ever known -- Francis I, the King of France from 1515 to 1547. His ascending to the throne was considered accidental and he ruled with a heavy hand. While he initiated the French Renaissance, his reign was marked more by military aggression and persecution. France invaded Italy, captured the city-state of Milan (take note, Cardinal Angelo Scola, Archbishop of Milan, who may well have been runner-up in the Conclave), negotiated land rights with the pope, and emerged as Europe's major military power. In collaboration with the Catholic Church, he formed a special branch of the French courts to try those who published books that had been condemned via an index and sentence them as heretics to burning.

There is no evidence to suggest that this Francis I was anywhere near the new pope's thoughts in his choice of a name. Frankly, may our new pope be nothing like him.